Pitch Perfect isn’t really a musical. It’s close enough, though, that it almost didn’t get made, on account of fears that it would appear too similar to a certain high school-set TV show about glee club. Luckily, there’s room for more than one fictional competitive singing fest in Hollywood--especially when one of them has a force like Jason Moore behind it.
Although the director is making his cinematic debut with the new film, Moore is no novice. He’s directed several Broadway musicals, including the Tony Award-winning Avenue Q, and helmed over 12 hours of single-camera television. Considering that Pitch boasts a script from veteran 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, and features copious amounts of singing and dancing, Moore’s unique range of experience hit all the right notes for this undertaking. In fact, there might be more of an overlap between Hollywood and Broadway than most other filmmakers realize.
"In the last five or six years, with directors like Rob Marshall, Sam Mendes, Stephen Daltry, and Adam Shankman, who came from choreography, there’s a crossover between theater musicals and film that hasn’t existed in a long time," Moore says. He should know--he’s been setting himself up to join the ranks of such directors for a long time.
As a student at Northwestern, Moore was enrolled in the film, theater, and writing programs. He directed plays and musicals, on a perennial quest to know a little about each way to dazzle audiences. After graduation, he proceeded into the actorly grind of headshots and auditions, landing a couple of forgettable roles before realizing he didn’t want to be in front of the camera. Acting served as a fortuitous career pit stop, though.
“Those two acting jobs were the first times I was really on a film set, so it was a good way for me to watch and figure out what was going on,” Moore says. “The acting was more like the training wheels to figure out how to quickly get into directing.”
After working as a director’s assistant for several years in L.A., where he more or less matriculated in a second education on filmmaking, Moore eventually fled to New York to get back into theater. It was around this time that he hooked up with fellow musical aficionados Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez for what ended up being a life-changing opportunity.
Avenue Q was originally envisioned by Marx and Lopez as a half-hour television series for Comedy Central with songs. It was meant to be an adult version of Sesame Street (a description that could be applied to the cult series Wonder Showzen, which would land at MTV2 years later, mostly sans music). Part of Marx and Lopez’s pitch for television studios involved singing the songs, and though the show never got picked up, the producers of Rent saw the presentation and decided to option it as a full-length stage piece. Moore joined the pair in working out a story--what eventually became the the musical--and workshopped it for a year and a half. Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in 2003 and won "the big three" Tony Awards the following year.
“It was a theater piece meant to mimic a television show so some of those crossover ideas between theater, television, and film I’d accrued showed up in that musical and, in a way, are probably part of what got me the job in the first place,” Moore says.
Although he went on to preside over more musicals after Avenue Q, the director also took on occasional television jobs, like the odd episode of Brothers and Sisters, and began searching for his first feature. Movies were still something he took a keen interest in, despite having a demonstrated and fruitful interest in Broadway shows.
"Theater is about language so characters have to define themselves through language for an audience," Moore says. "When you’re 80 feet tall on the screen, though, and there’s one wink or one little look from an intimate moment with an actor, that kind of intimacy is impossible in a theater."
Over the years, the director got himself attached to several scripts that never made it to filming for various reasons. Then in 2009, he found Pitch Perfect--a movie about a capella groups competing at the university level. It had a strong script, overflowing with Kay Cannon’s offbeat humor, and nestled firmly in Moore’s musical comfort zone. He knew he had found what would go on to be his debut film.
Moore and Cannon shaped the script for a long time. Elizabeth Banks, golden-tressed star of movies such as Role Models, was also on board as a producer, having found the book Pitch Perfect was based on during its proposal stage. Production stalled for a while partially due to the music component (the songs the a capella teams were set to perform in the movie would cost a lot of money). Then there was also the Glee issue.
"We developed the script and sold the book to Universal before Glee even came out, so it had all this momentum. But then Glee started doing it really well," Moore, a professed fan of the show, says. "We had to do a lot of convincing that this was something similar, but also different enough. Even though it was frustrating that we had to figure out how to navigate our place in the music world, I’m thankful there’s a lot of people who like musicals now, because I’ve always loved them."
For the musical aspect of the movie, which, to repeat, is not a musical, the director opted to cast actors who could do their own singing. Moore was loath to have the kind of film where characters the audience likes open their mouths to sing only to have a different voice, as though possessed by velvety-throated ghosts. Fortunately, there was a solid crop of actors on hand who could sing as well as handle funny business. Adam DeVine, one of the creators of Workaholics, auditioned by singing the Family Matters theme song, reading the lyrics off of his phone. Hot comedy star of the moment, Rebel Wilson, performed Lady Gaga’s "Edge of Glory," beating her fist against her chest at key moments. Anna Kendrick, the Academy Award-nominated actress, had been performing intermittently on Broadway since she was 11 years old.
"We had all these odd, unusual folks, which is what I was looking for," Moore says. You’re not often looking for that in theater, though. There, you’re more looking for people with technique. But we were just looking for a bunch of weirdos to have fun with."
Having logged in 12 hours’ worth of television as a director leading up to the movie, Moore was fairly confident that he would be able to handle whatever Pitch Perfect threw at him. There were some challenges, of course, that he wasn’t ready for, though.
"I didn’t realize that a capella music was really fucking hard," the director says. "I’d never been around a capella or really knew much about it. I feel like I know a lot about music, but what I didn’t anticipate is that when every actor has to sing a different part and then do all their choreography on the same beat or on the same word, it’s really hard. We had a lot of blood, sweat, and tears from the actors trying to figure out how to make it look effortless."
On a Broadway play, the cast has about five weeks’ worth of rehearsal. On a musical, they tend to get about six weeks. Moore was able to get four weeks for his film. The actors rehearsed strenuous 10-12 hour days in a process that was christened "A Capella Boot Camp." The actors showed up early in the morning, and read their class schedule for the day on a bulletin board in the lobby. It was like college all over again (or for the first time for some of them). The space was divided into a music room, an acting room, and an individual solo room, and the performers shuffled around through them throughout the day.
"Everybody came in able to sing, but they had a different dance ability, and they also had a different comfort level about singing and dancing in front of each other," Moore says. "I didn’t anticipate this, but that was part of what bonded them together: that they had to fall and sweat and look horrible in front of each other. They had a healthy competition going too. By the end of the four weeks, not only was the singing and dancing looking polished, but there was already an energy about each of the a capella groups and trust among the actors. That’s usually what happens on Broadway too."
Apparently the cast is believable enough as oddball a capella singers. Pitch Perfect is already a modest hit, earning back more than its $17M budget in the first week of wide release. Its success can be traced back not just to having the right director at the helm, or a funny script, but also to the pop cultural climate right now, which has kept shows like American Idol, Smash, and, yes, Glee the rule rather than the exception for the last several years.
"I grew up in a time when the only musicals were animated musicals, because nobody wanted to see people to break into song. Now, people are much more comfortable with it. I think Pitch Perfect is a logical extension of what people have discovered they love about musicals after 10 years of being comfortable with them," Moore says, even though his film isn’t really a musical.