Before Josh Gad was the Book of Mormon-acting, Olaf-voicing, YouTube reunion-hosting star he is today, he was a nervous young prospect, hoping to make it on Broadway. “New York, before LA was even a twinkle in my eye, was my end game,” he tells Deadline. But on the day he auditioned in the city for his dream school, Carnegie Mellon University, he felt wracked with worry he wouldn’t get in. “I felt a little bit hopeless and helpless, and I remember looking up and being like, ‘Oh God, give me a sign that everything will be okay.’ Which is so cliché, I admit. But I took a step into Central Park and, I kid you not, it literally started dusting snow as I stepped off the concrete and onto the grass. And it was magical. I mean, it was like being on the backlot of a studio. It sort of put me at peace.”
The green oasis that once calmed Gad’s fears all those years back then, and continues to bring respite to its many daily visitors now, is the backdrop for the Apple TV+ animated musical series Gad created, together with Bob’s Burgers’ Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith. Set within the park’s 840 acres of greenery, the series follows caretaker Owen Tillerman (voiced by Leslie Odom Jr.), his journalist wife Paige (Kathryn Hahn), their daughter Molly (until recently, voiced by Kristen Bell), and their son Cole (Tituss Burgess), as wealthy heiress Bitsy Brandenham (Stanley Tucci) and her lackey assistant Helen (David Diggs) attempt to buy up the park and turn the land into condos.
Deadline spoke to Gad about creating the series, which combines his love of musicals with animation.
DEADLINE: Central Park is an unabashed love of something, in this case, Central Park, in a world where it’s not always cool to wear your heart on your sleeve like this. The show’s brand of anti-cynicism takes on a more poignant note during the pandemic—especially as it celebrates public space and being around people. Where does that come from? Where did the show’s premise come from?
JOSH GAD: It literally comes from recognizing that there is a monopoly on cynicism right now. And look, I’m a viewer who loves a good cynical show. I love shows that offer a bleak outlook as an artistic window. But it felt like there was also this vacuum where there wasn’t something that was just pure joy. There wasn’t something that could lift our spirits. There wasn’t something that could make us smile. Now, this decision was made three years ago, and the world was a much different place then at the time of the show’s release. And I don’t think Loren, nor Nora or I could have ever predicted that this show would be coming out at a time when presumably humanity would need it the most. And I think that for us, it was just, à la Bob’s Burgers, an opportunity to make a love letter to humanity itself. To passion, to the passion of perseverance against all odds. And to not only public spaces, but specifically to a city that many of us have either lived in, or at the very least gone to as a tourist, and in the midst of it, found this green oasis. And that felt like something that was worthy of this endeavor, especially when mixed with my other passion, which is music.
DEADLINE: The show packs a lot of information in about the park itself. The episode “Garbage Ballet” goes into the logistics of collecting the trash, and in the opening song you mention that “it used to be a village, but no one talks about that.” How did you decide how far to go with the historic elements of the park itself versus the imaginative parts of it?
GAD: Well, Loren Bouchard, who is my co-creator, who created Bob’s Burgers, he is so devoted to information. And he’s so devoted to research. It is sort of shocking to me that more people don’t know that Central Park used to be Seneca Village. And that Seneca Village was literally taken from the inhabitants, who were primarily Black, some Irish, and they were just removed from the land. And that part of it was something we just felt we wanted to acknowledge immediately. What was so interesting was how many people wrote us back, “Oh my God, wait, is this true?” I think, over the course of the last few weeks, people now have a new understanding of that history. It’s something that I think we definitely continue to want to address on the show. Again, our show is all about lifting our spirits, so it’s a balancing act for sure.
Interestingly enough, I’m working on another project, that’s a film, that’s all based around that. So to me, it’s all important. And the nuance of not only the park’s history, but the city’s sort of cogs and wheels that nobody pays attention to—how the sausage gets made—that was something that felt really important to creating the fabric of the series, and ensuring that it was also an educational experience without it being pedantic, or without it hitting you over the head. It’s always great when you can give the audience something that they didn’t know, and we continue to strive to do just that.
DEADLINE: You have brought together an all-star cast who each really carry the songs or the raps that are written for them. What has it been like seeing them bring to life these characters through the animation? Because it’s not just the voice you get, it’s the whole actor who steps into that role.
GAD: A hundred percent. Loren, when he and I first endeavored to create Central Park, Loren gave me some advice that I found really liberating and wonderful. He said—and this was before we had even created any of the characters on the series—he said, “The first thing you want to do is surround yourself with people that you’re prepared to go into battle with for the next [however long it may be]. In the case of Bob’s Burgers, 10-plus years, right? And you want to bring people that you love, people that you admire, people that you see yourself wanting to write for.” And so I did just that. I set out to create the sort of Avengers of musical theater. And I reached out to my college classmate, Leslie Odom Jr., a Tony winner for Hamilton. My friend, another Tony winner from Hamilton, Daveed Diggs. Kristen Bell, my co-star from Frozen, Kathryn Hahn. And of course, Tituss Burgess, who I had long admired. And Stanley Tucci, who I’d worked with on Beauty and the Beast. And so then once we had this insane cast assembled Loren and I looked at each other and said, “Okay, we should probably create characters.” It was just amazing because everybody from the beginning just took a leap of faith on us. And before we even had anything just committed to the idea, or the kernel of an idea about doing a big musical set in Central Park.
DEADLINE: Animation allows you to play around with those characters—in the show you have Daveed Diggs voicing a female character—but Kristen Bell stepped down from voicing Molly, the daughter of a black father and a white mother. How do you know how far you can play with the roles before it becomes problematic?
GAD: For us, it’s about representation. And that has been our guiding principle and continues to be our guiding principle. There are, in the history of animation and the history of film and TV, far less opportunities for people of color and for people who are mixed than there are for people who are white. And we missed the mark. I’ve owned it. I said in so many ways, we made a mistake, and it’s not enough to just say that. You have to actually put your money where your mouth is. Thankfully, in Kristen Bell, we had such an unbelievable, not only collaborator, but somebody who has never shied away from—to borrow a phrase from her character in Frozen 2—almost doing ‘the next right thing.’ And she, and we all, understood that we had to do better. She was gracious enough to step aside and call upon all of us as creators on the show and beyond, to continue to find opportunities for authentic voices for people who don’t necessarily have that opportunity traditionally. So we couldn’t be more excited about what the future holds in store with regard to finding our next Molly. Or more importantly, to continuing to find opportunities for diversity throughout our show. And that goes for behind the scenes as well. I think that that’s the opportunity that all of us as creators have in front of us. I do look at it as an opportunity. Because I think it makes for a better product. It’s not just about doing the right thing. It’s about the authenticity that it brings to the experience itself. So that’s been our conversation. And we hope to continue to do better with every subsequent decision we make.
DEADLINE: The songs make it a full-fledged musical. How does the in-house team work with the guest composers, from the likes of Anthony Hamilton to Sara Bareilles?
GAD: It was very important to me from the beginning that we made this a true musical in every sense of the word, and that meant that we had to do three to four songs an episode, which is insane to accomplish in 24 to 26 minutes of TV. Part of what makes it so difficult is to create that much content, you really just can’t rely, or shouldn’t rely, on any one or two composers. You need a stable. I had worked with Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, two brilliant composers who had done Olaf’s Frozen Adventure a few years back. And I was blown away because they did the impossible. They took the reins from the extraordinarily talented Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez, and without batting an eye, were able to create songs that belonged alongside some of the greatest songs, in my opinion, in animation history. So I was really floored by their talent. And I reached out to them and I said, “Would you guys be willing to sort of help us with the proof of concept of this idea?” And they wrote the song “Central To My Heart,” which was from the beginning one of those songs that was just so magical. And then we knew off of that proof of concept that we had an opportunity to continue to have them drive a lot of music forward.
But in addition to that, we knew we had to alleviate some of the burden on them. So I pitched having a new composer for every episode, which on paper sounds great, but in reality, when trying to pitch a new series to people who have never seen it, or don’t know about it, proves much more difficult. So again, it all becomes a leap of faith, like our cast took on us. And in this case, it was reaching out to friends—some of the core people like Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper. Once they were willing to jump on board, it becomes a much easier conversation. To go to people like Anthony Hamilton, who we didn’t have a relationship with, or Aimee Mann, or countless others, and Meghan Trainor, et cetera, and to say to them, “Okay, we have this opportunity. Would you like to come and play with us?”
And for some, it was them coming to us. Like, Darren Criss was like, “I never get a chance to write songs and I would love to do that.” We’re like, “Oh my God, yes, play around on our show.” And for others, it was very much us banging down their door again, and again, and again, until they finally caved because it was easier than saying no. It’s been extraordinary. And what we do, me alongside our incredible creative team on the music side, led by Frank Ciampi, Patrick Dacey, and many others, we basically create a sort of document that reflects the characters at this point in their journey—who they are, where they need to go and what the song needs to do. And alongside that, we provide them with the script of the episode, along with footage from the show.
DEADLINE: It must be so fulfilling for you to play a role like Birdie, because it combines so many of your passions together. And you get to write and produce the series as well, touching on all of those marks. I understand you’re busy on Season 2, right now?
GAD: We are literally in the midst of Season 2, and it’s been truly remarkable to see the determination and the execution of so many amazingly talented people from their homes. We have this extraordinary producer named Janelle [Momary-Neely], who has been like a sorceress in the midst of this crisis, where she’s kept all the trains on track. And our amazing showrunners, Halsted Sullivan and Sanjay Shah have continued to write these extraordinary scripts. And we have our actors performing from their homes through kits that we’ve sent to them. We have our composers writing and producing tracks from home. And most importantly, we have our extraordinary artists who, on their home computers, are continuing to create television for everybody in the midst of this impossible moment we find ourselves in. It’s really been extraordinary, and we’re literally almost at the end of the season with regard to the script-writing phase. Now comes the part where we get the real challenges of actually bringing it to life through color, through audio, through all of that. But so far, touch wood, so good. It’s been remarkable to see everyone come together and rise to the moment.
DEADLINE: What did it mean for you, personally, to have the show come out during the pandemic, given that Broadway remains closed for the rest of the year, and there’s so much uncertainty?
GAD: It means everything. There isn’t much I can say that I can give to the world at this most desperate hour it finds itself in. I’m not an essential worker. I’m not somebody who can save lives. I’m not somebody at the forefront of scientific breakthrough. What I can do, hopefully, is bring smiles to you and your loved ones. That, I think, has never been more important. That has never been more necessary. In times of great monumental challenges, like the one we find ourselves in, art has a way of doing the impossible, which is lifting our spirits so that we can go on at least another day. And find the strength to continue to plow through without being completely demolished by our own anxieties or depression.
Our hope with Central Park is that it does nothing more than lift your soul—for those 26 minutes that you watch it, for those three minutes that you listen to a song on iTunes, or for the one minute that you take to watch a clip from the show and hopefully smile. If we can do that, we’ve done our jobs and I can sleep better at night knowing that at least I wasn’t completely useless during what has been the most challenging moment I’ve found myself in during my lifetime.
DEADLINE: And with the song, “Too Close,” you’re also inadvertently reminding people to social distance, which is valuable too.
GAD: That’s right. In the words of my good friend, Andrew Rannells, “Please don’t get too close.”