Going from “Bob’s Burgers” to “Central Park” was a great fit for Loren Bouchard. Drawn to both family stories and songs, it became a natural progression to embrace a Broadway-style animated musical, with co-creator Josh Gad, devoted to the community within Manhattan’s beloved park. The Apple TV+ series thus contains a sense of spectacle and diversity that work well in animation.
“A musical felt like a natural next step for us, and I’m an old fart so talking about trees and flowers and public space also appealed,” Bouchard said. “The epic scope of it sort of emerged and evolved as we were working on it. We like telling stories about underdogs who find themselves in a position to save their world. But with Central Park, that world is pretty big — so the scale keeps creeping up.”
Gad serves as the amiable but unreliable narrator Birdie (inspired by Roger Miller’s rooster, Alan-a-Dale, from Disney’s animated “Robin Hood”), a busker who tells the story of how Central Park’s manager Owen (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his biracial family attempt to save the park from a land grab by greedy heiress Bitsy (Stanley Tucci). The other family members include Paige (Kathryn Hahn), his new reporter wife; Molly (Kristen Bell), his daughter, who draws superhero comics; and Cole (Tituss Burgess), his animal-loving son. Meanwhile, Helen (Daveed Diggs), Bitsy’s assistant, secretly plots her revenge after enduring constant abuse.
Casting, of course, was key, with the voice actors signed early so the story could be built around them. Gad and Bell reunited after the “Frozen” franchise (but Bell has dropped out of voicing Molly in Season 2 to honor more accurate racial casting). Likewise, Odom and Diggs reunited after “Hamilton” — and it is Tucci and Diggs who steal the show with their marvelous gender swapping.
“Finding voices and characters for a show is maybe a bit like putting together a jazz quintet to record an album or something like that,” Bouchard said. “You hope that in addition to being unique talents by themselves, that they will complement and pleasingly contrast with each other. If you take Daveed and Stanley as examples, they’re very different but by making them two older women who spend a lot of time together, you hopefully find a bit of something in their voices and in their performance style that connects them.”
The world building of “Central Park” was extensive to establish plot points and locations for each episode. The writing team (including co-creator Nora Smith from “Bob’s Burgers” and showrunners Halsted Sullivan from “The Office” and Sanjay Shah from “Fresh Off the Boat”) researched events that have occurred in the park and pulled reference imagery for the animation team at Bento Box. And they had a trusty map highlighting popular sites in the writers’ room that kept them mostly grounded in historical accuracy.
“The real life details that you can weave into an animated show give it a bit of depth and texture that gives the audience permission to take the thing a bit more seriously than a Saturday morning cartoon,” Bouchard said. “In the case of ‘Central Park,’ we have an incredibly deep and wide world of stuff to pull from. Even when we’re in Los Angeles, we can spend time on the Central Park Conservancy website learning about how they pick up the garbage, and on CentralPark.org learning about the history and some of the quirkier details, and we can ‘drop the little man’ on almost any path in the park, in Google Earth.”
But it’s the sweep of the musical numbers and eclectic mix of songs that keep “Central Park” rolling along. The opening theme song was crucial in selling the show (Gad recruited Kate Samsel and Elyssa Anderson, the duo from “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”), but their empowering “Own It” became the showstopper.
“For me, it wasn’t until I heard ‘Own It’ that I came to understand the true depth of talent that Samsel and Anderson bring to their craft,” Bouchard said. “That song has surprising little twists in the melody and the rhythm, and great turns of phrase and jokes, and, in my opinion, announces the show in a deeper, more profoundly musically interesting way. It’s a showcase for the talent, separately and together, and it’s still in my head, to this day. I frequently hear phrases play back in my mind, like: ‘I don’t miss you, little shih tzu.’ Each [of their songs] is a dazzling ear worm.”
Brent Knopf, who helped with “The Bleakening” Christmas special for “Bob’s Burgers,” came in with a different musical direction for the skating rallying cry, “Do It While We Can.” “To me, it brings a pure pop R&B vibe to the series right where we needed it (at the end of the second episode, ‘Skater’s Circle’),” Bouchard continued, “and it promises something important, which is that this series is going to give you hook-y, dance-able musical numbers too.
“Obviously, by having a guest song writer for every episode, we’re also making good on the promise to have a diverse sound. It’s been so fun to work with some of our heroes and bring their voices into our world — we feel beyond lucky to have those songs in the show.”