How the Catchy Only Murders in the Building Song Was Written

Which of the Pickwick triplets did it? Now that the finale’s out, we finally know who the murderer is, and we just might be able to stop singing the patter song heard throughout season three of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building that has been such an earworm for fans everywhere.

This season of Only Murders, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, centers on their own investigation into the mysterious death of Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd), the leading man of theater producer Oliver Putman’s (played by Short) new Broadway play turned musical called Death Rattle Dazzle. With a Broadway show as the focus of the plot, it can only mean lots of Broadway actors as guest stars, including Meryl Streep, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Martin, Jesse Williams, Ashley Park, Noma Dumezweni, Mel Brooks, Wesley Taylor, and Linda Edmond. One of the songs Putman’s character wrote for the musical is called “Which of Pickwick Triplets Did It?” It’s sung by the constable, played by Martin’s character, Charles.

Dear Evan Hansen songwriters and consulting producers this season, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, asked Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to join them in writing the catchy yet difficult song.

Shaiman and Wittman, the Tony Award–winning duo, are known for their megahit Hairspray and also wrote the music for Some Like It Hot, now playing at the Shubert Theatre through December 30. They also recently wrote Rogers: The Musical, the fictional musical centered in Marvel’s Captain America franchise. Up next, they’re working on a stage adaptation of the 2012 NBC TV series Smash, about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical, that is expected to be part of the 2024–2025 season. Susan Stroman is directing. 

Broadway Direct spoke with Shaiman and Wittman all about how they brought “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?” to life and teases what’s ahead for Smash.

When did you write the song?

Scott Wittman: I’m pretty sure it was in December 2022. Yes, because Some Like It Hot had just opened. We wrote a whole show [Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me in 2006] with Marty on Broadway. So we had a long history [with him], and we’ve known Steve [Martin] for a long time as well. So, it seemed like a good fit. It was the first time we’d ever written a song with anybody else. We occasionally write songs with Bette Midler. But this is the first time four of us were in a room together.

As I understand it, Pasek and Paul tapped you both to help write the song.

SW: They felt like it would be fun to collaborate with other people as well, like Sara Bareilles and Michael R. Jackson.

How did the four of you get together and write this? Because both teams are composer/lyricists.

SW: [Our showrunner] John Hoffman had sent us the script that had explained what the song needed to be. It had to be very complicated because Steve had to spend a few episodes trying to get it right. So we knew it had to be a tongue twister. When we got in the room together, we just started to throw alliteration around the room and came up with “Pickwick triplets” and triptychs and all of that. We laughed a lot while writing it together.

Was the name Pickwick always part of it or did you come up with that once you wrote the song?

Marc Shaiman: [The producers] came to us knowing it would be about the Pickwick triplets and an entire song about how could infants possibly murder their mother? They gave us names of what the three triplets would be. That was it, and we were off to the races. There were four of us in a room, and I was like, “How is this going to work?” I mean, it works great with Scott and I. It turns out it was just as easy and we got even more ideas. We were all on a Google Doc so we could type or delete what someone else had done.

SW: It was like playing Scrabble.

MS: It was like playing a game. It really was. We all love perfect rhymes. We wouldn’t allow anything but a perfect rhyme, and then finding the alliteration and rhymes at the same time. And then how many words are there that can relate to an infant and murder and then other odd works? Pisher, a yiddish word, got in there.

How long did it take?

SW: We had two writing sessions.

MS: At the end of the second one, Justin and I started playing with musical ideas. Then [I felt like I was] naked and I just came out of a very cold ocean. I had trouble writing music in front of three people. Words are so specific. Music is just a different thing. After a while, Justin said, “Well, why don’t you just take a crack at the whole thing and send it to me?” And that’s what I did. Justin is the one who first sang “Which of the Pickwick triplets did it?” with that melody and rhythm, and that set us off. I wrote music to it and what I thought it would be. Justin took that and changed a few chords and a few things. [We got] almost no notes. [The producers] had given us all enough information, and we just delivered what they wanted.

SW: Steve was very enthusiastic when he got the song. He was very thrilled by it. I mean, he was probably more thrilled when it was over. He really enjoyed learning it.

So you knew Steve Martin was going to sing the whole time?

SW: We knew it had to be an earworm because he has to learn it over several episodes, as did Matthew Broderick. It had to be complex enough that he would trip over the [words]. In one episode, the only way he could remember it was while making an omelet.

Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Matthew Broderick in Only Murders in the Building. Photo by Patrick Harbron/Hulu.
Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Matthew Broderick in Only Murders in the Building. Photo by Patrick Harbron/Hulu.

That was such a surprise when Matthew was the guest star. I know you’re friends with him and he was at your Sardi’s portrait reveal.

MS: We didn’t have anything to do with Matthew being cast. I mean, that was a pleasant, wonderful surprise, when he said he was singing our song on the show.

SW: And I said good luck with that!

Does the song pay tribute in any way to any other musical? I was thinking of The Music Man.

SW: I would go back even further to Gilbert and Sullivan. They have a few moments in most of [their shows] where someone would rattle off an incredibly long list and very intense vocabulary. I think it goes back to that.

Were you there for any fun off-screen Broadway moments?

SW: I was there that night when they filmed Steve’s number. Meryl had wrapped. Marty had wrapped. But everyone stayed to watch Steve do the number. It was a big mouthful. Luckily for all of us, they decided to do it in its entirety. I never saw it until it was on air.

MS: We also feel so lucky that they released that other version online that’s only focused on Steve. We always were scared of how they were going to cut it down [in post-production]. On TV, it’s so hard to get them to not edit a song. We know from two years of Smash, we would write full songs and then wonder how much of them would actually end up on the show. Then I started realizing: If I put in really complicated key changes, it makes it harder for them to edit.

Speaking of Smash, what can you share from the recent industry reading?

[Shaiman makes a gesture as to zip his lips.]

I read Kerry Butler stepped in at the last minute. Who was supposed to do the reading?

MS: Julianne Hough was doing it but got very sick. We were in a total panic. It was Stroman’s idea to text Kerry Butler. And Kerry swooped in like a hero —

SW: Playing two parts at the same time.

MS: Yeah. The first day, Robyn Hurder was out.

SW: She rehearsed on Zoom.

MS: The first day Kerry came in, she played Ivy and Karen, who are sort of like the Ivy and Karen from the TV show, but on the other hand aren’t at all. It’s like the multiverse version of Smash. It’s some of the same characters, but they’re not exactly the same personalities. And what happens in the plot is different.

Can you put “Let’s Be Bad” in this show?

MS: Yes. In Some Like It Hot, we had another song in the slot where “Let’s Be Bad” [currently] is. After the second reading, [director] Casey Nicholow asked us to come up with something a little hotter. It had to be about the girls missing their curfew and having a good time. We sat there for hours and hours, or maybe even a day or two. And then we were like, We already wrote this song. We went back to our producers, who also were coproducers of Smash, and asked about using “Let’s Be Bad.” We were very happy they all said sure. We thought the worst thing that could happen is that possibly two shows have the same song in it. It would be just an interesting conversation piece. In Some Like It Hot, it’s celebratory. On Smash, it’s Marilyn’s nervous breakdown.

Are you going to write new songs?

MS: We have written a song that if things go well, knock wood, can be a new Broadway anthem.

Some fans seem to want the original TV cast in the Broadway version. Are you trying for that?

SW: The characters are very different than they were on the TV show.

MS: We were going back and forth about that. And, of course, we would be lucky to get them all. But being that the story goes to different places, it’s probably best for the project to have new people playing the parts because that’s going to let the audience know to expect something different. I may give away that there is a different version of “Let Me Be Your Star” that opens the show right now. We even changed the lyrics of “I’ll just have to forget the hurt that came before.” There she’s singing, “You’ll just have to forget the girls that came before.” It’s Marilyn Monroe saying there have been a lot of other movie stars before me, but you’re gonna have to forget those other girls. That’s a subliminal way of saying “Come with us as we tell a different story.” Have I said too much?