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Remembering Adam Schlesinger, One Of Pop's Great Collaborators

Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger perform together in New York City in 2016.
Walter McBride
Getty Images
Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger perform together in New York City in 2016.

It's tempting, when assessing great creative works, to funnel all credit to a lone genius — a writer, a singer, a director, an artist, or a name that sits atop a marquee. It's so much easier to be spared the task of teasing out greatness from an interconnected web of contributors, partners, helpers, teachers and organizers. We can accept a songwriting credit that reads "Lennon-McCartney," but our icons — our geniuses, our auteurs — more often stand alone, lest their stars seem diminished.

Adam Schlesinger, who died Wednesday from complications due to COVID-19, wasn't an icon, nor was he a lead singer. He was occasionally given solo billing — as he was when he wrote a masterful, Oscar-nominated piece of vintage pop songcraft called "That Thing You Do" in 1996. Far more often, he wrote with a shared voice.

In Fountains of Wayne, every song was co-billed to Schlesinger and singer Chris Collingwood; the two had separate sensibilities, and wrote individually, but they also knew that their immensely hooky pop songs improved with each other's ideas thrown in. On the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — for which Schlesinger wrote or co-wrote an astounding 157 songs — he teamed up with brilliant collaborators in star Rachel Bloom and music supervisor Jack Dolgen, as well as a handful of others.

Schlesinger frequently wrote for (and with) the singers in his various bands, be they Collingwood in Fountains of Wayne, Dominique Durand in Ivy, Taylor Hanson in Tinted Windows, or Anna Nordeen and Reni Lane in Fever High. He wrote a broad assortment of award-winning material with playwright David Javerbaum, from the Broadway musical Cry-Baby to songs sung by Neil Patrick Harris at the Tony Awards to most of the songs on Stephen Colbert's Christmas album. (Seriously, is there a more approachable way into faith than the words "There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In"?) Schlesinger's next project was to be a collaboration, as well: A musical based on Sarah Silverman's memoir The Bedwetter was scheduled to begin Off-Broadway previews later this spring.

Taken as a body of work, Schlesinger's creative output was astounding. In Fountains of Wayne, he and Collingwood gave voice to middle-class strivers, frustrated ad salesmen, worried commuters and folks who pined for people and lives and dreams that eluded them. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, he and Bloom and Dolgen found humor and truth in hilarious pastiches whose subjects spanned mental health, human biology, doomed relationships and countless topics in between. With Javerbaum, he explored his love of theater — of grand emotions and wry, meta observations — in show-stoppers and ballads alike.

Schlesinger's death is so painful to contemplate, not only because he was such a generous collaborator, and not only because his work spread so much joy and kindhearted humor, though both of those things are most assuredly true. It's also that so many great works are now suffused with his loss. His works with Bloom and Dolgen, his works with Javerbaum, his works with Collingwood — he seemed endlessly prolific, with creative tendrils that extended into the catalogs of so many other brilliant artists.

To mourn Adam Schlesinger is to mourn for his family; for his girlfriend, his parents, his sister and his two children, all of whom are suffering losses that extend well beyond a creative legacy. But it's worth also sparing thoughts for the collaborators — for Collingwood, for Bloom, for Javerbaum, for Silverman and so many others — whose work he enriched. He was a genius, but he was also a team player, and his losses extend to a lot of teams; to a lot of art. It's excruciating to feel those losses all at once.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)