Apple TV’s new animated-musical series, Central Park, wears its heart on its sleeve – an unapologetic love for both the green patch of land in the middle of Manhattan and the art form that is musical theatre. Each episode contains songs written especially for the story, which centers on a park manager, voiced by Hamilton-alum Leslie Odom Jr, called Owen, and his family — wife, Paige, voiced by Kathryn Hahn, daughter, Molly (up until recently voiced by Kristen Bell, but soon to be replaced) and son, Cole, voiced by Tituss Burgess — who has to fend off the wealthy heiress Bitsy Brandenham (voiced by Stanley Tucci) and her assistant Helen (voiced by Daveed Diggs), from redeveloping the land for commercial use.
Created by Josh Gad, together with Bob’s Burgers’ Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith, Central Park opens with an ode to the 840 acres of greenery – and all its quirks and glory. Composers Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel were brought on board by Gad, who’d worked with them on Olaf’s Frozen Adventure in 2017.
“He messaged on Instagram of all places, and was like, ‘Hey, can I talk to you about something?’” Anderson tells American Songwriter. “He ended up calling later that night and pitched us this idea he’d had and started naming these cast members and then said, it’s an animated show with the creator of Bob’s Burgers.”
Both Anderson and Samsel hold Central Park, to play on a lyric from the series’ opening song, “central in their hearts,” so it wasn’t too hard a sell.
Anderson used to work at the park’s Delacorte Theatre for Shakespeare in the Park, while Samsel busked on its grounds for years, playing her violin, just as Gad’s character, Birdie, does in the series.
“The park is a melting pot of the whole city because it’s where everybody from all over Manhattan comes to spend time and to exercise and hang out and it truly is, like we say in the first song, “an equalizer and an exerciser.” It is all those things,” says Anderson.
From the start, Gad wanted the series to be a fully-fledged musical series. Each episode is, in itself, a mini-musical, featuring 3-4 songs.
“After we’d contributed a couple songs for the pilot, and when the season got picked up, Loren and Josh had the great idea of making sure that the show would have a diverse voice —not all the songs should sound the same and they shouldn’t all be written by the same people. So they decided they would bring in guest artists and that we, and another amazing composer named Brent Knopf, would be the in-house songwriters,” says Samsel. “We would lay the foundation of this brand new musical soundscape for what Central Park set to music would sound like.”
Guest artists from Aimee Mann to Sara Bareilles, Anthony Hamilton and Fiona Apple then add their own personal touches onto the soundtrack.
Writing for the show’s stand-out cast has been a highlight for Anderson and Samsel, who are already deep into working on season two. “Each episode has its own little emotional arc,” says Anderson. “We have been reveling in how incredible this cast is and that helps us write the songs,” adds Samsel. “We try to give each character their own musical sound and sort of place that throughout the rest of the season. So for Leslie’s character, Owen, in the first episode, we gave him his own sound and Kathryn Hahn gets hers, in the song Own It, and we wanted to just sort of flavor all the characters and then carry that through.”
Anderson and Samsel says its been fulfilling to work on writing each of the characters a step-out moment to shine. “Anytime you’re writing for Tituss Burgess and his incredible range, it just feels like the best opportunity you could be given,” says Samsel. “In one of the later episodes, we got to write a song for Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, a duet, which was a personal highlight, because ever since we saw them in Book of Mormon together, we dreamed of reuniting them in some way and writing for their voices. That song – called Too Close – was definitely another highlight.”
A high point for the duo, indeed, with the added bonus that it happens to make for a good theme song to these pandemic times too.