Central Park cast and creator on bringing an animated musical to television
What do you get when you combine the mastermind behind Bob's Burgers and the voice of Olaf the snowman?
The animated series follows a lovable family that lives in the titular New York City landmark. There's park caretaker Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.); his journalist wife, Paige (Kathryn Hahn); and their preteen children, Cole (Tituss Burgess) and Molly (Kristen Bell). When wealthy heiress Bitsy (Stanley Tucci) comes up with a scheme to buy Central Park with help from her long-suffering assistant, Helen (Daveed Diggs), the family must unite to save their beloved park. Narrator Birdie (Gad) presides over the proceedings with wry commentary, as well as advice for Owen and his family.
Bouchard describes his first meeting with Gad as "a blind date." The idea was Gad's initially, and the two were set up by their representatives, but Bouchard said he had a lot to learn about making a full-blown musical series. "Musicals are something I've loved a lot," he tells EW. "There are musical lovers who are far more passionate than I, but they are really near and dear to my heart. I've also always loved animated musicals. The classic golden Disney movies are musicals; music and animation go together really well. What we didn't know was just what it means to do a real musical. [Bob's Burgers] is a show that has music in it, so we joined forces with real musical people. Josh brought all these real capital-M musical people."
Those musical people include Tony winners Diggs and Odom, and another Broadway darling in Burgess. As Gad puts it, "If I'm gonna do a musical, I want to team up with the Avengers of musical theater."
Though they have plenty of experience in musical theater and have also worked previously in animation, Odom and Burgess hadn't had much opportunity to combine the two mediums until now. "I found that I had to be as theatrical as I would be on stage in the [recording] booth," Burgess tells EW. "I certainly pulled from my theater roots to make Cole more expressive."
Odom echoes this, noting that he employed skills he picked up in drama school (coincidentally, he was a classmate of Gad's at Carnegie Mellon University). "A lot of the time we're given the material very, very late — like the night before," he says. "So you're in bed and you're going to read it in the morning in the booth. It requires full commitment. I get to be as wild and outrageous and ridiculous as I can possibly push myself to be right off the bat. And then they draw it and make it funny."
For Bouchard's part, switching to a fully musical format required entirely rethinking the writing process. "When we're doing an episode of Bob's and you decide to throw a song in there, it can be a little trick that picks up the energy in the middle of the story," he says. "It's a whole different thing if you're talking about four songs per episode. You're really reorganizing what the meat is in the sandwich. What's the core? It is the songs. It shifts from being comedy first to being a musical first. You still have to be funny if you can; hopefully you're going to try to make an entertaining story. But you really do need the songs to be the tentpoles that hold everything else up."
This meant in addition to the cast and writers, they required a songwriting team. Gad brought in Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, whom he'd worked with on a Frozen holiday special. They formed the core of the team, which quickly expanded to include guest artists on every episode. They're mum on who that includes, but Gad teases, "As the season progresses, you'll see a couple of very familiar faces popping up to write songs that are going to blow your socks off."
The score itself jumps genres, ranging from standard musical theater fare to hip-hop to pop ballads and more. Hahn and Burgess name "Weirdos Make Great Superheroes," from an early episode, as their favorite song of the season, while Odom says his is a date-night-focused song in later episodes that he characterizes as "bedroom R&B."
Bouchard recognizes that it may be an odd time to be debuting a series about a crowded public space. "It feels really weird to keep telling stories about the world as we knew it not that long ago, but I also think of it as an act of hope," he says. "Optimism is really important to me. It's something I like expressing through animation, so here we are telling a story about a place that we're not supposed to visit right now but that we hope to.
"Talking about taking care of a park is a little bit like taking care of everything," he adds. "Civic life has to be nurtured and taken care of and public spaces and all that. I like pushing myself to think about the things I take for granted."
Perhaps Gad sums it up best. "I really think Central Park is the great equalizer," he says. "It's where the poorest person and the richest person in New York City can both walk and it doesn't matter. It's the one place where everybody is an equal and everybody is using the park for the same purpose. It's a breath of fresh air in a concrete jungle, this green oasis that speaks to the possibilities of human kind."
Central Park premieres May 29 on AppleTV+.