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'The Avengers of musical theater': The talent behind 'Central Park' sings for itself

Ashley Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

"Central Park" is as ambitious as the 840-acre park it portrays. Each episode of the animated series includes a whopping four original musical numbers, all of which will become available to stream on Apple Music as the series progresses.

"We told ourselves that if we were going to make this show, the songs have to be as diverse and dynamic as the real place in New York City," said Josh Gad, who created the show with "Bob's Burgers" vets Loren Bouchard and Norah Smith. "You can't depend on just one or two songwriters to accomplish that massive workload without it quickly sounding redundant."

The "lively, lovely, lyrical" series, as Times TV critic Robert Lloyd describes it, centers on a park manager (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.) who lives on-site with his family (Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell and Tituss Burgess) and tries to protect the beloved public space from numerous villains. We're talking gum chewers, flower stompers and greedy billionaires.

Gad set out to "assemble 'The Avengers of musical theater'" -- including Sara Bareilles, Fiona Apple and Cyndi Lauper -- to write songs with clever punchlines, catchy hooks and thoughtful commentary on real-world matters. The Times got the story behind the standout show tunes in the initial trio of episodes, now available on Apple TV+:

Episode 1: "Central in My Heart"

Gad, who voices the show's troubadour narrator, leads a spectacular opening number that introduces the park's many people and pastimes, and its role as the city's defining public space. Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, who also wrote Gad's songs in the Disney short "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," penned the love letter to the park they both previously frequented (Samsel busked as a violinist, and Anderson fundraised for Shakespeare in the Park).

 

Thankfully, animation allows for the kickoff to showcase the park's variety and versatility. "In theater, you only get so many actors and so many costumes, so writers are usually limited in what we can do," said Samsel of the song, initially drafted three years ago. "It was so fun to be able to dream something up and then see what the animators came up with."

In addition to spotlighting the park's various areas and amenities, the songwriters wanted to briefly address its "dark chapter" -- the destruction of the predominantly African American community Seneca Village. "We wanted to touch on that without brushing over it in a joke, because their land was taken to make the park, in a way where they didn't have a choice," said Anderson, who is also developing a live-action musical movie about this historical event with Samsel and Gad.

Episode 2: "Make 'Em Pay"

Stanley Tucci voices the series' primary rival: Bitsy Brandenham, an elderly hotelier trying to turn the park into a business district. During a frustrating meeting with fellow investors, she enters a musical dream sequence in which she shares her backstory and vengeful motivations.

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