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In praise of 'Central Park' and its musical prowess

The cast of 'Central Park'
The cast of 'Central Park' (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Apple TV+ seemed like yet another streaming service to command the coins from our couch cushions, but with acclaimed exclusive series like Ted Lasso and Dickinson, the platform has more than proven its worth. However, it’s the ambitious and groundbreaking musical work of Central Park that might be the best reason to hit subscribe.

The team behind Fox’s smash-hit Bob’s Burgers have joined forces with some of Broadway’s finest performers and a remarkably talented team of songwriters to create Central Park an animated musical centering on the park’s caretaker and his family. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon, Frozen) serves as a co-producer and narrator of the show, and even brought Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson of Disney’s Olaf’s Frozen Adventure on board to serve as the show’s main composers. It’s truly unfathomable that this much talent across the board has come together for a project, and the fact it’s a musical — one of the most maligned subgenres of entertainment — is even more impressive.

Samsel and Anderson didn’t work alone either — bringing in creatives like Sara Bareilles, Brent Knopf, Fiona Apple, Alan Menken, Meghan Trainor, Rafael Casal, and the incomparable Cyndi Lauper to pen music all unique to the show, blending a multitude of genres throughout each episode showcasing somewhere between three to six original songs written for some of the most talented performers working today. 

The Tillerman family consists of Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. as Owen, national treasure Kathryn Hahn as his wife Paige, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Little Mermaid’s Tituss Burgess as their son Cole, and Frozen’s Kristen Bell as their daughter, Molly. (Emmy Raver-Lampman of The Umbrella Academy will take over for the voice of Molly in season 2 as the character is biracial and Bell, a white woman, resigned from the role.) The show’s main antagonists are equally packed with star power with the definitely Leona Helmsley inspired Bitsy, voiced with perfection by Stanley Tucci, and her maid Helen, voiced by Hamilton's Daveed Diggs. 

Tying it all together is Josh Gad’s “Birdie,” who seems like a fourth-wall breaking irritation to those unfamiliar with traditional musical theatre tropes, but Birdie is the perfect Leading Player type from Pippin, Emcee from Cabaret, or probably more accurately, Officer Lockstock a la Urinetown

Every song, including stylistic choices, are written to the strength of each performer. Kristen Bell’s sweet and soprano tone work’s perfectly with Bareilles’ half-empowering, half-defeated anthem, “Weirdos Make Great Superheroes” and truly envelopes the specific conflict of trying to be a confident pre-teen girl. Leslie Odom Jr.’s constant anxiousness as Owen is presented through speak-rapping between effortlessly beautiful verses with songs like “Don't Think About the Failures,” echoing his style as Aaron Burr in Hamilton. While we’re on the subject, don’t fret, Daveed Diggs gets to flex his rap muscles in “If There’s a Will,” which somehow works flawlessly as a desperate plea from a verbally abused maid. Kathryn Hahn’s songs feel the most traditionally musical theatre, especially with the infectious earworm “Mama’s Got This.”

The solo numbers are musical dynamite, but with such a powerhouse cast, the true success lives in the ensemble numbers. The pilot episode’s “Own It” features all of the major characters explaining their goals for the season, singing in perfect harmony in each of their distinct styles all at once. The poppy duet “I'm in a Perfect Relationship” between Molly and her boyfriend Brendan (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Eugene Cordero) is definitely going to be required duet of every musical theatre student’s senior showcase, and the mini-The Book of Mormon reunion between Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad with “Too Close” is a delightful gift to die-hard musical theatre fanatics. 

Unlike beloved musical episodes from other shows (yes, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer) not a single voice is wasted--no matter if they’re a main cast member or a one-off cameo. “Do It While You Can” (performed by Hamilton alum Christopher Jackson as a park roller skater named Glorious Gary) and Broadway icon Audra McDonald as a likability consultant named Ashley singing “New York Doesn't Like Your Face,” are easily the best examples.

What makes the musicality of Central Park so good, is how much the show loves and respects the art of musical theatre. Every single note of Central Park is delivered with the utmost care and perfection. One of the worst parts of “musical episodes” of popular shows, is how frequently songs don’t suit the voices of the actors or how many songs feel like filler (I am looking directly at you, 7th Heaven). Each song in Central Park exists to further the plot or better inform the audience of the character's personalities, making every song as important as the one before. Even opening with giant numbers like “Nuts, Nuts, Nuts,” a belty showstopper from Tituss Burgess’ Cole about the squirrels in the park preceding Bitsy’s “Big Deal,” doesn’t diminish the importance of Tucci’s clear channeling of the snooty talk-singing prowess of “So What” from Cabaret.

The possibilities are endless for this musical animated series, where the only limitations are that of the writers’ imaginations. It’s important to note that a majority of reviews of the show were based on only the first season’s first four episodes, and Central Park really finds its footing around the fifth episode. The story gets stronger, the music truly becomes its own character, and If the success of Bob’s Burgers is an indication of anything, the next season of Central Park will be unstoppable, and the music is the heart of its power.