It may seem somewhat out of place for Kris Bowers to be scoring a romantic period-drama series set during an 1800s debutante season. The LA-born composer has built his resume with socially-minded titles like Dear White People, Bad Hair and When They See Us, for which he received his first Primetime Emmy nomination, and won a Daytime Emmy for scoring the short film, A Snowy Day. But as Bowers has proved, with the 1960s-set Best Picture-winning Green Book, and 70s milieu of Mrs America, for which he scored his second Primetime Emmy nomination, he’s comfortable in any era — no matter how scandalous or lustful the backdrop to the story may be.
To be sure, the Netflix Original Series Bridgerton, streaming from December 25th,which has been described as “part Gossip Girl, part Regency-era melodrama,” (by The Ringer) is frivolous fun. But its color-conscious casting and smart, feminist take on romance makes it a cut above most period shows. This, and the fact that it’s the first production from game-changing showrunner Shonda Rhimes under her headline-making Netflix deal, made 31-year-old Bowers want to be involved.
“Stylistically, this is something that I hadn’t done before,” Bowers tells American Songwriter. “It was really exciting to take on.” Rhimes is an executive producer on the show, with protege and Grey’s Anatomy alum Chris Van Dusen directing. Based on the Julia Quinn book series, Bridgerton centers on the budding romance between the Duke, Simon Bassett (played by Regé-Jean Page) and Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dyneover). To begin, Bowers looked to Ravel for inspiration in laying the foundation of the series — the love theme that develops between the Duke and Daphne.
“Originally I was thinking about maybe taking a really modern approach to the classical sound and using classical instruments, but making it sound more like pop songs, and producing it in a really modern way,” says Bowers. “We tried that a little bit, and that wasn’t working that well.” Bowers then opted going super traditional, since it’s a show set in the early 1800s, and trying to write music that’s more of that period.
“But then Chris sent me some Ravel piano pieces that I really, really loved,” says Bowers. “Technically, that’s a little bit later, like in the 1900s. But we felt like that really gave the feeling that we wanted for their theme. That then served as an influence as I continued to write the score. It was more of this impressionistic kind of sound and trying to take it even more into a modern space.”
The Juilliard-educated pianist, who earned his first record deal by winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at the Kennedy Center in 2011 (where Aretha Franklin chose him as a favorite to win during the semi-finals concert) used his instrument of choice for most of the score. “The piano is a very strong identifier for Simon and Daphne since that’s the basis of their theme, and in general, a lot of the moments of love or tenderness have a lot of piano in them,” he says. At one stage during the series, Daphne is seen playing the piano, trying to work out a love tune for the Duke.
Bowers also relied on percussion instruments for the fights and boxing matches that take place in Bridgerton. “That really became a sonic identifier when we’re in battle, especially for the duels,” he says. Because the show is set during the season of women presenting themselves for potential suitors, he found the percussion to play another crucial role too.
“Even in the context of some of the orchestral pieces, Chris mentioned from the very beginning that he loved this feeling of preparing for battle when these women were going to be presented in front of the Queen. One of the cues is called All’s Fair in Love and War — this whole thing is a battle for all these women,” says Bowers. “We wanted to really feel that under all the music in the moments when we feel on edge.”
The Vitamin String Quartet provide lush versions of instantly recognizable earworms like Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy and Ariana Grande’s thank u, next for the many balls that take place over the course of the eight seasons. “That’s all Alex Patsavas, the music supervisor,” says Bowers. Patsavas was part of the sessions Bowers would have every week with the rest of the team to discuss whether or not they’d want to try a piece of score or a song for those moments.
“Sometimes we’d even say we want to try both and see which one we like better. And then there are times where Alex might even want me to do my version of some sort of cover or something that can sound close to the cover that they might have had there.” One example is a song called Strange, originally done by British singer Celeste, that they created a cover for in Episode Five. “That was kind of the only time that those rules really overlapped,” adds Bowers.
The way he worked on Bridgerton was also different to Bowers’ approach on film. “With a film, you’re able to see it from start to beginning and you’re able to really manage that shape throughout the course of the film,” he says. “But with a TV show, you have eight episodes, where each episode in itself has its own arc and all that. You also want to be mindful of the arc of the whole season, but you’re also not seeing the whole season at the same time.”
As for any commentary the show might make about society and relationships, Bowers says that’s all part of how he decides on the projects he chooses. “The beautiful thing about art is the ability to help people reflect on their own experiences, to reflect on the state of the world and their own society,” he says. “Anything that does that really excites me.”