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Tone Painting, Vocal Point of View, and other Musical Tip-Offs at ‘Hazbin Hotel’

by Sarah Hajkowski


Vivienne “Vivziepop” Medrano has been widely lauded for her creativity and rhythmicity with her new animated musical comedy Hazbin Hotel. Andrew Underberg and Sam Haft as her music and lyrics team refashion, unify, and foreshadow storylines through the show’s clever and catchy soundtrack. For those avoiding spoilers, pause here and return after binge-watching.


Hazbin Hotel, Vivienne Medrano with Amazon Prime Video
Photo: Amazon Prime Video

With all creative endeavors, the creators will power through a certain amount of surprise that what they’re making comes to fruition at all. 


A quick look at the Hazbin Hotel wiki (online info-page, linked here) illuminates that show creator Vivenne “Vivziepop” Medrano has painstakingly worked on bringing Hazbin to life stretching back to her days in high school (Nightsilver and Wiki Staff). She has sometimes been in the “right place at the right time,” taken leaps of faith to expand her network, and stayed true to her vision for the Hazbin Hotel even as it evolved to become one of the most successful Amazon Original series to date.


Whatever the road to Hazbin Hotel is paved with, it's a stunningly original R-rated animated musical comedy, and music production wizards Andrew Underberg and Sam Haft have used all their fundamental knowledge to generate a soundtrack that underscores and colors the development of characters, tone, and plot.



Broadway mogul Casey Nicholaw is quoted as having proclaimed the function of a musical production's opening number being “to set the tone and handle the audience so that they know what they’re in for” (Scott Feinberg, of the Hollywood Reporter).


As Hazbin Hotel’s opening number, “Happy Day in Hell” does exactly that. This is a universe set in mythological Hell where there is also life on Earth and the kingdom of Heaven; the division is never materially Christian though, more a shorthand for the broader categories of the sinful and virtuous without taking it strictly to Church. 


We open on the hotel’s owner Charlie Morningstar (played by Erika Henningsen), who appears in her 20s and in reality is getting up in her 200s. The hell-born demon offspring of Lucifer (yes, that Lucifer, played by Jeremy Jordan) and a human-turned-Queen-of-Hell called Lillith, Charlie has a startling and infectious sense of optimism about those sinners filling the streets and dark alleys of the Hell she calls home. 


Charlie believes in redemption for all, and plans for her Hazbin Hotel to be the site of big transformations in the realm. “Happy Day in Hell” begins with and is generally carried by Charlie as her treatise on the good in everyone “from the evil to the strange” (Genius- “Happy Day in Hell”). She operates almost as a Disney princess who’s allowed to say ‘fuck.’ Appropriately, Charlie is the first character to do singing of any kind in Hazbin.


“I can do this / somehow I know it / I'll get Heaven behind my plans,”

she starts off her hero song. 


Today, Lucifer’s daughter is en route to a meeting with Heaven’s angels, who have spent the last hundred or thousand years traveling down to kill off a crop of Hell’s sinners on an annual basis. They call the process Extermination, and it’s one of the major reasons that Charlie’s girlfriend Vaggie (Stephanie Beatriz) expresses many reservations about the outcome of the meeting. Other reasons, and Vaggie has plenty of them, are a seee-cret for the time being. 


Though the odds may appear stacked against her, Charlie jets to the initial meeting with a smile on her face. When it doesn’t pan out as planned, she endeavors time after time, beats path after path in the name of advocating for those she loves and total strangers alike. It becomes clear that even with her fears and issues, Charlie is a fire-fountain of energy. And when that fountain does relatably run dry she builds upon another strength: reaching into her community for help. 


There’s a great deal to be said for what Charlie accomplishes on her own, but the ethos of Hazbin Hotel’s first season expands beyond that. Lucifer’s daughter gradually deepens her relationships with a solid cast of endearingly sordid characters, including her own estranged father, and this ensemble sticks by her through everything. In Hazbin’s eighth and final episode, the mother of all showdowns leaves Charlie’s first Hotel destroyed, and hope glimmering bittersweetly through the cracks.


In this fallout, it’s easy for Charlie to condemn herself as a failure. “This bloodshed could have been avoided/ If I convinced Heaven to work together/  I took a hotel and I destroyed it / I know I could have done better/ Better, instead of letting you down." (Finale - Genius Lyrics)


But her ‘framily’ is quick to counter her self-recrimination. In a tee-off beginning with Lucifer, everyone Charlie has brought together: her girlfriend Vaggie plus adult actor Angel Dust, bartender Husk, rabid housekeeper Niffty, radio demon-hotelier Alastor, and even party queen Cherri Bomb take part in a familiar melody to raise her spirits. “Happy Day in Hell” is reprised without being called a reprise in the form of “Finale,” which echoes its uplifting melody, sweet instrumentation, and courage-summoning lyric structure with one crucial thread of changes–all that was once spoken as a lonely “I” statement becomes a collective “we” statement.


Lyrics © Sam Haft & Andrew Underberg

We can do this,” Charlie’s family and friends echo, “We’ll be better/Though redemption may take a while,” (Finale - Genius Lyrics, emphasis added). The core six remaining out of Charlie’s hotel residents are now fully behind what began as her dream, they have encountered their own doubts and insecurities in various ways, and are a stronger team for it.


Thus the finale of Hazbin Hotel is truly circular, and the returning point in that circle is transformed not in terms of finding a new goal, but working toward it with new solidarity. We feel and hear this roundness of narrative rather than clocking it as a part of dialogue or subtle visual cues–though Hazbin has those too


Ever since episode 1 Medrano and her entire team have been dropping the melodic breadcrumbs that accumulate with fresh significance as the season one finale. No matter the changes they undergo, Hazbin Hotel musically promises us, this group has its leader’s original ambition at heart.



Often enough, someone fresh off a disagreement bewails the fact that the one they disagreed with “used my own words against me!” In hopefully rare times of need, it does pay to take note of what an opponent is saying.


This phenomenon is vastly sexier in song-form. A marked lift for Hazbin Hotel is its casting of musical theatre star Alex Brightman in the hate-to-love-him role of Adam, the Exorcist angel serving as one of Hazbin’s most prominent antagonists. So smug you’d like to smack his halo off, Adam righteously informs Charlie in episode 1, “Overture,” that her plan to redeem sinners of Hell into self-improved newbies of Heaven clashes both with his Saturday plans and his supposed grounds of faith.


“Hell is forever / Whether you like it or not,” Adam thunders, “Had their chance to behave better / Now they boil in the pot” (Hell is Forever- Genius Lyrics). Adam is utterly disinterested in the afterlife of souls once they have reached Hell. Besides if sinners could redeem themselves he would be out of a job, one that he enjoys a great deal.


An effectively dislikable and likable antagonist in Hazbin’s first season, Adam is no staunch traditionalist after the fashion of Supernatural's Castiel, who in his Kripke-Gamble era identified as “an angel of the Lord” and by design lacked the imagination needed to make great change.


The Adam we are given is none of those things. Rather than absolute justice he is enthralled with absolute punishment, rather than being solemn and stodgy he makes his own rules according to what increases his pleasure. Misguided and redeemable for future seasons Adam may be, yet Vivziepop has struck a certain nerve by setting up an opponent who is unequivocally wrong, unequivocally unjust.


Lyrics © Sam Haft & Andrew Underberg

Then it could hardly be more satisfying to hear how “You Didn’t Know” echoes Adam’s own hypocrisy back to him in the voices of Charlie Morningstar, and her brand-new ally Emily. They are logical advocates for the middle ground of redemption. As Charlie is a demon and Emily, a seraphim, they are family to the immensely powerful and have seen others hurt by abuses of that power.


Joining hands "across America" style, Charlie and Emily stand up over the omniscient orb which Sera the seraphim has raised. They mirror Adam's episode 1 song-text and melody, contending that "If Hell is forever / then Heaven must be a lie" (You Didn't Know- Genius Lyrics). With real gravity, the hypocrisy of Heaven's highest is beginning to shift and tumble for the deadly smoke-show that it is.


Their fastball neutralized, Adam and Sera conjure a more manipulative delivery by misdirecting Vaggie's true status as (gasp!) a fallen Exorcist angel, and shutting down the issue autocratically. Regardless, Charlie and Emily undeniably gain ground with their unity in defense of Angel Dust and all the souls of Hell with the potential for reform. Part of the sizzle in their accomplishment is that they base their rebuttal in the duplicity of their opposition.


As suggested by its title, the breakout track in “Dad Beat Dad,” fifth episode of Hazbin Hotel centers around a pecking order. Two central figures in protagonist Charlie Morningstar’s afterlife are competing to win the crown of being her favorite father figure.


Behind the proverbial door no. 1 is Lucifer himself, Charlie’s dei-biological father and immensely powerful black sheep with his own “daddy issues.” (Or should that be a capital ‘D’?)


Making as dazzling an entrance behind door no. 2 is a core figure out of Hazbin’s ensemble of originals. Alastor “The Radio Demon” as some fusion of an old-timey radio host and eldritch being has resisted and even threatened Charlie previously, but in the meeting, or titular “beating” of Dads, he asserts his right to mentor her in a pseudo-paternal role.


Thus the debate is already plenty loaded. Hazbin Hotel’s power is frequently stored in its relatability; a strained father-daughter relationship being just one among a vast array of universalities which its fanbase has latched onto. With any debate over parentage or even simply influencing a child necessarily comes layers. The layers double up, then, when the forces battling for custody command also certain strands of their reality. Alastor has memorably proven his abilities to influence corporeality with such stunts as the alteration of the Hazbin sign and virtual omnipotence across the radio waves–while Lucifer is, well, Lucifer.


The treat for the ears which Hazbin delivers is that these mazes are not limited to spoken dialogue. The music of “Hell’s Greatest Dad” itself becomes disjointed, unpredictable, and crowded with tone painting galore throughout its 2:13 song duration.


We begin with the tone-setter of Lucifer talking up his own selling points as “Hell’s Greatest Dad.” In addition to lyrical metaphors visualized as Luci’s own Yelp review, an athlete and referee, and a patron and head chef, the Prince of Darkness calls up extensions of his own voice to make his point.


“(Five stars! Flawless! Greater than great!)” declare Lucifer’s hypothetical reviewers, puppet versions of his own head, in the song’s first act. Later as stakes grow and grow he goes all Light Bringer on our eardrums, “in your needy hour / There's no substitute for pure angelic power!” with a parallel harmony stereotypical of the angelic choruses from which he has fallen. As if that wasn’t enough, he brings out his folkloric golden fiddle to face off with Alastor's keyboarding "Devil Went Down to Georgia" style.


As for Alastor’s vocal point of view, he smoothly cuts into the electro-swing style of “Hell’s Greatest Dad.” Self-proclaimed “old-timey,” Alastor is never without his ability for acoustokinesis, the special “radio effect on his voice…[distorting or deepening] levels of volume and pitch” (Nightsilver and Wiki Staff). Well, almost never, but that’s a surprise plot twist that’ll help us later.


Rolling with the genre punches, he transitions to a marching tune which receives a full-fledged callback later in the season with battle anthem "Ready for This." And perhaps most resonantly, he ups the tempo contending for “Hell’s Greatest Dad,” and sneaks in partial beats and multi-syllables wherever possible in the final stanza of debate.


Lyrics © Sam Haft & Andrew Underberg

The worsening overlap in “Hell’s Greatest Dad” represents the clashing of antlers and horns between Alastor and Lucifer. It also evokes the swimming confusion they’re causing for Charlie. The paternal adversaries close physical distance as an extension of what they do in song by cutting each other off and dismissing the other's points.


The buildup of tension here imparts a greater meaning to the latter track "More than Anything," and foreshadows Alastor's interest in influencing Charlie Morningstar, princess of Hell.



Motif: “a short succession of notes producing a single impression; a brief melodic or rhythmic formula out of which longer passages are developed.” - Dictionary.com


While many associate the motif with music arts, its meaning has branched out to include such disciplines as visual symbolism, catchphrases, and other identifying signals in an artist or their art.


Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter ‘A’ is a motif with connotations that deepen the Hawthorne novel’s impact. Passionate romance and the exchange of “Cara mia” for “Mon cher” are motifs tied to Gomez and Morticia Addams. And in Hazbin Hotel, the conjunct melody of “More Than Anything” is a motif for protagonist Charlie’s center of motivation (her heart) and how it galvanizes others.


The original “More Than Anything” falls in the aforementioned “Dad Beat Dad” episode of season 1. It offers exposition as well as growing potential for the relationship between Charlie and her estranged father Lucifer. In its course, both Lucifer and Charlie make themselves vulnerable to each other and ultimately discover mutual admiration and power.


It’s another inventive stroke by Vivziepop that manages to render a relatable figure out of the devil and his demon daughter. Under the author’s treatment, they might be anyone’s parent whose fears and rough edges complicate their parenting, and anyone’s child striving to take the incomplete picture of a parent and understand their part in it.


That may be one reason that so many fans of the show identify with this particular track on the cast recording. As Charlie and Lucifer finally find together, there is an irreplaceable comfort, security, and inspiration in the idea of being loved “more than anything.” Audiences will inevitably have a variety of experiences, and even those healing from less unconditional parent-child relationships have a safe place to engage with the idea of something better, and to grow in the confidence that something better is what they deserve.


It is here in the fifth episode of Hazbin’s initial eight installments that Charlie’s newfound understanding with her father symbolizes the series’ progression to an ensemble around her whose bonds are rock-solid.


Charlie’s belief in her convictions, altruistic in nature, empowers her to make her case to her father and bring himself and her other found family closer. “I need to save my people more than anything,” Charlie vows, and it is because she dares dream this dream out loud that those she loves are able to see and participate in it.


This context enriches the brief reprise of “More Than Anything” initiated by Charlie’s girlfriend Vaggie in a moment where Charlie has come unmoored from her own strength of heart. After receiving the threat that Heaven’s avenging angels will soon descend to kill and destroy, Charlie sheds some terrified tears to herself.


Reinforcing Charlie's tireless work and their shared love, Vaggie echoes one of Hazbin's overarching themes; she puts love at the center of big sacrifices and even bigger dreams. Amid the neo-apocalypse knocking at their door, it is the interpersonal, the intimate, that Vaggie and Charlie are so much more aware of. It's enough simply to croon "Need you to know I love you more than anything" (More than Anything [Reprise]- Genius Lyrics).


In our own contemporary world where globalization and media saturation make our day-to-day appear hurtling fast and crushingly great, Hazbin Hotel sings an underrated song of connection with those we love and hope achieved in small strides. Few messages are conveyed at once thusly with such careful grace and insanely catchy melodies.


 

Sources Cited

Feinberg, Scott. “Tonys: The Importance of a Musical’s Opening Number.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 22 Apr. 2015, 


Nightsilver and Wiki Staff. “Alastor.” Hazbin Hotel Wiki, Fandom, Inc., 


Underberg, Andrew, and Sam Haft. “Happy Day In Hell - Genius Lyrics.” Genius


^“Hell is Forever - Genius Lyrics.” https://genius.com/Andrew-underberg-sam-haft


^“Hell’s Greatest Dad - Genius Lyrics.” https://genius.com/Andrew-underberg-sam-haft


^“More than Anything - Genius Lyrics.” https://genius.com/Andrew-underberg-sam-haft


^“You Didn’t Know - Genius Lyrics.” https://genius.com/Andrew-underberg-sam-haft


 

About the Author

Sarah Hajkowski is a poet, playwright, and journalist based on the East Coast, USA. In addition to Erato, she is a writer on Medium.com, publishes plays to NPX: New Play Exchange, and freelances as a theatre artist. If not writing, she will be listening to music, watching horror movies, and connecting with likeminded humans.


Find out more at sarahhajkowski.com and reach out on social media.



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