Meet the women who make ‘Central Park’ sound sunny

Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson learned that they would need to find men if they were to become successful songwriters.

“We were both advised, if you want to be successful in this career, go find a male partner and become a nice little duo,” Samsel recalled recently. “You’ll get a better shot if you write alongside a guy. “

Instead, they found each other.

After pursuing comedy separately in their early 20s, the two met at a BMI musical theater songwriting workshop in New York in 2010 and instantly clicked. Their strength, they agree, lies in being themselves in a field still largely dominated by men. (Since 1947, the Tony for Best Original Score has only been awarded to women without a male partner three times.)

“Anytime we tried to be ultra-professional or pretend to be more masculine to be taken seriously, it inhibited the experience,” Anderson said. “We’ve learned that when we come forward and are what we are, happy and upbeat, it creates the best collaborations.”

These collaborations include working with author Jodi Picoult on two upcoming musicals – an off-Broadway adaptation of his book “Between the Lines” and a production of “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak – and creating songs for Disney 2017’s “Frozen” featurette, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” Disney’s work came thanks to a recommendation from Anderson’s older sister, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who, along with her husband, Robert Lopez, created the songs for the original “Frozen”. (The Oscar and Grammy-winning couple also wrote the soundtracks for “Frozen II” and “Coco” and the “Wandavision” earworm “Agatha All Along”, among other acclaimed pieces for screen.)

“Olaf,” in turn, led to Samsel and Anderson’s current gig as songwriters for “Central Park,” the Apple TV + animated musical series. Josh Gad, who created the show with Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith (both from “Bob’s Burgers”), suggested Samsel and Anderson after working with them on “Olaf”.

“We worked hard to get these opportunities, but you can’t ignore that it was largely luck,” said Anderson, 34. “These amazing people are like, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you a chance. Prove that you can do the job.

Anderson, who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, focuses primarily on lyrics, drawing on his improvisation background to infuse the songs with comedy. Samsel, a classically trained violinist and pianist who grew up in Larchmont, NY, and Newtown, Connecticut, composes.

Their unbridled enthusiasm on and off the page pairs well with the exuberance of “Central Park,” which features the urban oasis through the adventures of Park Director Owen (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.) and his family ( Kathryn Hahn, Tituss Burgess and Emmy Raver-Lampman), alongside an intriguing hotel heiress (Stanley Tucci) and his assistant (Daveed Diggs).

The series, which returns Friday for its second season, draws on original songs to embellish dozens of important moments in the series, like when an invasive species comes to Harlem Meer or when Owen helps his pre-daughter buy. a bra. Samsel and Anderson typically provide one to three tracks per episode, with rotating guests like Rufus Wainwright, Ingrid Michaelson, Supercommuter, and Cyndi Lauper writing additional songs on topics like the emotional lives of rats and the merits of Weehawken.

The cast and creative team worked on the new season of “Central Park” from home during the pandemic. The voice actors were given microphones to record, and Samsel and Anderson, who normally collaborate in person, created their songs in video calls before emailing the crew their latest work.

Composing in quarantine – while watching their live theater premieres be postponed until at least 2022 – sparked “a lot of emotions at once,” said Samsel, 33. Anderson added, “It really allowed us to stay connected and have a good morale to have ‘Central Park’ and that inspiration flowing. We were so grateful to work.

In a recent Los Angeles video interview, the two discussed the future of “Central Park”, their early songwriting inspirations and their hopes for a new “golden age” of comedy. musical. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What does the writing process look like for “Central Park”?

KATE ANDERSON Our job, especially in Season 1, was to set up the voice for the show. [Along with] some of the early guest writers, artists like Sara Bareilles and Meghan Trainor and Cyndi Lauper, all set the tone for us, comically and lyrically.

ELYSSA SAMSEL In Season 2, they either gave us a script or a preview and left us free to determine what the hook of the song would be. We always try to make sure that our hook is something that takes us from point A to point C so that we can fit as much intrigue into the song as possible, whether we’re given a script, paragraph, or just plain like “throw a song here.

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Are there some characters that are the most fun to write?

ANDERSON Our personal favorite in terms of silliness is Elwood [voiced by Rory O’Malley]. He has this very optimistic and childish wonder.

SAMSEL The cast exceeds our wildest dreams. You can imagine these words in the mouth of Daveed Diggs or Kathryn Hahn or in the angelic voice of Leslie Odom Jr .. It helps to have them as muses.

Kristen Bell, who played the family’s daughter Molly last season, was one of the many white actors in the animation industry who resigned to express colored characters last year. She has been replaced by Emmy Raver-Lampman – what can viewers expect?

SAMSEL There’s this song in episode 203 called “Trying Too Hard”, and that’s all Emmy and it was amazing.

ANDERSON Emmy singing that song uplifted him. It’s a truly universal message, this feeling of breaking into a million pieces to try to please everyone and ultimately empower yourself to be okay with who you are. Having Emmy in season 2, we were really excited to have not only her voice but her person on that song.

One of the highlights this season is an emotional violin montage in Episode 6. Elyssa, you used to play in Central Park as Josh Gad’s character, Birdie. Did you draw inspiration from your own experience?

SAMSEL There is something about being a street artist where people want to open up to you. I’ve heard some really great stories from complete strangers saying to me, you know, “My dad loved the violin and he passed away recently.” I didn’t have much to offer other than listening. So when Loren asked me if I wanted to write a five minute violin piece, I think I first had a heart attack, but then I was excited because I wanted it to be a tribute to my experience and my love letter to the park.

Kate played two characters in “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”. Are any of you secretly working on the voice of “Central Park”?

ANDERSON No, but we would love to. I will say that Elyssa plays the violin all over “Central Park”.

SAMSEL Every time Birdie plays, I can use my violin. Sometimes I use the same violin I played with in Central Park.

What were the first touchstones that made you want to become songwriters?

SAMSEL At 20, I remember having auditioned and saw sheet music [“Taylor the Latte Boy”] which had the names of Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich at the top. I had this revelation that it was two names of women on a score. I had never seen this before, and had been playing and writing music since I was 6 years old. So I started researching other women in this field, and it all led me to finally enter this workshop, meet Kate and realize that there was an avenue for women authors- composers.

ANDERSON I was at that precipice in life where I was like, I really think I could be good at acting. “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon” were [popular] at that point, and it made me realize, oh, I can be funny in this path. I can channel humor into musical theater.

Why do you think it’s still relatively rare to see musicals with songs written by women?

ANDERSON I think we are still building examples. We are starting to see more and more women choosing this career path because they see themselves in it. That’s what we want to do: show you that you can be like us if you want to.

Have you encountered misogyny in the industry?

ANDERSON Absolutely. Was it pure and simple? No. Do we feel like maybe this thing didn’t happen or that they only gave us that percentage of the job because we were young and because we were women? Yes. But we have always lived by the philosophy of: Persevere and let our work speak for itself.

SAMSEL We have always been outperforming. When we tried to get “Between the Lines” we were auditioning on spec and writing a lot more songs than we were supposed to, and we got that job. When we were ready for “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” with Disney, we followed the same course of action where we crushed the hearing because we just had that excitement that couldn’t be repressed.

Kate, how does it feel to have Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez in the family?

ANDERSON They are just unreal. Not only did Kristen open doors wide for women in general, but having this living example so close to us made Elyssa and I never doubted for a second that we could have her too.

SAMSEL The first time I met Kristen, she let me sleep in her office after my apartment was robbed. She shows the kind of generosity that Kate and I strive to have towards others as well.

ANDERSON Having said that, she still has notes.

SAMSEL If Kristen Anderson-Lopez has notes, you want to take them.

Besides the third season of “Central Park”, what else are you working on right now?

SAMSEL A project that we are really passionate about is something we are working on with Blake Lively and her production company, B for Effort. It’s a musical, I think in the cinematic space.

Your goal was to have a Broadway show. Is it still the dream?

SAMSEL We would really like to make a Broadway in the movies, so that this golden age of those MGM musicals is happening now with a multitude of musicals.

ANDERSON Of course, Broadway remains the focus. But is this the ultimate goal? No more. I would say this is one of the many, many ultimate goals.