Meet the Women Who Give ‘Central Park’ Its Sunny Sound

Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson were told they would need to find men if they wanted to be successful songwriters. “We were both advis...


Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson were told they would need to find men if they wanted to be successful songwriters.

“We were both advised, if you want to make it in this career, to go find a male partner and become a cute little duo,” Samsel recalled recently. “You’ll have a better shot if you’re writing alongside a guy.”

Instead, they found each other.

After separately pursuing acting in their early 20s, the two women 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 overwhelmingly dominated by men. (Since 1947, the Tony for best original score has been awarded to women without male partners only three times.)

“Any time we tried to be uber-professional or pretended to be more masculine to be taken seriously, it inhibited the experience,” Anderson said. “We’ve learned that when we show up and we’re just who we are, joyous and optimistic, it creates the best collaborations.”

Those collaborations include working with the author Jodi Picoult on two upcoming musicals — an off-Broadway adaptation of her book “Between the Lines” and a production of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” — and creating the songs for Disney’s 2017 “Frozen” featurette, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” The Disney job came through a recommendation from Anderson’s older sister, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who, 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” ear worm “Agatha All Along,” among other acclaimed pieces for the 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 of “Bob’s Burgers”), suggested Samsel and Anderson after working with them on “Olaf.”

“We worked hard to get these opportunities, but you can’t discount that so much of that was luck,” Anderson, 34, said. “These incredible people being like: ‘Hey, I’m going to give you a shot. Prove that you can do the work.’”

Anderson, who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., focuses mostly on lyrics, drawing on her improv background to infuse the songs with comedy. Samsel, a classically trained violinist and pianist who grew up in Larchmont, N.Y., and Newtown, Conn., composes.

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

The series, which returns Friday for its second season, relies on original songs to embellish dozens of important moments in the show, as when an invasive species comes to Harlem Meer or when Owen helps his tween daughter shop for a bra. Samsel and Anderson usually provide one to three tracks per episode, with rotating guests like Rufus Wainwright, Ingrid Michaelson, Supercommuter and Cyndi Lauper penning additional songs about things 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. Voice actors were sent microphones to record, and Samsel and Anderson, who would normally collaborate in person, crafted their songs on video calls before emailing the team their latest work.

Composing in quarantine — while, at the same time, watching their live theater premieres be postponed until at least 2022 — invoked “a lot of emotions all at once,” Samsel, 33, said. Anderson added: “It really kept us connected and our spirits high to have ‘Central Park’ and that inspiration flowing. We were just so grateful to be working.”

In a recent video interview from Los Angeles, the two discussed what’s ahead on “Central Park,” their early songwriting inspirations and their hopes for a new “Golden Age” of movie musicals. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What is the songwriting process like for “Central Park”?

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

ELYSSA SAMSEL In Season 2, they would give us either a script or an outline and set us free to figure out whatever the hook of the song was going to 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 get as much plot into the song as possible, whether we’re given a script, a paragraph or just like “throw a song here.”

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

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

SAMSEL The cast is beyond our wildest dreams. You get to imagine those words in Daveed Diggs’s mouth or Kathryn Hahn’s mouth or in Leslie Odom Jr.’s angelic voice. It helps to have them as muses.

Kristen Bell, who played the family daughter, Molly, last season, was one of several white actors in the animation industry who stepped down from voicing characters of color last year. She was replaced by Emmy Raver-Lampman — what can viewers expect from her?

SAMSEL There’s this one song in Episode 203 called “Trying Too Hard,” and it’s all Emmy and she was incredible.

ANDERSON Emmy singing this song elevated it. It’s a really universal message, that feeling of splitting yourself into a million pieces to try to please everybody and ultimately empowering yourself to be OK with who you are. Having Emmy come in Season 2, we were really excited to have not just her voice but her person on that song.

One of this season’s highlights is an emotional violin busking montage in Episode 6. Elyssa, you used to busk in Central Park like Josh Gad’s character, Birdie. Did you draw on your own experience?

SAMSEL There’s something about being a street performer where people want to open up to you. I heard some really beautiful stories from perfect strangers who would tell me, you know, “My father loved violin and he passed away recently.” I didn’t have much to offer other than listening. So, when Loren asked if I wanted to write a five-minute violin piece, I think I had a heart attack first, 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 either of you doing any secret “Central Park” voice work?

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

SAMSEL Any time Birdie is playing, I get to use my violin. Sometimes I use the same violin that I played with in Central Park.

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

SAMSEL At 20, I remember being in an audition and I saw sheet music [“Taylor the Latte Boy”] that had Marcy Heisler’s and Zina Goldrich’s names on the top of it. I had this epiphany that those were two women’s names on top of a piece of sheet music. I had never seen that before, and I’d been playing and writing music since I was 6. So I started researching other women in this business, and it all led me to finally getting into that workshop, meeting Kate and realizing that there was an avenue for female songwriters.

ANDERSON I was at this precipice in life where I was like, I really think I could be good at comedy. “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon” were [popular] at that time, and that sort of made me realize, oh, I can be funny in this way. 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’re still setting up examples. We’re starting to see more and more women choosing this as a 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 outright? No. Did we feel like, perhaps that thing didn’t happen or they only gave us this percentage of the work because we were young and because we were women? Yeah. But we always have lived by the philosophy of: Persist and just let our work speak for itself.

SAMSEL We have always been overachievers. When we tried to get “Between the Lines,” we were auditioning on spec and we wrote way more songs than we were supposed to, and we landed that job. When we were up for “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” with Disney, we followed the same plan of action where we overwrote the audition because we just had this enthusiasm that couldn’t be bottled up.

Kate, what’s it like having Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez in the family?

ANDERSON They’re just unreal. Not only did Kristen blow the doors wide open for females in general, but having that living example so close to us has made Elyssa and I never doubt for a second that we could have it, too.

SAMSEL The first time I ever met Kristen, she let me sleep in her office after my apartment had been broken into. She exhibits the kind of generosity that Kate and I strive to also have toward others.

ANDERSON That said, she always has notes.

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

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

SAMSEL One project that really has us excited is something we are working on with Blake Lively and her production company, B for Effort. It’s a musical, I think in the film space.

Your goal used to be to have a show on Broadway. Is that still the dream?

SAMSEL We’d really like to create a Broadway within movies, to have that Golden Era of those MGM musicals happen now with a slew of movie musicals.

ANDERSON Of course, Broadway is still the goal. But is it the ultimate goal? Not anymore. I’d say it is one of many, many ultimate goals.

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