“Central Park” creator Josh Gad actually called the election results early during a Zoom call with the show’s composers Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel. “I’ll never forget that because we all just cried, and then he was like, ‘No wait, never mind that was a fake news article,’” Samsel says. Gad, who also stars in the series 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 navigate living in and caring for the world’s most famous park. Molly (Emmy Raver-Lampman replaces Kristen Bell) experiences the trials and tribulations of adolescence, Cole (Tituss Burgess) is challenged by a truly embarrassing moment at school, Paige (Kathryn Hahn) continues to chase down the mayor’s corruption story, and Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) juggles managing 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 over Zoom calls when it came to writing the season’s songs. Many were reminiscent of showstopping Broadway numbers; other times they were writing pop ballads inspired by Ariana Grande for Raver-Lampman. Below, they talk about writing the show’s musical beats, and Samsel shares her personal story about the violin solo in this week’s episode.
Following the huge success of season one, and the show being renewed for a third season, what was the idea behind the music for the second season?
Kate Anderson: Since we had built the foundation and world of these characters, we had the creative license to take that and blow it apart. That was something we were excited to explore, and something creator Loren Bouchard did a really good job of pushing everybody to think outside the box and do these weird episodes. We went into fantasy worlds and Molly’s comic book mind. It was a fun challenge, and also, it just hit differently because we were in lockdown living in our fantasy world of imagining what it was like to have this life.
I love the opening number in the first episode, “Middle of It All.” Not only did it have this fun theatrical vibe to it, but It was a reintroduction to the characters. What was the idea behind that?
Elyssa Samsel: It does. It serves as that second act of a theater show with that theatricality to it. I think both of us were excited to bring back the theme of “Central in My Heart” (the opening song) because we don’t always get asked to bring back themes. And coming from theater, we do love a good reprise.
We were so fortunate to be asked to bring that idea back, and then do it in a completely new way. We also love relying on this group of actors because they’re all such incredible vocalists, knowing that we can write a six-part harmony for the lead characters and then each one of them is going to hold it so well and make it such a powerful performance. With a song like that, it is a great opportunity to really utilize their strengths and just dig into those harmonies and let it be an ensemble showcase for what is just an incredible cast.
Was that the first song you wrote for the season, and how did you crack it?
Anderson: I think it was that. They came to us saying they wanted to ease everybody back in the season to remind them who the characters are, but it should feel like getting into a warm bath or something comforting. Elyssa and I wanted to do something that felt like a sigh.
There is also Molly who has such incredible songs this season. Can you talk about writing for her and the soaring ballads you gave Emmy Raver-Lampman?
Samsel: We were so excited to write for her and to write a more earnest pop ballad for Molly’s character. The brief of that episode was something we loved so much, this idea that she was struggling with trying to be all these different things. And that’s something that the two of us really bonded over because as women we feel like we have to be a thousand different things and they all contradict each other.
To get to write this pop song, it’s emotional for Molly, but a dream come true for us knowing Emmy was going to sing it. We wanted to write an homage to Imogen Heap and other vocalists like Ariana Grande who layer vocals on top of each other and create this beautiful ethereal quality. It’s just this love letter to Emmy’s voice because it’s so emotional and encapsulates feelings.
Talk about the challenge of writing music and the lyrics over zoom and how that impacted the camaraderie of usually being in the same room together.
Anderson: The writers’ rooms were happening on Zoom, and then they would come to us. So we always had that outsider perspective which was cool and worked well because what Elyssa and I like to do is crack the puzzle of the song. We try to find the way through a hook or unlock the answer to the song and something that fits what a character is trying to say. So, the two of us work as our unit and we didn’t see one anyone for months; we just stayed connected through these screens.
There were days where I certainly was like, “Oh man, I think some of the toughness is going to get into the song a little bit.” There were also days where I could use this as the escape and thought, “Let’s be extra joyful and extra silly and I’d really go that extra step in imagining what these characters would be and in that fantasy world.”
Samsel: The show really became our lifeline because anytime we got assigned to write, whether it be two songs in an episode or more, it would become the reason for getting up that day and for getting on Zoom. That was where we were going to get our joy from that day and making the showrunners laugh or them making us laugh became everything. We’d be working with an actor while they were struggling with their home setup. We’d sent them microphones and they would be figuring out how to record themselves and you can hear that they’re also trying to be as patient and possible. That connection was the highlight of every single day, having a show to work on and having a reason to continue to try to uplift other people. If we can get one person to laugh at that joke in the song, then that made it a successful day for us.
Anderson: We were on a recording session with Kathryn Hahn and we were awaiting the election results and that was all anybody could talk about. There were a lot of raw moments on those calls and a lot of laughs.
Samsel: Josh called the election, early, but he ended up being right. I’ll never forget that because we all just cried, and then he was like, “No wait, never mind that was a fake news article.” It was a roller coaster, but he was right in the end.
Elyssa, in this new episode with the violin, can you talk about the story behind it, because I hear it’s 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 that’s really a scary thing to be asked. But also, what an opportunity to write something like that and then have them animate it. It was a huge risk that 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 to have five to six minutes of just a solo violin and be able to tell a story with that was amazing.
It was a full-circle moment and it reminded me of when I was playing my violin in the park, and people would pass by. There’s that part of the story that leaned into is what it means to be seen and heard and to connect with another person. Getting to tell that story musically and then see it come to life in the animation was I think probably my favorite thing I’ve ever gotten to write, thus far.
Anderson: When I first met Elyssa, that’s what she did for a job, She would pay me in dollar bills for a subway ticket I bought. She always talks about how people would have to stop her in the park and want to tell her their story just because she was playing her violin there.
Samsel: I think being vulnerable in any situation in life encourages others to be vulnerable as well. So, if you’re standing on the street and you’re playing an instrument, you’re making yourself vulnerable.