Song and music have never been complete strangers to adult-oriented animated sitcoms, many of which relish in ridiculing the family-friendly standard set by Disney. From Family Guy and South Park to Big Mouth and Paradise PD, cartoon characters seemingly cannot go a single season without breaking out into a single number.
But one new hit outdoes them all, and that is Apple TV’s Central Park. Conceived by voice actor Josh Gad as television’s first-ever hand-drawn musical, the tunes of this show are as important as its gags. In fact, as musicians Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson have said, the accompaniment is, in a way, the program’s central star (pun intended, more to come).
Speaking to a number of reporters during a panel on music in animation for this year’s fully-online, coronavirus-induced Comic Con, the talented duo—whose lively, upbeat personality resounds through their entire repertoire—talked about the trials and tribulations of scoring adult content after leaving the world of Frozen, and everything they learned along the way.
Both artists have an impressive musical education with professional experience to boot. For her part, Kate studied music at Gettysburg College. With a minor in creative writing and a passion for both improve and standup, getting to work on a show like Central Park seemed to her the perfect blend of skill and interest.
Classically trained in piano and violin, Elyssa eventually found her way into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. While there, she told a reporter from The Outlander Podcast, she developed a fierce desire to “branch out and break all the type-casting models that had already been setup in musical theater.”
Talking to The Nerd Element, Elyssa recalled the shock she felt when she first saw two female names atop a piece of sheet music. Thanks to several female mentors who “broke the glass ceiling” and paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps, she then felt confident to pursue this goal of hers, a goal which turned into a reality when she began collaborating with Kate.
This collaboration soon led to the two landing jobs as songwriters for the 2017 3D-animated featurette Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. A short spinoff of Disney’s immensely popular Frozen franchise, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was a daunting task in some ways, yet surprisingly easy in others. For one, Kate and Elyssa are thankful for the foundation laid by Kristen Anderson and Robert Lopez.
Not only did the project make for a wonderful addition to their resume, it also put them in touch with Olaf’s voice actor, Josh Gad. Speaking with the But Why Tho podcast, the musicians recall how Gad was quick to take a liking to them and their music. “Thank God Olaf sang so high,” Elyssa said, “otherwise we could have never become such good friends!”
Thank God indeed, for that friendship would soon prove a major turning point in their career as Gad ended up asking them to write the music for a little show he’d been brewing up in his free time called Central Park. The duo, Gad thought correctly, checked all the boxes on his application: not only were they talented musicians, they were also familiar with his own style and person, as well as animation.
When I got to speak to them, I was curious about this transition. Surely, I thought, it must have been difficult to switch from an innocent and inoffensive kid’s show to a raunchy, edgy project intended for adults. Interestingly, I was wrong because the two productions had more in common than I initially thought. As Kate explained to me:
“Elyssa and I have always been drawn to a tone in our writing that is whimsical and childlike but what tickles us the most is when something sounds that way but is very adult. Central Park is family friendly but it walks that fine line of being humorous in an adult way while staying true to being a musical. It hasn’t been a challenge to shift over from Olaf as our early work was in that vein.”
Elyssa added that the series’ creators have “been able to give us the best safety net. From the very beginning Josh wanted Central Park to be a true musical in that Disney sense,” thus ensuring its style and structure would be similar to Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. “I think it ended up being the perfect blend; serving their creative vision kept us in line.”
When being asked about how they go to work writing a song, Kate said their process differs from project to project. That said, she and Elyssa usually try to hammer out the lyrics first before they move on to melody. This approach is not just personal preference, as lyrics often drive a song and connect it to the ongoing story. “We wanna figure out what’s gonna drive the song,” she told to The Nerd Element.
When Outlander asked her what follows lyrics, be that melody or instrumentation, Elyssa’s answer was a mix of both. “Most of the time, the melody and accompaniment are linked because they both lead each other,” she said, before outlining a three-tiered model of songwriting where the accompaniment provided subtext for the melody, and the melody the subtext for the lyrics.
Everything, in other words, revolves around the characters: who they are, what they want, and how they try to get it. Because Owen is a dorky dad, Kate told a reporter from Culture Slate, his music ought to be “down but also hopeful,” while that of his workaholic wife should be “driven but also quirky, and a little bit of a mess as well.”
Since music and plot are so incredibly interrelated, I was curious as to the duo’s relationship with the writing team. Is the script set in stone and do they simply have to fill in the gaps with tunes, or is the story being written in a much more dialogical manner where the songwriters can potentially alter the plot if their work sees fit?
The answer, Kate explained to me, changed over the course of production. When she and Elyssa were added to the team, all that existed was a ten page script. In fact, they developed the show’s first song, “Central in my Heart,” as part of the sales pitch which helped land them a spot on Apple TV’s programming block.
As the show progressed and found its footing, the people working on it gradually stopped wearing different hats. Nowadays, Kate pointed out, production on the show more closely resembles the “well-oiled machine” of Disney, where each individual has a clearly defined albeit slightly limited function and responsibility.
That’s not to say the work is no longer creative, though. On the contrary, the duo explains how, upon receiving new scripts, their first task is to look for what they call “musical real-estate.” Not only do they look for places in the script where a song might make the most impact, they also have to determine the purpose of said song, whether that’s expressing emotion, telling a joke or furthering the plot.
Given how Gad was the one who brought Kate and Elyssa onto the project, it seems only fitting that they had some influence on his character. When the two joined the team, Elyssa recalled how the only real thing which was set in stone was that Birdie, Gad’s character, was going to be a busker. Having busked in Central Park herself, Elyssa suggested he play a violin, which he now does.
When one Newsy reporter asked them how their careers had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the answer they gave was more positive than many of their colleagues. While several theatrical productions were put on an indefinite hiatus, Kate and Elyssa have been lucky enough to continue work on season two of Central Park through Zoom from their living rooms.
Working from home, they said, has neither altered their creative process nor hindered their productivity. As close friends who also double as business partners, the songwriters will not let the current state of the world get the better of them. If anything, they sincerely hope their work will be able to send a “positive message in dark times,” and we are sure it will.