Music

Tunes for Tillermans: Songwriters Behind Apple TV Plus’ ‘Central Park’ on Their Process

When Josh Gad needed original songs for a new show, the first people he turned to were the songwriting team of Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, whom he had met on Disney’s “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.”

The Apple TV Plus animated series “Central Park” follows the Tillermans, a family living in a castle in New York’s Central Park, as they battle investors who threatening to build hotels and condos on the park grounds.

With each episode boasting anywhere from three to six original songs, it was a dream come true for Samsel and Anderson. Not only did they love Gad, but they loved New York City — Samsel in particular connected with his park busker character, Bertie, on a personal level.

Ahead of the show’s season finale, Variety spoke to Samsel and Anderson about writing tunes for the toon.

How did Josh approach you for “Central Park?”

Kate Anderson: He reached out over Instagram and to our agent. He said that he was doing a musical TV series with the creator of “Bob’s Burgers” and rattled off the cast. And he said he needed songwriters for the show. … You never picture that someone will call you out of the blue after an Instagram message and offer you your dream job but that’s what happened. As soon as I got off the phone, I called Elyssa immediately and we dove into writing the first song, “Central in My Heart” and we put it in the pitch packet. We tried to musicalize our love and our experience of Central Park and that’s how it happened.

Elyssa Samsel: The reason why it was our dream job and so serendipitous is because, when he pitched it, he said, “It’s animated. The show takes place in Central Park and my character is going to be a busker.” As soon as he said that, I flipped out because that’s what I had done — I had been a violin player in Central Park. I remember getting so excited and asking him if his instrument could be a violin and strum it like a guitar. And that’s what Birdie plays. It’s come full circle.

What can you tell us about the songs you wrote in the finale?

Anderson: We got to write a really fun song that Danny Burstein sings called “Dick Flake.” And it’s just a fun character.Coming from a musical theater background, we knew that our challenge was to tie up the series in a satisfying way which for us meant bringing back a lot of the themes that we had heard and themes that the audience was familiar with.

Samsel: Writing the finale was a gift because it felt like we got to tie a bow on a present. We wrote the songs in the pilot three years ago and we brought back themes from “Own It,” “Central in My Heart” and “Momma’s Got This” from episode three.

The one thing that we strove for from the very first episode was to give each character a unique musical sound. One of our favorite things to do is overlap all of those sounds, and come up with a cohesive melting pot of what it sounds like when every character is expressing themselves in their musical language. We got to do that in the finale of the series with “Die Trying.” And it’s got lots of fun easter eggs. The ninth episode has a worm called Diane and we couldn’t help ourselves, we had to bring her back one more time.

How much does having Broadway actors like Josh, Kristen Bell and Audra McDonald singing influence the songwriting?

Samsel: The beauty in having a cast like this where every single actor comes from musical theater or has an incredible voice is that you never have to limit what you are writing for them. It helped develop the show itself because we were writing for those characters and what we perceived their many strengths to be.

The songs aren’t that long, with most under two minutes. Was there a challenge in that?

Anderson: We had our work cut out for us in terms of making sure that there was a healthy balance between music and dialogue and figuring out those moments where the dialogue wanted to be turned into a musical. We’d go back and forth with the showrunners asking them to trust us. It was about collaborating with the writers and with Josh Gad and Loren Bouchard.

What are your favorite song moments this season?

Samsel: “Too Close” in episode six comes to mind. It was a wonderful opportunity to write a duet for two performers (Andrew Rannells and Gad) that I had listened to on repeat when they were in “The Book of Mormon.” Writing for Josh doesn’t feel like work because he’s just a walking hug. He’s so funny and anytime I write for him is my favorite day of the week. To pair him for Andrew was a dream. That all came from this place of positivity. It was an opportunity to write something that shows our whimsical sense of humor.

Anderson: It’s so hard to pick but there’s a song in episode five, “If There’s a Will,” that felt like it finally defined this character Helen, who is voiced by Daveed Diggs.  The lyrics and music are two-faced which is what she is. To be able to write this rap for Daveed is daunting and scary, but I said, ‘Let’s rise to the challenge.’ When we were recording it, he said, ‘This is a bop.’” That’s all I need to make my life.

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