This month, FX aired something insane and magic and impossible to describe. It came courtesy of a show you are likely not watching – unless you’re a diehard fan of Denis Leary and/or single-camera comedies about rock music. It stars an artist whose contributions to film, television and theater are prolific and vast, who performs an homage to Broadway’s most game-changing musical of the last several decades.
Really, the only way to explain it is simply to show you — so below, please watch Campbell Scott (as “himself”) perform the climatic track of “Feast,” the “Hamilton”-inspired musical-within-a-show created this season for “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.”
Yes. Campbell Scott is rapping.
How did this happen? Indeed, it started with “Hamilton” — but David Bowie also had a lot to do with it.
“Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” is largely about the misadventures of an aging rock star named Johnny Rock (Leary) as he tries to connect with his longtime bandmates and newfound daughter (Elizabeth Gillies). But over the course of its first two seasons, the show has also put more emphasis on its ensemble, while introducing more subplots that explore the world of music beyond the rock club scene.
Leary did not see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seismic “Hamilton” early on when it debuted on Broadway. Instead, he kept hearing about how great it was from friends, including “Rescue Me” co-creator Peter Tolan and “Rescue Me” star Steve Pasquale. But the musical phenomenon dovetailed nicely with an idea he had — taking the Irish Potato Famine song cycle “An Gorta Mor” written by Rehab (John Ales) in Season 1 and adapting it into a trendy Broadway production entitled “Feast.” The development and production of “Feast” would be a major storyline for Season 2.
Part of that inspiration came from Bowie, one of Leary’s “favorite rock stars of all time” (his words) and someone he desperately wanted to appear on “Sex&Drugs.” According to Leary’s son Jack, one of the show’s writers for Season 2, “When Bowie was alive it was always, ‘How can I work this to get Bowie involved?’ [Because] the show was the perfect platform for a rock star to cross paths with Johnny Rock.”
As the writers were working on scripts for Season 2 last fall, Bowie was about to launch “Lazarus,” a stage musical built around his music. “I knew he was opening that musical, and I wanted to write a David Bowie cameo and I know he lives in New York,” Denis Leary said to IndieWire. “And I thought, ‘If I write something that takes maybe a half a day for him to shoot, I could probably get him to do it.'”
His idea was that both Bowie’s musical and “Feast” would open around the same time, and so the “Sex&Drugs” folks would “somehow get backstage and bother him.” The storyline was scrapped when Bowie died earlier this year (though the show was able to include a tribute to Bowie using archival footage in Episode 2 this season). But the idea for the musical remained — as did the involvement of Campbell Scott.
Campbell Scott may not be a marquee name, but the cinephile favorite has been a prolific and fascinating performer for decades, moving easily between film and TV and theater. “He’s an old friend of mine,” Denis Leary said. “People don’t know how talented he is.”
Executive producer Jim Serpico, who directed several episodes of Season 2, told IndieWire that after he and co-executive producer Tom Sellitti read one of Denis Leary’s initial scripts, they brought him the idea of featuring Scott as the egomaniacal star at the center of the production. “[Leary] looked at us with these angry eyes and was like ‘Why didn’t I think of that’?” Serpico said.
When approached with the opportunity, Serpico said that Scott responded really positively: “He thought it was really funny, and it gave him the opportunity to do a lot of different things. He really put everything into it, and went over and beyond what we expected him to do.” This included attending choreography sessions, learning all the dances and not only performing the “Feast” raps himself, but improvising entire sections.
“Sex&Drugs” tracks performed on-screen were pre-recorded prior to shooting, and per Jack Leary, the producers asked Scott if he wanted someone else to dub the rap portions for him. “Right away he said ‘No, I want to do it,'” Jack Leary said. “The day of the studio recording, I had printed out the lyrics and I remember approaching him thinking, ‘What if it doesn’t go well?’ And then he’s like, right away, ‘I got it, where’s the booth? Let me at it.’
“I think he only did two takes, and I think we used a part of the first take and a part of the second take,” he added. “All of our mouths were wide open, because not only was he on tempo, but he was rapping in character as this warped version of himself with the Irish accent. And he ad-libbed while he was rapping — he added stuff that we had never thought to add. It was so crazy.”
While ostensibly playing himself, it’s important to note, that the Scott we see on the show — cold and Method-obsessed — is the polar opposite of Scott in real life: “I mean, we’re using his name, we’re using his likeness within this show, to poke fun really at himself. And he was really game for everything,” Jack Leary said. “He and Denis had a relationship going back, so it was great because of that — I think Campbell was comfortable with knowing that he was in good hands.”
“He’s really collaborative and fun to work with,” Serpico added.
In fact, while “Sex&Drugs” is Denis Leary’s show on the surface, there was plenty of collaboration behind the scenes, starting with the writing. When the staff began working, Denis tapped Jack and songwriting partner Chris Phillips (who co-wrote “I’m An Asshole” with Denis back in the day) to focus on writing the soundtrack for “Feast.” The elder Leary’s instructions? “You take the musical and you guys write all those songs. Make a couple of them funny. Make a couple of them sound real. But you guys take control of the musical and I’ll just concentrate on the rest of the episodes with Julieanne [Smolinski] and Bob Fisher.”
The Learys and Phillips all collaborated on the music for the musical, but Jack Leary credited Phillips for being “really the voice behind ‘Feast’… Chris cranked out a bunch of great songs.”
The opening track, though, was written by Jack. “I didn’t think it was going to work at all — it was kind of a trip-hop electronica beat. Of all the tracks, I thought this is definitely the one he isn’t going to use. And then of course that ended up being one of the ‘Feast’ songs.”
And the finale track ended up being a real collaboration, thanks to a free half day of studio time with the band (including drummer Charly Roth, bassist Alec Morton and guitarist Robbie Mangano) but no Denis. “We didn’t know what to do,” Jack said. “But the other day Chris had presented a rap that he’d written where we didn’t quite know how we were going to fit it in — there was good stuff there, but he wrote it without a beat or anything in mind.”
So they sat down with Phillips’ lyrics and tweaked what was there to “what we heard Campbell’s voice saying,” and then brought it to the band, as well as music supervisor Anthony Roman and music coordinator Phil Palazzalo.
“We collaboratively worked on it together — once we had the lyrics we turned to the musicians and asked what can you do with a hip-hop beat. They went in and cranked out this track that totally inspired the whole thing,” Jack Leary said.
The catch, per Jack? Denis wasn’t involved. “At the end of that day we were listening back to everything and were like, this is really great, but we don’t know how Denis is going to take this, because normally Denis is overseeing everything that we’re doing — he has creative control over all of it, but we kind of did it without his consent. We didn’t know what he was going to think.”
In fact, because “everyone else was nervous,” it was Jack who presented the new track to Denis for his thoughts. “We played it for him and he was laughing and smiling during the song, and at the end he asked us to play it again. Every time, he liked it more and more.”
“It was a lot of fun working on it with everybody,” Jack added. “Every single person in the room had a say in it. Looking back on it now, I have a smile on my face thinking about it.”
The “Feast” storyline of Season 2 basically climaxes in Episode 8, “Ghosts of Skibbereen,” when Johnny, Gigi, Ava (Elaine Hendrix) and Flash (John Corbett) try to put aside their romantic squabbling to attend the show’s first performance. Over the course of the episode, we see “Feast” from both the audience’s point of view and backstage — creating the illusion of a full production.
In total, about seven full “Feast” songs have been written — or, according to Denis Leary, about half a musical. But they put significant effort into making it look and feel real. “We wanted to make sure give the impression that the full musical was written,” Serpico said. “And in the preparation for us it did feel like we were preparing a full show-within-a-show — we had to make sure the set design looked real, the costuming looked real. It was a huge collaboration with musicians and dancers.”
As a result, Serpico said that budget-wise “Ghosts of Skibbereen” cost “a little bit more than your typical episode,” and more importantly took up more time than usual. “Sex&Drugs” shoots episodes in blocks of two over eight days, and “Skibbereen” took up five and a half days of its block, not counting choreography rehearsals and studio time.
But the end result was something that, in Denis Leary’s opinion, “is actually a show that we could actually open off-Broadway and have it become a hit.” All they need is some more songs — and Campbell Scott, of course.
Added Denis: “It’s going to be up to Campbell if he wants to actually have us open on Broadway next year. Maybe we’ll do it.”
The season finale of “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” airs tonight at 10pm on FX.