“Central Park” Songwriters Create Broadway-Style Shows for Television
“Central Park” creator Josh Gad actually announced the election results early on during a Zoom call with show composers Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel. “I’ll never forget that because we all cried, and then he was like, ‘No, wait, whatever, that was a bogus news story,’” Samsel said. Gad, who also stars on the show as a busker named Birdie, turned out to be right.
Now in its second season, the Apple TV Plus show follows the Tillerman family as they continue to live and care for the world’s most famous park. Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampman replaces Kristen Bell) is going through the trials and tribulations of adolescence, Cole (Tituss Burgess) faces a truly embarrassing time at school, Paige (Kathryn Hahn) continues to hunt down the story of corruption of the mayor and Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) juggles the management of the park, his staff and his family with a smile on his face.
Much like the rest of the world, Samsel and Anderson had to work on Zoom calls when it came to writing the songs for the season. Many recalled Broadway numbers; other times they wrote pop ballads inspired by Ariana Grande for Raver-Lampman. Below, they talk about writing the musical beats for the show, and Samsel shares his personal story on the violin solo in this week’s episode.
After the huge success of the first season and the renewal of the series for a third season, what was the idea behind the music for the second season?
Kate Anderson: Since we had built the foundation and the world for these characters, we had the creative license to take that and take it all apart. It was something we were excited to explore, and something creator Loren Bouchard did a really good job of getting everyone to think outside the box and do these weird episodes. We’ve been to fantastic worlds and Molly’s comic book spirit. It was a fun challenge, and also, it just hit it differently because we were locked into our fantasy world of imagining what it was like to have this life.
I love the opening number of the first episode, “Middle of It All”. Not only was there that fun theatrical vibe, but it was a reintroduction to the characters. What was the idea behind it?
Elyssa Samsel: It does. It serves as the second act of a theater performance with this theatricality. I think we were both excited to bring back the theme from “Central in My Heart” (the opening song) because we don’t always get asked to bring back themes. And coming from the theater, we like a good cover.
We were very lucky that we were asked to bring this idea back and then do it in a completely new way. We also love relying on this group of actors because they are all amazing singers, knowing that we can write a six part harmony for the main characters and each of them is going to hold it so well and make it such. powerful performance. With a song like that, it’s a great opportunity to really use their strengths and just dig into those harmonies and make it an ensemble showcase for what is just an amazing cast.
Was this the first song you wrote for the season, and how did you crack it?
Anderson: I think that was it. They came to tell us that they wanted to relax everyone in the season to remind them who the characters are, but it should feel like taking a hot bath or something heartwarming. Elyssa and I wanted to do something that sounded like a sigh.
There’s also Molly who has such amazing songs this season. Can you tell us about writing for her and the soaring ballads you gave to Emmy Raver-Lampman?
Samsel: We were so excited to write for her and write a more serious pop ballad for the character of Molly. The brief of this episode was something we loved so much, the idea that she was having a hard time trying to be all these different things. And that’s something that we really bonded over because as women we feel like we have to be a thousand different things and they all contradict each other.
Getting to write this pop song was moving for Molly, but a dream come true for us knowing that Emmy was going to sing it. We wanted to write a tribute to Imogen Heap and other singers like Ariana Grande who layer vocals and create that beautiful ethereal quality. It’s just that love letter in Emmy voice because it’s so touching and sums up the feelings.
Talk about the challenge of writing music and lyrics on zoom and how it impacted the camaraderie of being generally in the same room together.
Anderson: The writers’ rooms would unfold on Zoom, then they would come towards us. So we always had that outside perspective that was cool and that worked well because what Elyssa and I love to do is solve the song puzzle. We’re trying to find the way through a hook or unlock the song response and something that matches what a character is trying to say. So we both work as our unit and we haven’t seen anyone for months; we just stayed connected through these screens.
There were days when I was like, “Oh man, I think some of the harshness is going to get into the song a little bit.” There were also days when I could use that as an escape and think, “Let’s be extra happy and extra silly and I would really take that one step further imagining what those characters and in this fantasy world would be like.”
Samsel: The series really became our lifeline because every time we were assigned to write, whether it was two songs in an episode or more, it became the reason to get up that day and get on Zoom. This is where we were going to find our joy from that day and making the showrunners laugh or making each other laugh became everything. We were working with an actor while he struggled with the setup of his house. We sent them microphones and they would find out how to check in and you can hear that they are also trying to be as patient and possible. That connection was the highlight of each day, having a show to work on and having a reason to keep trying to uplift others. If we can make a person laugh at that joke in the song, it made it a successful day for us.
Anderson: We were in a recording session with Kathryn Hahn and we were waiting for the election results and that was all everyone could talk about. There were a lot of raw moments during those calls and a lot of laughs.
Samsel: Josh called the election early, but ended up being right. I’ll never forget that because we all cried, and then he said, “No wait, whatever, that was a fake news article.” It was a roller coaster ride, but he was right in the end.
Elyssa, in this new episode with the violin, can you tell us about the story behind it, because I heard it was so special.
Samsel: We had a meeting with Loren who said, “Hey, do you think we could write a five to six minute solo violin piece for this episode? I thought my heart had stopped because it’s such a scary thing to ask. But also, what an opportunity to write something like that and then have them animate. It was a huge risk he wanted to take to let me sing my heart out on the violin. I love that we were able to take risks like that and have standalone episodes, but having five to six minutes with just a solo violin and being able to tell a story with that was amazing.
It was a full time and it reminded me of when I was playing the violin in the park, and people were passing by. There’s that part of the story that looked at what it means to be seen and heard and to connect with another person. Telling that story musically and then seeing it come to life in animation was, I think, probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written so far.
Anderson: When I first met Elyssa, that’s what she did for a job, she was paying me in dollar bills for a subway ticket that I was buying. She always talks about how people should stop her in the park and want to tell her their story just because she was playing the violin there.
Samsel: I think that being vulnerable in any situation in life encourages others to be vulnerable as well. So if you are on the street and playing an instrument, you are making yourself vulnerable.