Music plays a major role in setting the tone of most shows, but for A Million Little Things, it’s more than that. It helps develop characters and illustrates their dilemmas, disappointments, hopes, and doubts. It even serves as a narrative element, often directly advancing the plot.
With a background in classical composition and pop/rock music, composer Gabriel Mann loves the variety and range of music he gets to play with for A Million Little Things. Along with the licensed music (overseen by music supervisor Billy Gottlieb), the show features Mann’s original score and original songs, cast performances produced by Mann, and reimagined covers of iconic songs that play a special role on the show.
Putting a new twist on a nostalgic favorite helps connect viewers to emotional moments, and are a treat for the multi-talented composer. The fans have loved them too, hunting desperately for Mann’s (currently unreleased) versions of Gen X classics like ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds, ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ by The Killers, and ‘Lovesong’ by The Cure – surely to be joined by a huge song moment in tonight’s mid-season finale episode (episode 10, ‘Christmas Wishlist”).
Using custom-made covers gives the team a perfect solution to some challenging musical moments on the show. Although the original versions of songs can be emotionally powerful, there are things that they can’t do, says Gabriel. “Usually a pre-recorded song has one feeling throughout. Maybe there’s a change at the bridge, maybe it slows down at some point, but, essentially it’s the same vibe.” With covers, Gabriel can rework classic songs to match the emotional energy on screen, and enhance the show’s impact.
One of the show’s most powerful musical moments is in episode 7, ‘I Dare You.’ The episode explores Gary’s and Maggie’s relationship, and Maggie’s struggle to accept her own mortality through a playful “dare-a-thon,” where the two take turns daring each other to do a range of silly, embarrassing, and sometimes brave tasks. A single song frames the episode, from when Gary sings along (with half-mistaken lyrics) to the tune on his clock radio in the morning, to when Maggie challenges him to sing it over the PA in a noodle restaurant, to an emotional cover version that concludes the episode. Finding the perfect song was a collaborative adventure of its own.
Behind the scenes, Gabriel brainstormed with show creator D.J. Nash, music supervisor Billy Gottlieb and producer/director James Griffiths. The right song, says Gabriel “had to have this message of resilience and it has to relate to Maggie’s character. But it also had to be one of these songs where people mess up the lyrics, and something that we felt would work as a cover. And also one that an entire restaurant is going to know well enough to sing along to. It seemed like an impossible task.”
The solution ended up being ‘I’m Still Standing,’ by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. But for the music team, adding the song to the script was just the beginning of the process.
“A Million Little Things is a unique show in this regard,” says Gabriel. “We’re not just dropping in the original recording, but rather we use the song in three different ways, including a total reimagining at the end of the episode with Allison Miller [the actress who plays Maggie] singing. There’s a complete re-harmonization to reflect the sound of the show and what we’re trying to get at emotionally.”
This song made a powerful impact on fans, as have many of the others in the show, but is not yet available to stream or purchase. “At this point there’s almost a full record worth of stuff to put out there, and we’re working with ABC and the show to get them released sooner than later,” said Gabriel.
Covers also allow Gabriel to adapt iconic songs to difficult pacing. Rather than chopping up and repeating songs, he can rework an individual song to follow the action on screen, much like a traditional score. This technique is one reason the pilot episode of A Million Little Things had such a strong impact.
“In the pilot we knew we wanted to open with a big song and we were trying to come up with something that would carry us through introducing all of these different characters. And also culminate in Jon jumping,” shared Gabriel.
“It’s a five and a half minute opening sequence — there aren’t many songs that are five and a half minutes long! Also, it had to be something that would accomplish all of the ups and downs as the characters are introduced in the opening sequence. To try to find an existing recording that reflects all of that is incredibly difficult,” said Gabriel.
To solve this problem, Nash and Griffiths asked Mann to perform and produce a cover of ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ by The Killers. That allowed the show to open with an iconic song, while hitting all the drama of the picture.
Although covers are a notable part of the show, Gabriel’s original songs play just as important a role in developing the characters and driving the plot. Gabriel is a songwriter, singer, composer and producer, whose credits include projects as diverse as Arrested Development and video game The Legend of Spyro, the alternative rock band, The Rescues, and the meditation music recording project, Vive. Possessing all of these skills enables Gabriel to play a unique role on A Million Little Things.
“On most shows, my job is to write the score, so that’s all I’m usually dealing with. But with A Million Little Things, the score is almost… it’s not secondary but it’s definitely half of the job instead of all of the job,” says Gabriel.
A pivotal music moment in Episode 6, ‘Unexpected,’ called for Gabriel to pen an original song for Eddie’s character. Eddie is performing for the first time in a while, and a lot of complex emotions about his life and career are in play. The idea of the song was written into the script along with Eddie’s performance, providing guidance to Mann and Kyler England (his bandmate from The Rescues) in writing the song.
The result was the song ‘Unexpected,’ which quickly claimed the top spot on Tunefind’s weekly TV music chart (Top TV Song Last Week: Unexpected by Gabriel Mann & Duvid Swirsky), and a spot on the October 2018 Top TV Music Chart published by THR & Billboard.
The show also reflects the characters’ identities in more subtle ways. One of Gabriel’s favorite pieces of the score is an instrumental piece on a baritone guitar reflecting Rome’s depression — a major theme in the show.
“The music is both complicated and simple, which to me, is what depression is like,” says Gabriel. “It’s so simple — why can’t you just be happy? But of course it’s never that simple. The music doesn’t drag us down into sadness, but it does underscore the gravity of his situation.”
When we spoke to Gabriel, he had just recorded guitar for one of two new songs fans can look forward to in upcoming episodes of A Million Little Things. And with ABC’s recent call for new scripts, we expect there to be more on the way for this season.
Gabriel has some other exciting projects going on as well. Currently, he’s working on season 10 of the hit sitcom, Modern Family, and he’ll be making a guest appearance on screen for that one in January. Gabriel also has two new projects: the upcoming CBS comedy Fam, and a Netflix series, Prince of Peoria, which debuted in November.
〉More music by Gabriel Mann
〉Full list of songs featured in A Million Little Things