Legendary television writer and producer Norman Lear is no stranger to the role of music in marketing, and defining, the message of his show’s central themes.
When you hear the nostalgic croon of All in the Family’s “Those Were the Days” or the catchy riff of The Jeffersons’ “Movin’ On Up,” your mind almost automatically joins the song. As the worldwide audience of Lear’s work, you know the lyrics of his show’s theme songs just as well, or better, than you know his leading characters.
“Everybody knows ‘Those Were the Days’ and ‘Movin’ on Up,'” Lear tells Billboard. “It’s a unique experience of joy when most of the country is familiar with a song and can sing along. [A theme song is most successful] when you hint at the content that is to follow. It makes the audience want more.”
Lear knew that the music for his latest take on One Day at a Time, which originally ran from 1975 to 1984 and has a new version on Netflix, would be just as important as it was the first time around.
“When we released the show, it was the first time a divorced, working mother took a leading role in a comedy. The lyrics of the song mattered: The idea was that she was taking on the hard choices she had to make one day at a time, and that was something that people could relate to.”
This time around, the show, which was released by Netflix on Jan. 6, features a Cuban-American family with a matriarch who has just arrived home from her service as an Army nurse in Afghanistan.
After executive producers Gloria Calderón Kellet, who previously worked on Devious Maids and How I Met Your Mother, and Mike Royce, of Everybody Loves Raymond and Enlisted came onboard, Lear knew there was one more key post to fill: the artist who would re-record the theme song.
“I knew I had to personally call the Estefans,” Lear says. “Who better to take this on than them?”
Gloria and Emilio Estefan accepted immediately, and the rebooted theme, which plays out in conga riffs over a multimedia mix of family portraits, snaps of Miami street corridors and strong, emotional chords, has hit its mark with viewers, according to Calderón Kellet and Royce.
When Lear conceived of the reboot, he largely drew from Calderón Kellet’s life experiences as a Cuban-American, and the show’s musical direction reflects the influence of her day-to-day life.
“My parents are the show’s DJs,” says Calderón Kellet. “I love Cuban music. I grew up on Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. Julio Iglesias was on permanent rotation in my house.”
If that’s the case, than Calderón Kellet owes her parents, and the Estefans, a great debt: The show’s catchy theme and bright musical moments have helped build a passionate audience in just three short weeks: Not only has the new theme just been released for sale in English and Spanish on ITunes, there are plans for an independent Spotify playlist to drop soon.
“The responses on social media have been incredible,” Calderón Kellet says. “Someone just tweeted, ‘This show should get an Emmy for first Netflix song I won’t skip through on streaming.’”
The Spotify playlist will likely feature Calderón family household favorites like Arturo Sandoval, Celia Cruz and Iglesias, who all play heavily into the show’s defining moments.
When Abuelita (played by Rita Moreno) wakes the family to serve up a Bustelo Cuban coffee and breakfast, she dances through the scene to Celia Cruz’s “Azucar Negra.” Another key scene portrays the moment she first met her beloved late husband, Berto (played by Cuban-American actor Tony Plana): The setting, a luxe dance club in Havana. The music hijacking the moment: Javier Solis’ classic bolero “Solamente Una Vez” The mood: a seamless overdose of bicultural nostalgia.
“My parents loved dancing,” Calderón Kellet says. “We are the stereotype. We dance in our living room all the time. It seemed natural that if music would playing, it would be Cuban.”
Despite the unapologetic dose of Spanish-language music, listeners shouldn’t assume pop hits and American music won’t appear on the Spotify playlist. They also shouldn’t assume the show will rely on nostalgia. Or be any less hard-hitting than other Lear projects.
In one scene, after spraying air freshener to clear out the smell of gas flooding her broken down vehicle, Penelope (played Queen of the South and Six Feet Under star Justina Machado) passes the time waiting for a mechanic by singing loudly, and passionately, to “Unbreak My Heart,” (and torturing her two teenaged children). Royce had originally suggested Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” but Calderón Kellet’s instinct suggested otherwise.
“This is a 38-year-old Latina woman,” says Calderón Kellet. “‘Landslide’ is a great song, but Toni Braxton is more realistic to what she would be listening to. TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ was also on the list for her character and could come up in another future scene. The show will definitely mesh the old with the new. We want to mix the Cuban stuff with mainstream hits. Christina Perri’s hit song from Twilight should also feel natural, because that’s how a Cuban-American family lives.”
Part of that daily life involves navigating difficult challenges and challenging the cultural norm, a staple of any Lear show.
In the show’s last episode, a quinceñera turns semi-tragic when Penelope’s daughter, Elena (played by Isabella Gomez), comes out as gay, and her father refuses to stand by her side. The song at the scene’s centerpiece? Naturally, Julio Iglesias’ “De Niña a Mujer,” and sung by a woman.
“When I think of Latino music,” Calderón Kellet says, “I imagine everyone from Pitbull to Shakira to the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The music says, “Let’s celebrate the good things. We got here, and there’s shit, but let’s rise up above it. Let’s show each other how great life can be.”