Photo: Crawford Shippey
Josh Gad Talks New Animated TV Show "Central Park" And His Mission To Become A Better Ally
Central Park represents a lot of things for a lot of people. For locals, it's a haven, a much-needed escape from the concrete jungle of New York City. For tourists, it's a must-see destination atop an endless list of can't-miss city stops. Josh Gad's version of Central Park is something all its own.
On "Central Park," his new animated musical TV comedy, now streaming on Apple TV+, the GRAMMY-winning actor and singer paints the beloved NYC landmark as a quirky place offering diverse sounds and colors through the prism of the city. Or as his character on the show, the happy-go-lucky busking narrator Birdie, calls it, "It's like New York, but undressed."
Like the sprawling sight itself, "Central Park" is a unique composite of equally unique parts. There's the all-star cast, which includes GRAMMY winners and "Hamilton" stars Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs, as well as Hollywood giants Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Tituss Burgess and Kathryn Hahn. There's the stellar soundtrack, which features songs written by Fiona Apple, Meghan Trainor, Cyndi Lauper and Sara Bareilles, among many others. Then there's the creative team behind it all, which includes co-creators/co-executive producers Loren Bouchard, the creator of fellow animated hit TV series "Bob's Burgers," Emmy Award winner Nora Smith and Gad himself.
But first and foremost, "Central Park" is a musical, a deliberate move Gad made from the jump.
"When I pitched this idea to Loren Bouchard ... and his partner, Nora Smith, I said to them, 'I want to do a true musical,'" Gad tells the Recording Academy. "'I don't want this to be a pastiche musical, I don't want it to be a spoof of musicals. I don't even want it to be a show with music. I want it to be a musical. I want the songs to be a part of the very fabric of the story, and I want the characters to have no emotional choice but to break out into song.'"
The show follows the Central Park-dwelling Tillerman family, which includes Owen (Odom Jr.), the patriarch of the family who works as the park's manager; Paige (Hahn), the journalist mom of the crew; and their two children, Molly (Bell) and Cole (Burgess). Their home is threatened when hotel tycoon Bitsy Brandenham (Tucci) and her assistant Helen (Diggs) try to turn Central Park into luxury condos.
Despite the show's playfully ominous premise, "Central Park" has become a beacon of light for Gad since it debuted last month (May 29) during the coronavirus-fueled quarantine era.
"It's surreal to see the kind of light it's bringing people in this moment of infinite darkness that we find ourselves in," he says of the show, "and it's a joy to be able to give something that is so joyful to the world."
The Recording Academy chatted with Josh Gad about the creative and musical vision behind "Central Park," the dystopian soundtrack to 2020 and the lessons he's learned while working to become a better ally.
"Central Park" features what I would consider the definition of an all-star cast. The Los Angeles Times described it best: "The Avengers of musical theater." As one of the show's creators and executive producers, how involved were you in the casting? How did you navigate that process?
I was responsible for doing it. It was a conversation that I had with Loren [Bouchard] at the beginning, before we even had a script. He said, "On Bob's Burgers, what we did was we cast the people that we wanted to work with, and then we built characters around them." By casting the people we want to work with, he meant your friends, people that you see yourself doing this with. I reached out to all of the people that I knew I would want to not only work with, but that could legitimately carry a musical and not have it feel like we were bullsh*tting the audience, that we were autotuning anybody, that we were not giving anyone a voice that could legitimately match the incredible level on display in terms of the music that was written for the show.
I began by reaching out to people, like my college classmate Leslie Odom Jr. who had just won a Tony for a glowing performance in "Hamilton." And somebody I admired greatly also from ["Hamilton"], Daveed Diggs; both said yes. Kristen Bell, my co-star from Frozen, it was an immediate yes. And one by one—Tituss Burgess, Kathryn Hahn and Stanley Tucci—all signed on, and Loren and I were just in awe; we just couldn't believe it ... It's been very much about making sure that everyone who comes on really rises to the level of not only being the perfect vocal match for dialogue and the speaking voice, but also for the singing voice.
How do you go about balancing the plot with the songs? Do you write the songs and the show's plot congruently? Are the songs inspired by the plot itself, or vice versa?
It's a bit of both. When I pitched this idea to Loren Bouchard ... and his partner, Nora Smith, I said to them, "I want to do a true musical. I don't want this to be a pastiche musical, I don't want it to be a spoof of musicals. I don't even want it to be a show with music. I want it to be a musical. I want the songs to be a part of the very fabric of the story, and I want the characters to have no emotional choice but to break out into song."
We really tried to make it as cohesive a process as possible. Meaning, every episode we asked the question, "What moments want and need to sing? And what moments of the story feel like they need to be told through music rather than dialogue?" Once we have isolated what those moments are, then we break it down even further and we ask ourselves, "Do we want this song to be a function of the story? To tell us plot? Do we want this song to function as a comedic song? Do we want the song to function as an 'I want' song?"
Once we identify those, then we go to the composers, either our in-house brilliant team of Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel and Brent Knopf, or our guest composers, people like Anthony Hamilton, people like Cyndi Lauper, people like Aimee Mann and Alan Menken, and we then have them bring their magic.
The show has been in production for a few years, prior to the quarantine. Did you have plans to take this show from TV to the stage? Or is that something that's potentially still in progress?
Oh, that hasn't even been broached. People have already started asking that question like yourself, which gives me such joy that people would even consider it to be worthy enough for the stage. I think right now, we're just trying to do our day job and we're in the midst of season two, and we're in the midst of literally creating an entire animated series from our respective homes. That's been the real challenge right now: How do we, in this ever-changing world, keep the wheels turning?
Your character in the show is a huge fan of Central Park. What about you?
I'm a huge fan of "Central Park." I've been a fan of "Central Park" for the past year. It's been a really frustrating thing to not be able to share it with the world until now. It is surreal to see kids already singing these songs in a way that truly reminds me of the experience I've had with Frozen. It's surreal to see the kind of light it's bringing people in this moment of infinite darkness that we find ourselves in, and it's a joy to be able to give something that is so joyful to the world.
So much of the content that is on TV, it has a cynicism about it. What I love about Loren and what I love about Nora is they approach "Bob's [Burgers]" and subsequently "Central Park," along with myself, with a desire to just infuse as much joy into the world as possible.
As far as the songwriting team, were you wanting to keep a regular cast of songwriters and composers? Or were you trying to institute an open-door approach?
Philosophically, my idea from the beginning was, if we're going to write four songs an episode, over 45 songs in a season, I do not want to put the burden on any one or even two individuals. I knew that we needed to have an anchor back at base, if you will, and that anchor became Kate and Elyssa, who I'd worked with on [2017 animated featurette] Olaf's Frozen Adventure years ago. I knew they were geniuses, and similarly Brent Knopf who came out of the "Bob's [Burgers]" world.
In addition to that, I knew that we needed somebody to come in every week and change the dynamic and keep the audience guessing. Then I thought that's what will keep the show fresh. We cast a wide net. The first person we went to, because we felt like she was the perfect match for the song, was, of course, Sara Bareilles. She wrote this incredible song called "Weirdos Make Great Superheroes." It was sort of a test run, but it was such a brilliant slam dunk that it put us all at ease and allowed us to recognize, "OK, this could actually work."
You work a lot in animation. Your credits include the Frozen, Ice Age and Angry Birds Movie franchises, among other titles. What is your attraction to that genre?
I'm attracted to anything that allows for as broad of an audience as possible to enjoy it. The movies that I love the most are movies that I grew up with. Movies that I experienced at 7 or 5 and now watch at 39 and still get such joy and satisfaction out of it. I love a good R-rated film, too, and I love to do them. There is something compelling to me about the broader appeal of those things that really allow for people of all ages to enjoy them, and I think animation, for whatever reason, is part of that tradition. It's got a timelessness, in many cases to it, and an opportunity to transcend any demographic.
You do come from a theater and Broadway background. Lately, you've been really busy with film and TV projects, as well as your YouTube series, "Reunited Apart." Do you ever miss the stage?
Every day, every day. I'd been flirting with doing something with my buddy, Andrew Rannells. We were, sort of like, legitimately looking at, and my prayer is that there is a stage to go back to in 2021, because I know we very much would like to have that opportunity.
Everyone's having a hard time right now with the pandemic, particularly the Broadway world. Have you had difficulty either enjoying your own show or just having a good time in general during this time of quarantine, nationwide protests and civil unrest? Are you able to enjoy the things you're creating?
No, but I'm a glutton for punishment. I genuinely have had a very difficult time enjoying much right now because it's so damn hard. There's so much sadness. There's this virus keeping everyone at home. There's this unbelievable recognition of inequality on the streets. There's so little about 2020 that's been worthy of smiles or worthy of joy. So the joy that I get is from being able to hear others take joy from what I can give. That's where I find my joy.
There is not a moment where I watch "Central Park" and I'm not absolutely floating. But I'm also watching it in critical of myself or critical of things that we could have done better. With that, and with my own neuroses put aside, the real blessing, the real joy, the real sense of fulfillment that I'm getting now is by hearing that it's bringing exactly what it was intended to those who have seen it.
If 2020 were a musical, what would it sound like?
Oh man, probably like the intro to Jaws [Laughs]. Or like the entire soundtrack to Mad Max: Fury Road or Blade Runner [Laughs]. I don't know. Find the most dystopian movie possible and fill in the blank.
The one silver lining that I've heard over and over about this difficult time in our lives is that it will produce great art. Out of the struggles we're all going through as a global community, we will eventually get some amazing art. Do you think that's a possibility?
I think it's a probability. If history has shown us anything in the art community, it's that some of the greatest pieces of art, some of the greatest moments that we have all celebrated in a movie theater or otherwise have been during very difficult times. You look at some of the iconic films, like Casablanca, like The Wizard Of Oz, that come out of these moments like the Second World War, the Great Depression. You look at movies like The Godfather that come out of moments like Vietnam. You look at these tremendous movies that come out of a time when the world seems backed into a corner.
It's a cliche at this point, but Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest plays during the plague. That's telling. That speaks to the potential of all of us, and I see that in movies, I see it in TV, but I especially see it in music. Some of the most powerful songs that I have always found to be some of the most influential in my life are songs that came out of the civil unrest of the 1960s. I see this as a similar opportunity all around.
You've been very vocal on social media about the heavy issues happening in our country right now, with regard to the nationwide protests, racial injustice, civil unrest. Do you consider yourself an ally? What does being a good ally mean to you?
Do I consider myself a good ally? I think you would have to ask others if they consider me a good ally because I feel so weird answering that question. I can tell you that my intention has always [been] to be an ally to everyone who needs it. I say this as someone who grew up hearing about the consequences of not having allies, of not having those who can defend you during times of great need.
My grandparents both lost their entire families during the Holocaust, and the message that they gave me was, "Never forget." But it wasn't a message that ever felt to me like a message specific about Jews. It wasn't a message that ever felt like a message specific to one faith. It was a message about those who need us at times of great need. Those who are looked at as "the other," those who are looking down upon, those who are treated differently. My entire life has been, "Why should anybody be entitled to less than I am?" Because that's what I grew up with. That was the guiding philosophy of the life or death message that my grandparents gave me.
So do I see myself as an ally? I sure damn hope so. Could I do more? Absolutely. I think we could all do more. I think we're learning that right now. I think this is a great reminder and an opportunity, and one of the silver linings of 2020, that great can come out of dark. That we can evolve, we can fight back. We can come together and do more. We can listen more, we can learn more, and I hope to never stop learning. I hope to never stop making mistakes, so that I can be better for that.
Yes, I look at myself as an ally, but I look at myself as an ally who still has a long way to go.
Speaking of learning how to be a better ally, what have you learned so far in the last few months? What have you taken away from everything that you've been doing and everyone you've been talking to lately?
Man, I don't think the messages that I've learned can be put into one interview over a phone call, but I can give you a couple of highlights. I've learned there's so much I don't know. There's so much I don't know about the Black experience. There's so much I don't know about walking down the street and being judged in a way that could be life or death based on the color of your skin. There are so many things that I didn't know about the breadth of pain that so many people in my orbit and beyond have not only been feeling over the last few weeks, but have felt over the last however many years. And we're not talking about 10, 20 [years]—we're talking about over 100 [years].
I think that is the problem. Sometimes it's hard to experience things like the first Black president being elected and not think, "Man, we've really made changes, we've really done so much great. The world has changed." Then to see that not only has the world regressed, but there's so much accounting that still hasn't happened. There's so much accountability that still hasn't taken place, and there's so much wrong that is still being experienced by those who have felt wronged their entire lives.
There's been a lot that I've learned over the past three weeks, and specifically what I learned in a good way is that there are a lot of like-minded people who have had enough. My prayer for 2020 is that this isn't a moment—it's a movement. I hope that we can grow. I hope, as a parent, that I can teach, that I can give my kids a future that they not only deserve and that anyone deserves a future where equality is just a given. [Where] it's not something to even remotely consider the necessity of a march for, which, again, seems batsh*t crazy in the year 2020 that we have to be marching for that still, at this moment, with all we know and with what we've been through.
But man, racism is f*cking real. It's as real as the flower pot in front of me, it's as real as the phone that I'm on. And if we can't start recognizing the reality of it, then we can't change. That, to me, has given me the kernel of hope that I have. I think the band-aid's been ripped off. I think if all of us could stare at the wound long enough, we can start to heal.