Recently, at the 2nd annual Children’s & Family Emmy Awards, the song “Finally Free” picked up an award for the hit Disney+ Original series, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”. The song is performed by Joshua Bassett and written by the songwriting duo, Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin, who have also worked on many other Disney projects, including “Sneakerella” and the upcoming “Zombies: Reanimated” series.
The duo also wrote and produced music for the musical-comedy-series “Julie and the Phantoms”, a Netflix Top 10 show in 2020 whose songs hit #4 on the Billboard charts, as well as the #1 spot on the iTunes main/soundtrack charts in the USA. Their song, “The Other Side of Hollywood,” was nominated for Outstanding Original Song at the 48th Daytime Emmy Awards.
This past week, I got to speak with Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin, where I asked them about how it felt to win an Emmy, what it was like working on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”, plus about any future projects they are working on with Disney.
Check out the full interview below:
How did it feel to win an Emmy for “Finally Free!”?
Doug – Oh man. It was extremely nerve-wracking leading up to it. It’s actually funny because when you get there to the ceremony, you get a program, and because you don’t know what order anything’s going, yeah, you have no idea. You don’t know if you’re going to be at the beginning of the night, you don’t know if you’re going to be at the end of the night. And we looked, we’re like, oh, okay. We’re like, we’re somewhere towards the beginning. So my personal anticipatory anxiety won’t eat away at me the entire night, wondering if we won.
And finally, it’s getting closer and closer, and we’re one category away, and we’re like, here we go, we’re next. And then it’s like, all right, everyone, we’re going to break for a half hour for dinner. That was perfect timing. But no, when they called our song for the win, it was amazing. I mean, as amazing as you can imagine. I mean, we won an Emmy and it was our first one as a team that we won. So it was fantastic
Tova – And it’s funny because afterwards, someone was your heart racing? And I was like, I was in this cloud. They’re like, “Finally Free”. I’m like, oh, now we will walk over here and now we’ll walk over. Okay, now we’re here. Now we’re walking through the hotel kitchen. Afterwards, it felt like I was on a feather bed, but inside of one it was just strange, fun and beautiful, and Josh was there. So we all kind of experienced that at the exact same moment. And it was a great night. I highly recommend.
What was it like working with Joshua on the song?
Doug – It was great. It was in the pandemic at the time. So we got together here at our studio, but no one wanted to be close to each other. We were all petrified. So we sat in our backyard like 10 feet away from each other.
Tova – And we had obviously worked with Josh before as far as tracking him, and he sang on our songs and so forth. We never wrote with him before. And I think before up until this song, we had worked primarily on cast numbers with him. So it’s like a bunch of people come in, they all record their parts. But this was the first time we were one-on-one alone with Josh in the Backyard for the purpose of writing. And it was great. It was very just chill and comfortable and it was just kind of, good sessions are kind of like, you’re just hanging out.
Doug – Yeah, the majority of the session was us just talking about life and struggles and everything at the same time. And the song itself was written fairly quickly, I think maybe like in an hour or something. I mean, it came out really easily whenever we go into a writing session, unless we’re working, if we’re working with someone outside of our little bubble, we like to bring just some sort of idea to get the ball rolling.
So we had a little bit of an idea kind of put together, and Josh had kind of come with a little bit of an idea put together. And this happens very rarely when the two people who bring their both ideas work really well. And then it’s like, whoa, we have a giant chunk of the song done before we even really sat down to write it.
And we just needed to connect the dots, which was very easy to do. Josh is also a great writer and has great melody and a great ear, so it was awesome. And we kind of knew we had something really kind of special walking out of that session. Just it felt really good. We’re really excited about it. And yeah, this Emmy one was just kind of justification that we did something right.
How do you go about matching your music with the singers?
Doug – Good question. Well, before we jump into writing a song, we get a brief from the directors and the producers that kind of break down the scene and break down, I guess the emotional journey that this character’s going through. So we have time to study and we’ll look obviously if we haven’t worked for them before, we’ll see what do they have on Spotify? Do they have any music out?
Are they an artist aside from just being on the show? Some of them are artists like Sophia, as well as obviously Olivia, and some of them haven’t really broken out into that yet. But there’s usually a good amount of information and references. Sometimes there’s not that much at all, and we just have to play the guessing game. But also, with these shows, they kind of just want really great songs. And the thing about the whole team, they’re really good at also helping place the actor in a scene that works for them.
They’re not going to come to us with references that just don’t feel like they fit the character as well as the artist. You have to find the middle ground too. It’s like they’re also playing a character in this show that might sound totally different from their personal musical tastes, which is something that has happened many times before.
We’ve worked with people, for example, for Disney Zombies where they are artists outside of the Zombies world that is very different from the songs that they’re singing in zombies. So it really tends to lend to, I think the character more so the actor’s artistic taste because it needs to sit in that world of that shit.
Tova – But if you’re talking about actual artist projects with actors, that’s a whole different thing because what normally happens, even going back to when Doug and I both used to work with primarily pop artists for years, normally when you get in a room with an artist, you have, here’s what they love, here’s what they want to be, here’s what they’re really good at.
And your job is to find that beautiful place in the Venn diagram where everything is touched upon. And I think when you’re working, at least for us, when we’ve worked just on music for people who we’ve also written for shows by then we know we kind of know their range, we know their voice. We sit a little bit deeper with what kind of influences they want to express on their own project. But like Doug said, it’s a lot of research. You very rarely are suddenly in a room with someone or writing for someone and you don’t know those things because it will save your life if you know them before you start.
How do you approach making a song for a show?
Doug – It’s different for every project. I mean, listen, our process is usually very familiar each time. I mean, the projects will be different, but our process of just approaching a song is basically just, it’s kind of ridiculous. We sit down and we just make random noises and hit random noise. That’s really, when you come down to songwriting, it’s very weird. It’s weird. And it’s simplistic and extremely complicated and everything in between because you’re looking for something that grabs you. And that kind of comes, of course, you want to have a plan.
We want to know what we want to say in that song. It’s very important. But before we do that, at least our approach, like, well, we need something that feels we need a melody. Whether piano, guitar, or any other instrument you can think of that lures you in. It’s like, oh, this sounds good. And then we need a melody that sounds good. And then we’ll kind of start fitting lyrics in through the sounds that we’re just kind of making weird vowel sounds that are faux lyrics that kind of sound like words, ridiculous.
It’s weird if for anyone that’s never written a song in a room with people before and they kind of sit in, it’s kind of like you just place someone on a very loud animal farm. I’m just things making noises until you kind of find something. But yeah, I mean it’s really just finding something that catches you, that lines up with the senior writing for and lines up with what just feels like you want to explore that more. I want to hear more of that. And then you kind of let the two run in tandem all over the place until it kind of comes together.
Tova – The songwriting. But as far as the production and the musicality of it for TV and film, what usually happens is you get a list. They’re like, here are sonic references. And it’s very interesting because more often than not, there are songs that sound nothing alike. So your average ear will be like, what’s happening?
Because these songs do not sound alike, but they might be like, we love how this person approached the storytelling, but we love how this kicks in on the bridge and we love the music. So they kind of give you pieces. And then your job is to, again, find something in the Venn diagram that does not sound like any of the things, but has little pieces of each thing. So that’s where Doug is beautiful and shining among other things. But he’s very good. He’s very good at that.
You can catch all four seasons of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+ now.
Roger has been a Disney fan since he was a kid and this interest has grown over the years. He has visited Disney Parks around the globe and has a vast collection of Disney movies and collectibles. He is the owner of What's On Disney Plus & DisKingdom.