Interview: Emmy-nominated Songwriters Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin on Creating Hits for Disney+ and Netflix

Photo Brynne Zaniboni

Emmy nominated songwriting and music production team Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin are the songwriting duo who have been making great music for two Disney+ series: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, where they worked on “Born to Be Brave” with Olivia Rodrigo; and the breakout song, “Flesh and Bone,” from Zombies 2, which has garnered over 170 million views on YouTube.

Doug and Tova also wrote and produced music for Kenny Ortega’s Julie and the Phantoms, a Netflix Top 10 series in 2020 that hit #4 on the Billboard charts, as well the #1 spot on the iTunes main and soundtrack charts in the USA. Their song, “The Other Side of Hollywood,” was recently nominated for Outstanding Original Song in the 48th Daytime Emmy Awards

Doug and Tova are now working on Disney+’s upcoming first original live-action musical Sneakerella while they continue to write for curated film and television projects and are currently developing an original musical, as well as an original musical feature film. Here the duo discuss their love and process for creating memorable hits.

Jason: I read how you two met but since it’s a cute story can you tell it in your own words? And after you met, at what point did your writing collaboration begin?

Doug Rockwell: We met at a Halloween party—well, it was a mid-October party and I was wearing a giant very creepy life-size Gumby costume—

Tova Litvin: —And I was an obese Coke bottle where you could only see so much of my face and I walk into a party where there’s nine million sexy cats and one giant Gumby dude. It was a songwriter’s party so we all worked in the same field. Doug and I were doing a lot of pop songwriting and we became instant friends.

Doug Rockwell: Because we were the only ones wearing ridiculous costumes (laughs). We wrote together a little bit through the friend route and one day we got approached to pitch for a Marvel project.

Tova Litvin: We wrote it and it ended up being cut by Dove Cameron and at that point we had a lot of conversations where we realized we wanted to do more writing for TV and film. We were both really into musicals and weren’t as inspired by straight-up pop songs.

Jason: In addition to your shared passion for musicals did you both share a common love for artists and performers?

Doug Rockwell: I think the common ground between us was a love for musicals and guiding story through song and big anthemic productions. We did both like a lot of ’90s stuff that we grew up on, but the top 40 pop stuff wasn’t where we found our similar synergy. Both of us share an appreciation for a good solid song with a well-written lyric, great melody, great production so there’s definitely that common ground.

Tova Litvin: I think Doug’s more punk-rock and I’m more 1960s doo-wop and pop. Our love for music met at somewhere in the middle.

Jason: Was the Marvel project the first thing you two collaborated on?

Doug Rockwell: Out here in LA the songwriting circuit is like blind dating where you have sessions with random writers and you cycle through and see who you vibe with. We had a session and didn’t really know each other just to write and see how we’d get along.

Tova Litvin: We collaborated on a couple things but Marvel was the first one that took off.

Jason: Can you compare what it’s like writing with a partner that you vibe with as opposed to writing alone?

Doug Rockwell: If you’re extremely comfortable with the person you’re writing with it’s almost like an extension of yourself. Us music writers deal with our own anxieties by going off in our own little corner, which can be helpful to gather your thoughts, but if you have someone that you have comfort with they can take some of the more ridiculous ideas and find something inspiring and cool out of that idea. Writing alone is cool because you’re not worried about what the other person is thinking but having a partner to find the diamonds in the rough is great.

Tova Litvin: It’s like a tennis match where you say ‘here’s something I’m thinking, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing with it, what do you think?’ and that person can go ‘oh, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard or this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’ and sometimes it is. Then sometimes it’s ‘I like this but what if we just turned it this way’ and I talk about this a lot with some of our songwriting friends because we all can write songs on our own but when you find the right collaboration it elevates the writing and the process right away because two perspectives are going to give you something different every single time. We realized early on that we work really well.

Doug Rockwell: Going back to the blind dating aspect, when you write with someone you don’t know you’re basically lying emotionally naked to that person and you’re showing a very vulnerable side of yourself and if the energy is off with that person it can be a disaster [both laugh]. It’s like going on a date and knowing within the first five minutes that this person is not my person. It can easily go the wrong way, but luckily for us it went the right way.

Jason: Can you explain how a song comes about in a project such as Julie and the Phantoms? Do  directors, such as Kenny Ortega, come to you and describe the broad strokes of an episode, outlining the story and where they want a song from you both and how they want your song to serve the story, or there instances where a story based around one of your songs?

Doug Rockwell: Depending on the project and the musical directors we work with, they know our strengths very well so they might have a specific scene in mind they feel we’re perfect for. They’ll tell us they want us to write for a specific scene and other times it’s an open-ended thing where there’s a bunch of songwriters competing for specific spots.

Tova Litvin: Regardless of either of those situations, we will get a script. If it’s a show we’ll get that episode and if it’s a movie we’ll get the whole movie even if we’re only writing for two scenes, we’ll see the whole trajectory because sometimes we’ll be writing for a specific character, and later that character will end up in a different situation that won’t be revealed to the audience for some time, but we need to know where that character’s story is going otherwise we might not be spot-on with the lyrics. We’ll always know what’s going on and what’s coming.

Doug Rockwell: When it comes to working with Kenny Ortega, he is so collaborative. There are instances where you’re just handed the synopsis of a scene but with Kenny there were a lot of collaborative meetings. We went to a lot of the rehearsal spaces where the actors and dancers were going over their routines, and learned how the stage direction would go so we were very involved from the ground up. For the song we did for Julie and the Phantoms called The Other Side of Hollywood”, that song started off in such a different place than it ended up. There was so much work which went into it and I say that in the best way because if it ended up staying the way it started I would have been bummed [both laugh] because it ended up being so much greater than where it originated from and that’s because of the vision of everyone onboard that project.

Tova Litvin: One of my favorite aspects is reading the script and understanding what needs to happen in the scene, but then we’ll also talk about who the character is, what’s going on underneath them which will be revealed later. Sometimes we can sneak in some clues as to where a character will be headed and those clues are usually very, very subtle. With “The Other Side of Hollywood” we were writing for a villain but when you meet him the audience doesn’t know that. So we had to make him look really alluring and glamorous. So we talk a lot about writing lyrics because there’s so much which needs to happen within three minutes.

Doug Rockwell: There are very specific beats you have to hit in a story as opposed to writing a pop song. Sometimes we have to tell an entire story within the first three lines of a song—

Tova Litvin: —and still make it cool and sing-along-able and not too preachy for the character. There are a lot of nuances. It’s like a Rubix Cube and it can go every which way but when you get it right—it’s delightful.

Jason: Can you describe the feeling of seeing the final product, when you see all the hard work and thought and planning culminate in the finished three minute video?

Doug Rockwell: That’s actually our favorite part of the process because we’re not there on set when they’re filming. We’re in our studio creating the song. And when the actors and coordinators bring our song to life x100 with set design, costume, choreography, we have no clue what’s going on until we see almost the final cut. That’s what makes our job worth it because it’s different than hearing our song on the radio or on Spotify which is always still a thrill but here there’s an extra dimension of watching it come alive and seeing it move with multiple parts.

Tova Litvin: “The Other Side of Hollywood” was so amazing and I’m not saying that because we were part of it [laughs], the scene was so amazing and immaculate. It’s one of my favorite pieces of choreography from all the pieces that we’ve done. Paul Becker choreographed it and Kenny Ortega directed it with Cheyenne Jackson singing it with hundreds of others working on our song who all know it by heart. We work in a room most of the time. We don’t usually visit huge sets When we saw the actual video I wanted to cry it was so good.

Doug Rockwell: Another awesome one was “Born to Be Brave” from High School Musical :The Musical: The Series which was one of the earlier ones that we did and that was such a fun uplifting scene.

Tova Litvin: And that featured Olivia Rodrigo who is now the biggest thing in the world. They are all so good at what they do. When we write a song we’re done but then the right people elevate that and then you get this physical representation of it and we’re so grateful for it.

Jason: What was your reaction to “The Other Side of Hollywood” earning an Emmy nomination?

Doug Rockwell: The news came while I was driving to the airport and my manager kept calling and calling while I was navigating the drive and finally I answered and her response was “Check your email!” although she used different verbiage [both laugh]. And I checked and we were nominated for Best Original Song. So I called Tova and told her the news.

Tova Litvin: And I was “What?! Wait No! What?!”

Doug Rockwell: And then I hung up and sat on a plane for five hours.

Tova Litvin: But it was amazing. Crazy. It was very exciting. It was the first nomination for us together so that was a big deal for us because it showed us what we’ve been able to do in such a short amount of time. That was really nice.

Jason: What has been the most memorable reaction you’ve received from fans?

Doug Rockwell: A lot of the projects we worked upon already had a dedicated fandom and especially on TikTok there’s a lot of fans recreating moments and creating their own covers and choreography to our songs.

Tova Litvin: You’ll see a little kid doing choreography and then you’ll see a 30-year-old woman playing a violin reconstruction and that always makes me really excited because people don’t do that unless they really love something.

Doug Rockwell: Also there have been people who have gotten tattoos of our lyrics on them.

Tova Litvin: Ooooh…that was a good one. I pick that one! Yes! Somebody got a lyric from “Now or Never”(from Julie and the Phantoms) and we’re on that person forever! It’s on a person right now!

Jason: There you go. That’s when you know you’ve made it [everybody laughs]. So what do you to have in the works?

Doug Rockwell: Disney+ is doing a live-action feature called Sneakerella which is coming out soon and we have a few songs in that. We’re also developing a few things including a musical podcast and a stage show and one thing we’re doing as a passion project is working on a backstory of Ursala from The Little Mermaid as a musical so we’ll see what happens with all of these things.

Tova Litvin: We’re very focused on continuing what we’ve been doing but also developing our own stories and being able to release them to the world.

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Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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