Ten years ago, at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, two songwriters walked into the room wearing the same outfit. Completely unplanned, these two were then paired together. Ever since, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel have been inseparable, writing whimsical lyrics and catchy melodies that make people laugh and smile.
“We lived five blocks away,” says Anderson. “It was love at first sight, and we just immediately hit it off.”
“We were so excited when we found each other because we wanted to create more female songwriting teams in the world,” adds Samsel.
In addition to penning the score for the upcoming musicals Between the Lines at the Tony Kiser Theater Off-Broadway and The Book Thief at the Octagon Theatre in the U.K., the pair have been hard at work writing songs for the Josh Gad-produced Central Park on Apple TV+. The animated musical series created by Loren Bouchard, Gad, and Nora Smith, follows a family who lives in the NYC park and must protect it from scheming outsiders. Since debuting May 29 on the streaming service, new episodes release every Friday.
The show features an all-star cast voiced by Broadway favorites. Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. stars as Owen Tillerman, a family man who is also Central Park’s manager with married to Paige Tillerman, a determined investigative journalist voicedby Kathryn Hahn. Tony winner Daveed Diggs plays the assistant to socialite Bitsy (voiced by Stanley Tucci), who wants to buy Central Park and turn it into a commercialized development. Tituss Burgess and Kristen Bell* play Owen and Paige’s children, the dog-loving Cole and comic book creator Molly, respectively. Gad plays Birdie, a Central Park busker who also serves as the show’s rule-breaking narrator.
With this powerhouse cast and slate of quirky, weird, and loveable characters, Anderson and Samsel sit on a goldmine of musical fodder. “The creators did a great job of fleshing out the characters early on and giving them distinct voices,” says Anderson.
They compose about four songs for each episode. Some numbers forward the plot, and others are charming ditties that simply comment on the action.
“It is such a gift to hand songs over to these talented performers,” says Anderson. “That alone is such a source of inspiration for us.” The pair demo each song sending off to the cast, which creates ultimate specificity in their writing experience because they write for the performer versus writing a musical and casting it later.
“We never have to scale the song back or limit the range,” says Samsel. “Getting to write for these actors helps make this one of TV’s first true musicals in serialized form. It’s the most fun challenge of our lives.”
It’s no easy feat to create four distinct earworms in a 22-minute episode, but if anyone can do it, this duo can.
Samsel writes the catchy melodies to hook viewers and Anderson writes the lyrics to stick the landing. “We tend to gravitate towards patter and fun, quippy lyrics,” says the lyricist. “And I think Elyssa makes such joyful melodies that are so catchy and earwormy and get stuck in your head in the best way.”
“We always have a good dose of whimsy...and douse it in optimism,” adds Samsel. “Our first instinct is to write it from a place of positivity.”
“We write what we feel tickled by, and it works, because we’re always trying to make each other laugh,” explains Anderson. “When we stop overthinking and stop trying to make something perfect, we come up with some of our loosest work.”
Songs like “Imperfectly Perfect” are an example of this. After several debacles, including a wildly embarrassing boyfriend visit, the Tillerman family sings together about being good at being imperfect, and then, in a moment of comedic genius from the songwriters, all four characters end on the wrong note.
This cleverness cuts through the series throughout. In the first episode, as Paige sings her verse in “Own It”: “Gonna bust in headfirst like a badass boss lady mom of two / Like a one chick Bernstein and Woodward, too.” The music feels upbeat and punchy, to ensures audiences root for Paige.
And, in this animated world, inanimate objects are characters, too. The Frederick Law Olmsted-designed green jewel of Manhattan earns storylines and songs, too. The show’s opening number is an ode to Central Park, titled “Central to My Heart.”
“Central Park is really near and dear to us, we both worked there,” says Samsel. “I think in the excitement of understanding the park and giving it a musical sound, it was important to have it be incredibly diverse in the way that you would hear going through it, like bucket drummers, mariachi bands, and people blasting their own music. You can hear so many different styles and we wanted to celebrate and incorporate that in the show.”
To add even more variety, the showrunners have brought in the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and Alan Menken to pen one song each. “We were helped a lot to have guest artists come in and make sure there’s some unexpected flavor,” says Samsel.
As if those names weren’t enough to pull in theatre fans, another slew of Broadway celebrities lend their vocal talents as guest stars. Among the voices heard (speaking and singing!) so far are Andrew Rannells (Gad’s Book of Mormon co-star), as a character who tries to take over as narrator, and Christopher Jackson as a skateboarder.
Even with all of the star power, Central Park is still Anderson and Samel’s show. And they’re one of the first female songwriting duos to write for a musical TV series.
“The first mind-blowing experience was when I looked at the sheet music for ‘Taylor, the Latte Boy’ and I saw ‘Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’ written on the top,” says Samsel of the 2004 musical theatre number. “I’ve been musically trained since the age of six and I had never seen two female names on a piece of music.”
Women like Heisler, Goldrich, and, as the team notes, Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Anderson’s older sister), add “beautifully complicated and specific” voices to theatre. “The point-of-view is so true to that of a woman,” says Anderson. “We wanted to try our hand at that.”
So far, they’ve succeeded, finding a central place in fan’s hearts.