By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 28, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Disney, Christopher Polk/Getty Images; Apple TVPlus

If you were hoping Josh Gad's new animated series Central Park might pay tribute to Frozenwell, you're going to have to let it go.

Gad, who co-created the series alongside Bob's Burgers masterminds Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith, features as Central Park's narrator, Birdie. Bringing an animated musical to the small screen invites inevitable comparisons to Gad's other most famous animated warbler, Frozen's lovable, naive snowman Olaf. However, the omniscient, offbeat Birdie shares Gad's distinctive gravelly voice with Olaf, but little else.

"Birdie is very different than Olaf," he tells EW. "Olaf has this innocent naivety. Birdie is more of like a scatological narrator, who is not entirely a dependable narrator. Whereas Olaf is new to the world, I very much think of Birdie as an old soul who's been passing through for a long time. He is almost like a guardian angel to Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.). He's just not very good at his job."

The series, which premieres on Apple TV+ May 29, follows a lovable family that lives in New York City's Central Park. There's the park's caretaker Owen, his journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), and their pre-teen 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. Birdie presides over the proceedings with wry commentary, as well as advice for Owen and his family.

Gad admits they did initially write a Frozen joke into the script. "We had a meta-joke and we wound up cutting it because it just felt like a bridge too far," he says. "But there was one joke in there where Birdie came out and somebody said, 'Why did that look so frozen?' and I think Birdie said, 'Why does this feel so familiar?'"

Central Park marks Gad's first time developing an animated musical for television, and the project was a labor of love for him and Bouchard. In advance of the show's May 29 premiere, we called up Gad to talk about everything from his love of musical theater to what it takes to assemble a voice cast and songwriting team from some of Broadway's best.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for this show come from and how did you end up partnering with Loren Bouchard?

JOSH GAD: I had been developing this idea of doing a musical for some time. I didn't know the first thing about developing anything for television animation. I had a couple of ideas, but [all I] really knew was [I] wanted it to take place in Central Park. I wanted it to be musical. That was pretty much it. And that wasn't really getting the job done. So on a whim, my agent said we have a meeting with Loren Bouchard, and I was like there's no way that the genius Loren Bouchard behind Bob's Burgers is going to want to tackle somebody else's project and develop it. Lo and behold, I couldn't have been more wrong. I gave Loren the very simple idea in my head, and Loren brought in Nora Smith and the three of us just went from there and really took a chisel to it. My one thing though was I wanted it to be a musical, and he said, "Well yeah, you know, we do music on Bob's." And I go, "No, no, no you guys do five songs a season on Bob's. I want five songs an episode." That was definitely met with a lot of eyebrow-raising. But to his credit, he stuck with it and we were able to achieve the unthinkable.

You helped create live-action series 1600 Penn, but what made you want to pursue animation on television?

I am a musical theater and a musical nut, right? Whether it's on the stage through shows like 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or Book of Mormon, or on film, with opportunities like Frozen and Beauty and the Beast. So the one area that I hadn't really had a chance to flex that musical muscle was on television. In order to achieve what I wanted to achieve, it really felt like the best way to do it would be in the animated format. It was all about marrying that idea with the right person to execute it. Loren has been such a hero of mine based on the work that he's done on Bob's, which is such a tremendous, brilliant show that he really did feel like the right partner for this particular series to elevate it to that next level that I knew it could go. But the real instinct to want to break into animation was simply, it felt like the best form of storytelling for the kind of thing I was imagining in regards to a musical of that scale.

Obviously, a lot of people are going to see you’re doing an animated musical series and immediately think of Frozen. What was it like striking out from the more kid-focused Disney model?

I've been fortunate to basically have my own test screenings in my house through the process of making the show. I have found that this is the ultimate co-viewing experience that my kids, who are six and nine, laugh and soar from the music as much as my wife, who's obviously my age. So there is definitely an opportunity to cross and appeal to everybody who watches it for different reasons. A lot of the stuff like on The Simpsons and Bob's will go over kid's heads and make for safe viewing, and also, I think really funny viewing for the things that they do catch.

Loren has said you were instrumental in assembling this cast. Can you tell me more about that process and how essential Broadway bonafides were to you?

What's funny is the first thing that Loren said to me before we even had developed any characters was get together a cast that we can build on, a cast of friends that you would want to make a show with for many years to come. He said that to me because that was his process on Bob's. If I'm gonna do a musical, I want to team up with the Avengers of musical theater. My first call was to my friend and colleague Kristen Bell, who I'd had such an incredible time working with on Frozen, and felt like the breadth of her skill in terms of singing hadn't yet been explored to its fullest potential, even in the Frozen films. So she said yes, then when I went to my old college classmate Leslie Odom Jr., and I said to him, "I'm sorry it took you winning a Tony for me to finally offer you a job, but I would love for you to play a character in the show." He said yes. One by one we went down the line from Daveed Diggs to Tituss Burgess to Kathryn Hahn to Stanley Tucci and every single person that I had marked down as a first choice on my list ended up saying yes. At which point, I came back to Loren and said, "Okay, we should probably think about characters now."

So did you build the characters around them then? Particularly, how did you hit on the wackier choices like Stanley Tucci as Bitsy and Daveed Diggs as Helen?

We built the characters almost organically as we started to hear the voices and really think about the kind of family dynamic we wanted and the kind of conflict that we wanted to arise from our duo of Bitsy and Helen. Loren, who has been such a genius at unexpected, vocal narrative for characters, came up with this conceit of this hotel heiress and I immediately said, "Well, Stanley would be incredible and fun and unexpected — and how amazing would it be to have Daveed as his assistant." We played around with making it a male assistant and then one day we got this incredible piece of animation and we saw what it would like as a female assistant, and we said this is insane, but maybe just insane enough to work.

Equally as important is the songwriting team, so how did that come together?

The first call that I made when we were doing this, before even the cast, was to two incredibly talented young ladies, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel. [We] had worked together on the Olaf holiday special from a couple of years ago, and they wrote these three songs that were absolutely incredible. I basically said to them, "Look, I want to do something really ambitious. It's crazy. We need a proof of concept. Can you guys on spec write two songs for a pilot presentation we're doing?" Out of that conversation we were given "Central to My Heart," which literally is basically the way it was when we were presenting it over two years ago for the first time, and a song called "Own It," which was replaced by another song. That moment had been written but once the pilot evolved, it needed to encompass more storytelling. Once both of those songs came in, it became very clear what the potential of this would be. That's when we decided I basically didn't want to rely on two people to do all the songwriting for the entire series because I thought that it would reflect a sound that would become a little predictable. So I pitched the idea of bringing in guest artists, guest composers. I reached out to a platoon of incredibly talented and well-known artists to come in and basically drop the mic in any episode and write something that felt familiar to what they do. It's really blossomed into something beyond my wildest dreams where it could have been.

Do you have a favorite song or musical genre you explore this season?

There are so many different genre-bending motifs that you'll see arise. Any time I hear hip-hop on the show, I have the biggest smile because it just transcends that sort of musical theater-ness and becomes almost a different sound entirely to the show. I can't really say who we've got because I've been sworn to secrecy, but we had some amazing guests that are going to be coming on where they sound so reflexive of what you've come to expect from the artist. 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.

This is a show dedicated to communities gathering in public space. Does it feel at all bittersweet that it's premiering under global circumstances that virtually prevent that?

No, actually, it's just the opposite. It feels like an infusion of joy and a love letter to community and a love letter to passion and a love letter to brushing yourself off in the face of adversity. To me, it's never been more of the moment and more urgent because what we need right now is joy. I don't think it would do anybody any good if we had a musical about people quarantined. My hope is that this show gives you a sense of hope, that it gives you a sense of light at the end of the tunnel.

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