When Josh Gad pitched a musical TV show to Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard, he was not—as he puts it—“fucking around.” The result, the delightful animated Apple TV+ series Central Park, is a full-on musical series that unites world-class Broadway performers and songwriters to tell a story about disparate characters living in and around New York City’s Central Park. Gad voices Birdie, a park regular and the show’s omniscient narrator; Hamilton alum Leslie Odom Jr. plays the park’s caretaker; Kathryn Hahn is his investigative reporter wife; Kristen Bell and Tituss Burgess voice the caretaker’s kids; the legendary Stanley Tucci is Bitsy, an elderly woman with a nefarious plan to buy and ruin Central Park; and Daveed Diggs is Bitsy’s assistant. That is an absolutely stacked ensemble, which is the point: any one of them could be leading their own Broadway show, which makes the musical numbers in Central Park absolutely jaw-dropping.
Indeed, when I spoke to Gad during the virtual press day for Central Park, he revealed that they commissioned 48 original songs for the first 10 episodes alone, and it was at his urging that they demand Broadway-level songs. I can attest that the hard work pays off, as the songs in Central Park are absolutely incredible and the show itself is a damn delight (read our full review here).
Below, you can read my full conversation with Gad during which he explained how he co-created the series, why they went with Apple TV+, finally getting to record voice lines with his castmates for the first time (Frozen actors record separately), and the progress they’re making on Season 2. Check out the full interview below. Central Park is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Congrats on the show. It’s super fun, super funny. I cannot get the songs out of my head.
JOSH GAD: I’m right there with you. I apologize ahead of time, because those songs stick in there for a while.
I know the project started at Fox and then moved to Apple. So I’m curious how it first started and then what that move to Apple changed, if anything.
GAD: So, about three years ago, I went to Loren Bouchard’s office, being an obsessed fan of Bob’s Burgers, and I pitched the seed of an idea with him about a show set in Central Park that I wanted to be a musical event series. And that was it. And I said, I want to assemble an all star cast of basically the Avengers of musical theater. Started with my friend Kristen Bell, who of course I’d worked with on Frozen. And from there went out to my old classmate, Leslie Odom Jr. from Carnegie Mellon, Daveed Diggs, Stanley Tucci, Tituss Burgess, and Kathryn Hahn.
All of our first choices said yes, at which point Loren and I said we should probably write characters for them. And then over the course of a few months, with the help of Bento Box, the production company that Loren works with, we did a proof of concept. And 20th first brought the project to Fox, and while it didn’t seem necessarily like the perfect fit for Fox, they were generous enough to let us explore other options, which was an amazing opportunity for us.
We took it out and everybody that we presented it to made a very generous offer and was ecstatic with the material. Ultimately, we chose Apple because it felt like an opportunity to come on and define a new space. And Loren, having worked with our brilliant executive Dana Tunier during Bob’s Burgers‘ earliest years, was really drawn to that creative relationship as well. So it just seemed like the right fit, and we’re very thrilled that we did.
As I said, the songs are incredible and I’m a huge fan of Bob’s Burgers as well, and those songs are super fun, but the songs in Bob’s Burgers feel a little more handmade. So I was expecting that for this, and then it’s like, oh shit, this is like a Broadway musical number.
GAD: (Laughs) Yeah, I wasn’t fucking around. I literally said to Loren, and to anyone who would listen, this is going to be a musical event. We got into the first two episodes and there was a song and a reprise and I laughed and I go, no, that’s not what I meant. I meant we need four songs an episode. I was met with this wide eyed wonderment, like, “That’s impossible, we can’t possibly do four songs an episode.” And I said, “We can. And we have to. Because that’s the promise of the show.”
And thankfully my partners all finally decided that they no longer wanted to take my calls and that the only way to move forward would be to concede the point and allow me to attempt to do four songs an episode. And I brought on two of the most brilliant composers I knew, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, and then Loren brought one of his Bob’s guys, Brent Knopf, and together they assembled a season worth of unbelievable gems, along with some other songs written by some others that I think are going to blow people’s socks off as well.
Well, that also seems like something that maybe being in Apple affords you a little bit more leeway in that. Bob’s Burgers feels like they can do a musical episode or they can do one song or a snippet of a song. As you said, there are full fledged musical numbers in this show.
GAD: And that is the show. My original intention and the thing that I originally said was, it can’t be a show with music. It can’t be a spoof of musicals. There has to be an element to it where the audience can’t imagine the characters expressing their thoughts any other way in any given moment, but to seeing those reflections of their faults.
Being an obsessee of the musical form, having gotten my start on Broadway in Spelling Bee and then defining my career in Book of Mormon and then doing Beauty and the Beast and Frozen, I’ve always wanted to be on the other end of it and create one from the ground up. And this felt like an opportunity where, to borrow an expression from one of my favorite musicals, I was not going to throw away my shot. I really wanted to make sure that we stuck the landing. And come hell or high water, I think we did.
Yeah, I think you did as well. I’m a huge fan of it. I I know in Bob’s Burgers, one of the things that makes that show fun is that they all record together, which I know is not the norm in animation. Did you get to record with your castmates on this or given the music, was it a little more separate?
GAD: I did. I actually did. Which I’ve never gotten to do on Frozen. The difficulty with our cast is it’s literally the Avengers of musical theater cast, so everybody is so busy all the time. And we dealt with also the complication of geography. You have Tituss in New York. You have Stanley in London. Kathryn was mostly shooting in Atlanta. Kirsten is globe trotting everywhere. So it was always difficult. Having said that, every time one of the cast members would record in the office, I would come and either record with them as an artist or be there as a creator.
That’s awesome. Have you guys plotted out future seasons? I know it’s a two season order from Apple, but do you have grand ideas for a plan, or are you just seeing how it goes?
GAD: We are literally just constantly on a treadmill right now, trying to make sure that we can do season two in quarantine. Which, it turns out we can, but the sky has always been the limit for the Tillerman family and for their rivals Helen and Bitsy Brandenham, and of course the ever unreliable narrator Birdie, I think that there are many stories to tell, should there be an audience who would like to hear them.
And, unlike Glee, which is something that you were pulling pop songs and stuff, you’re literally just writing this whole cloth. Is that proven harder than you thought it might be?
GAD: Harder? Yes. More rewarding? Definitely. We don’t mess around. We have a very open line of dialogue with everybody who composes for us. And if we get a demo that’s just not good enough, we don’t settle for it. We say, it doesn’t matter how good the artist is who hands it to us, we say to them, you know what, this feels like a first pass. We want your song to be literally a song that everybody leaves singing. We want to do that four times in an episode.
We have 47 or 48 songs in season one. In 10 episodes. It’s insane. And by the way, there isn’t a song that’s a dud. So, we really are. We’ve raised the bar almost too high, that it was so scary going into season two, but eight or nine episodes into season two, I’m shocked that I can say the music is as good, if not better.
Central Park is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.