Behind the ’80s-Inspired Music of ‘Wet Hot American Summer’

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Much of the '80s-sounding music in "Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp" was composed by Craig Wedren. Gemma La Manna for Netflix

Without giving too much away (though there are slight spoilers ahead!), the climax of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp involves a rock star climbing on a roof, à la Almost Famous, and delivering a showstopping rendition of “Higher and Higher.” The moment is perhaps the biggest Easter egg for fans of the original 2001 film, also called Wet Hot American Summer, for which the series serves as a prequel. The performance breathes new life into the theme song from the original film while also giving it an origin story—much as the series does to so many of the old characters.

Viewers of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp—which began streaming on Netflix last week and takes place on the first day of a Maine sleepaway camp in 1981—will likely find themselves playing Name That Tune. But Shazam searches will be unsuccessful; from the Broadway musical, Electro City, that the counselors perform to the acoustic singalong that Paul Rudd’s character leads at a party, all of the period-sounding songs were composed by Craig Wedren, a singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. Songs from the series are available on Pandora starting today, and a soundtrack may soon be in the works.

Wedren, 45, says he and Wet Hot director David Wain have known each other nearly all their lives. The two attended a day camp at a synagogue together when they were four and grew up together in Cleveland. “It was at the dawn of the MTV era. I was always in bands, and he was always making comedy videos, so he would make videos for my bands, and I would put music to his videos,” Wedren says. They attended a sleepaway camp together in Maine—which Wain says served as the inspiration for Wet Hot—and later they both went to New York University, where Wain and others formed a comedy troupe that would become The State. “We were sort of the musical wing of The State,” Wedren says, referring to himself and Theodore Shapiro, who co-composed the soundtrack to the original Wet Hot film, but not the Netflix series.

Since The State, Wedren has fronted a rock band (Shudder to Think) and put out solo music. He has also composed the music for at least 10 television shows and 11 films, including Role Models, Wanderlust and They Came Together, all of which Wain directed. The Los Angeles Times once said Wedren has “one of the most original and captivating voices in rock.”

Craig Wedren Wedren has known "Wet Hot" co-creator David Wain nearly all his life and has composed the music for Wain's films "Role Models," "Wanderlust" and "They Came Together." Craig Wedren

Along with Wedren and Shapiro’s music (which The A.V. Club has described as reaching “great heights of inspirational cheese”), the original Wet Hot soundtrack featured Rick Springfield, Loggins and Messina, Loverboy, Kiss and, most prominently, Jefferson Starship. But Wedren says the Netflix series is almost entirely original music. “We knew we wanted it to relate to the original movie, and people have such a strong relationship to the music as well as the movie,” he says, but concedes that the series called for fresh material. So he drew inspiration from artists such as Cheap Trick and Pat Benatar.

The Wet Hot revival required an unusual songwriting approach; he not only had to write background music, as for a typical film score, but he also needed to create music for the characters to perform on screen, in a variety of styles. The 30 or so songs he wrote for the series include “Heart-Attack Love,” a Benatar-sounding rock song that counselors use to audition for the musical; “I Am a Wolf, You Are the Moon,” which Rudd’s character performs at the party and Wedren says should seem like a folksy oldie for the '80s-era counselors; and “Champagne Eyes,” which Rudd’s character apparently wrote and performs for his audition song, reading from a black Marble notebook.

“Paul’s a great singer. We’ve all been singing karaoke together for many, many years,” Wedren says, adding that their karaoke go-to is “Just Between You and Me” by April Wine.

Then there’s the faux musical that Wedren created, Electro City. It’s “the story of a young man who moves from the country to the city to become a Broadway star and is immediately sent to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit—or did he?” explains Amy Poehler’s Susie. Wain and his Wet Hot co-creator Michael Showalter helped with some of the lyrics, Wedren says, channeling Jesus Christ Superstar and Xanadu.

“There’s a lot of songs in the series,” says Wain, “that you can swear are from the period, but most of them are not.” Wedren, he adds, “has just incredible talent for writing these songs that I think, if they had come out at the time, would be hits…. People keep saying, ‘Oh, so that was what album? When did that come out?’”

But the best musical number is the “Higher and Higher” rooftop scene, which reworks the beloved song from the original film. “‘Higher and Higher’ is a precious, very special thing to Teddy Shapiro and me, and it’s obviously special to people who love the movie,” Wedren says. But once he began rehearsing with Chris Pine, who performs it (with added lyrics, including some that Wedren and Shapiro composed years ago), he says, “it was hand in glove. Or ass in jeans.”

The Netflix revival, Wedren says, feels like “vindication. When we made the movie, we felt about it the way the majority of people seem to be feeling about the series,” which has received great reviews. Wet Hot, he adds, is “the purest, most genuine expression of who we all are and where we came from.”