GOING OFF BOOK
FORMER CENTRAL PARK BUSKER ELYSSA SAMSEL FINDS THAT ART DOES IMITATE LIFE
PHOTO CREDIT: MICHELLE GROSKOPF
Life is unpredictable. One day you might be a busking violinist with Broadway aspirations performing to throngs of pedestrians in New York’s sprawling Central Park. The next, you find yourself composing music for some of your personal musical theatre idols, opening doors for other female songwriters and creatives along the way.
For Elyssa Samsel — AMDA graduate and current composer for Apple TV’s critically acclaimed series “Central Park” — the journey has been anything but conventional. Although Elyssa originally envisioned herself following in the footsteps of Broadway performers like Idina Menzel and Leslie Odom Jr., her AMDA experience would prove to be life changing.
Today, Elyssa credits her AMDA education with helping her fall in love with the songwriting process and imparting the skills she would refine to forge her own way. With several accolades to her name, including songwriting credits for Disney’s 2017 “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” Elyssa’s story is confirmation that good things can materialize for those with the courage to veer from the script.
Elyssa hopes her example can similarly embolden others to tune out feelings of self-doubt. As she tells it, sometimes the best advice is the kind you don’t take. Instead, she’s used it to reinforce her own sensibilities as an artist. Elyssa’s star continues to rise with several exciting projects, including her original musical Between the Lines, based on the novel by New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult and her daughter Samantha Van Leer, and a few surprises in the film world. The next time you read a piece of sheet music, look closely — you just might recognize Elyssa’s name.
What skills did you learn at AMDA that have been useful as a composer and storyteller?
Everything I learned at AMDA pointed me in this direction. When I auditioned for AMDA, the goal was to get on Broadway. Eventually, a transformation happened. I fell in love with dissecting the songs we performed in class. My training changed the way I thought about everything — from the lyrics of the music to the relationship between the actor and what the composer wanted. Writing out what the subtext was for each lyric — for every phrase of music — is now how I approach songwriting. I’m always thinking the music should be the subtext to whatever the lyric is going to be, and each lyric then sits on top of the music. I want the music to be the emotional subtext that’s telling the story regardless of what you’re singing lyrically. I’m so grateful that AMDA led me through the process of what goes into a song and then performing it, seeing that it was possible for a female to contribute to the anthology of songwriting.
It’s still relatively uncommon to see musical theatre songs written by women. Why do you think this is?
There was this period of time where every girl fresh out of AMDA was singing “Taylor, the Latte Boy” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. It allowed girls of any type to be different, quirky and weird and make it their own. I looked at the top of the sheet music and noticed that two women wrote it and I had never — at AMDA or before — seen a piece of sheet music that had two women’s names. That moment made me realize that women were less represented as songwriters in musical theatre. But it’s really changing now.
Your journey as a songwriter for animation began in 2017, when you and your music partner Kate Anderson were brought on board to write songs for the Disney featurette, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” How did this experience come about and how did it lead to your work on Apple TV’s “Central Park”?
When I look back, I was so in love with every Disney movie that came out. They were the backdrop to my childhood. The dream was to be in Beauty and the Beast onstage. That morphed into, what would it be like to write songs for these animated musicals that scored my childhood?
My writing partner, Kate Anderson, and I had been working on a fairy tale-esque theatre piece in the BMI Lehman Engle Musical Theatre Workshop. Our moderator had been approached for recommendations for this project. When we auditioned, we went overboard and wrote like, five songs — they just wanted one, but we were like, nope, this is what unbridled enthusiasm looks like! We ended up getting that job. Writing songs for those actors — Josh Gad, Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathon Groff — those were all actors who I had been obsessed with because they had been in musical theatre. We became friends with Josh Gad. He was putting together this animated TV show called “Central Park” and approached us to write songs for the pilot.
Expanding friendships is so valuable. We learned how to do that at AMDA. Just getting along with your peers and people you’re working with in a show is vital and can lead you to other opportunities.
What was it like writing for “Central Park” and finding individual voices for each character?
The creators, Josh Gad and Lauren Bouchard, wanted to make TV’s first animated musical series. They wanted to make sure all the songs were different and eclectic because it’s representing the real Central Park, which is filled to the brim with people of every possible background. It’s kind of a love letter to Central Park in its own way. From the first season, we tried to make sure the earliest songs would set up each character’s sound and accentuate their vocal personality. I think that was a concept that first became ingrained in me at AMDA, seeing who would sing each song in class and how the songs the teacher selected for them focused on their strengths.
You spent a lot of your early days in New York City, busking in Central Park on your violin. As a songwriter on a series set in Central Park and narrated by a busker, it must feel immensely surreal.
It’s completely full circle. When I was busking with my violin in Central Park, I was always handing out my songs on CDs. Someone in the music industry suggested that I find a boy and write songs with him and the two of us could be an act. I probably could have listened to him — but I didn’t. Sometimes I think it’s important not to take all the advice you’re given if it doesn’t resonate.
That time for me was all about resilience and trying to stay positive. I think having a positive outlook is the greatest gift you can give yourself because there’s so many opportunities in this business. There’s not just one part. You can make your own part, your own show, your own way in this business.