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Life’s a Jewish Love Story for Disney Songwriting Duo

If you’re the parent of Disney-obsessed offspring, you’ve likely heard their music in the “Zombies” and “High School Musical” franchises and “Marvel Rising.”
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July 14, 2020
Sonwriters Tova Litvin and Doug Rockwell. Photo credit: Joe Vulpis

The names Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin may not ring a bell, but if you’re the parent of Disney-obsessed offspring, you’ve likely heard their music in the “Zombies” and “High School Musical” franchises as well as Marvel’s “Marvel Rising” superhero cartoons. 

On the eve of the Emmy Awards nominations (July 28), the duo’s popular songs “Flesh and Bone” from “Zombies 2” and “Born to Be Brave” from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” are getting attention. It would be the second recognition for Rockwell, who was Emmy-nominated last year for the animated series “The Loud House.”

Writing songs for children’s shows makes sense for two musicians who’ve been at it since they were kids themselves. “We’ve been writing songs since we could walk and learned so much over the years playing in bands and writing for artists,” Rockwell told the Journal. “The difference is, instead of writing from our own experience we are given a world, a story and characters and we put ourselves in their shoes. That’s where the inspiration comes from. It’s like wearing the same clothes, just putting them on differently.”

Rockwell and Litvin were initially on separate paths as performing artists but had tired of the road grind. “You slowly realize that the shelf-life of an artist is not especially long. We ventured into writing for other artists,” Rockwell said. The duo met at a Halloween party five years ago, where the Gumby-costumed Rockwell and Litvin, dressed as an “obese Coke bottle,” bonded over music, similar Jewish backgrounds, love of Israel and his tattoos (the Star of David, a chai and a tree playing the bass among them). They became fast friends and continued to work separately until two years ago, when Rockwell received an assignment from Marvel and brought in Litvin. Disney projects followed and they made the collaboration official.

“We both had the same goal — getting into motion pictures and writing songs for TV and film, getting involved with the actual telling of the story,” Litvin said. Born in Los Angeles, she grew up in Israel on Migdal, a moshav near Tiberias. “I was surrounded by music and musicals and always sang. I started writing lyrics around 8, 9,10. There weren’t a lot of opportunities in Israel but I knew it was what I wanted. After high school, I moved back to L.A. I knew so little about the music industry but I knew I had to be in music.”

“Instead of writing from our own experience we are given a world, a story and characters and we put ourselves in their shoes.” — Doug Rockwell

So did New Jersey native Rockwell, who moved to L.A. in 2014. “I knew my entire life what I was going to do,” he said. “I grew up in a very musical family. My great-grandmother was an opera singer who sang at Carnegie Hall. I was 8  years old the first time I picked up a guitar and from then on, there was no question.” 

Of Austrian and Russian ancestry, Rockwell grew up Reform with his divorced mother, whose “strong pull towards Judaism” led her to a late-in-life bat mitzvah and becoming president of their synagogue. Rockwell’s experiences at that synagogue, plus his bar mitzvah, Jewish sleepaway camp and his Birthright trip to Israel, solidified his faith.

“[Judaism has] always been really important to me,” he said. “I can’t explain it but I think that’s why I love it so much. It’s a spiritual connection, something deep within me that I just know. I think it has a lot to do with the temple I grew up going to. It always felt like home. My rabbi’s sermons were always so beautiful. They always made me think and question things and look at things in my life differently. It’s very important to my mother too, and it’s a bond that we share. It brings our family closer.”

Litvin is the daughter of a Scotsman who died when she was young and a “very traditional” Jewish mother, a Jewish educator whose family included early settlers in Palestine on one side and a Holocaust survivor on the other. Her Polish grandfather escaped Auschwitz through a hole in a fence and was rescued in the forest by British soldiers. He was the only member of his family to survive. 

“Ironically, after the war, he made aliyah and fought the British in the War of Independence,” Litvin noted. “Like Doug, I feel the spiritual connection to a lot of our traditions and culture but beyond that I’m aware that I almost wasn’t here, just because I’m Jewish.”

For two people so perfectly in sync creatively and spiritually, it’s no surprise that their relationship became romantic. “We felt very early on that we knew each other for a thousand lifetimes before this one,” Rockwell said. “We had a very deep connection.” Added Litvin, “We were friends for a very long time and people thought we were together before we were, so it was a very natural progression.”

Marriage and children are in their future, they confirm, and can’t come soon enough for their parents. “My dad askes me every day if Tova is pregnant yet,” Rockwell said. Added Litvin, “For them, the clock has been ticking since we were born.” 

But in the present, uncertain pandemic times, they’re concentrating on creative concerns. “We’re writing a lot. There’s been a lot of brainstorming. We’re digging into ideas that we might not have had time to play with before,” Litvin said. “We’re taking the time to try to develop our own projects from the ground up, like musical series or a theatrical show,” Rockwell added. “We’re always looking for the next step.”

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