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How NYCNext and Smartypants brought together Idina Menzel, Stephen Colbert and many others to celebrate and rebuild New York City | #BehindTheIdea

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As one of the global economic hubs and one of the key cities in America, New York City was hit rather hard by the Covid pandemic. Yet the resilience of New Yorkers is legendary and the city folks have always been ready to rebuild on the ashes of a crisis or another; this is the spirit that drove NYCNext and Smartypants in the production of this campaign below.

To send a powerful love letter to New York and fuel a new sense of civic involvement, the agency has gathered a stunning host of world-renowned artists for a unique rendition of Billy Joel's New York State of Mind. The campaign below is a powerful message to the heart of New Yorkers and a way to encourage the city's recovery from the Covid crisis – driving engagement and urging the whole city to get involved in this new push to rebuild.

Today we are getting Behind the Idea following a chat with Smartypants Founder and Executive Creative Director Joshua Seftel, to learn more about the exciting campaign below.

What was the brief?

After developing the “A Moment For Broadway” and “The Met at The Met” pop-up event films for NYCNext, the brand turned to my team for help creating a love letter to NYC. Our shared vision was to bring to life a rendition of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” with a group of NYC’s greatest performing artists. Thankfully, Billy Joel fully supported our efforts and lent the rights and permissions to use his classic song, which was then orchestrated and arranged by Tony, Emmy, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tom Kitt of MUSE.

How did the initial pitch/brainstorming phase go?

The most exciting element of the ideation phase was assembling the talent. We asked ourselves, “How do we capture all of NYC’s creative community with just 20 or so voices?” The final piece strikes that balance. It features television personalities (Stephen Colbert and Andy Cohen), Broadway stars (Idina Menzel and Sara Bareilles), New York fixtures (Suzanne Vega and Joan Osborne), emerging performers (Zeshan B and Cautious Clay), and, not to mention, a special appearance from Billy Joel’s singer-songwriter daughter (Alexa Ray Joel).

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Joshua Seftel, Executive Creative Director & Founder at Smartypants

Tell us more about the concept. How did it come to life, and why was it the right choice?

We approached this project as an anthem film rather than a traditional music video. Everything was shot on a steadicam to give a fluid feel to the imagery. As the narrative unspooled, we also wanted to continually surprise the audience with each new entertainer’s reveal. To us, the city was the main character and the performances were breathing life back into this beloved place.

What was the production process like? What was the biggest challenge?

From beginning to end, the work was rewarding. It offered a lot of creative and technical possibilities. The result ultimately reflects Smartypants’s expertise with not only crafting branded content and music videos, but also partnering with nonprofit organizations and celebrities. The biggest challenge was scheduling all of the performers across the city’s five boroughs in a finite period of time. This took a tremendous amount of clever scheduling. In a way, it was a lot like shooting 25 different music videos for one film!

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What is one funny or notable thing that happened during the production of the campaign?

As with any production, the artists came into the shoot with a very limited window of time. However, once they started to immerse themselves into the spirit of our creative direction and nostalgia with “New York State of Mind”, many didn’t want to leave the sets. This allowed us to get many rich variations and takes of the compositions.

What’s the main message of the campaign and why does it matter?

The main message is to reinforce that NYC’s beauty, diversity, and strength are all still here despite everything we’ve been through. “New York State of Mind” was written in the 70s to pick NYC up when the city was struggling and was used again as an anthem after 9/11. This seemed like the perfect time to bring it back around. There’s a timeless quality about the song. It survives and continues on, just like NYC.

What is one unique aspect of the campaign?

It’s rare to secure such a wide and talented range of singers, choreographers, musicians, actors, as well as television personalities all in one project. We’re honored that we could collaborate with this cast, all of whom donated their energy to the film in a display of NYC pride.

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How long did it take from inception to delivery?

This project has been cooking since the beginning of the year. The shoot took place during the majority of the summer. My team loves telling underdog stories and we felt we could do justice to something as iconic as “New York State of Mind”.

What do you hope it achieves for the brand?

NYCNext formed in the wake of the pandemic to help the city’s community of artists, local businesses and restaurants, and more rebuild. I hope the heart and confidence behind the visuals will inspire audiences to do their part to give back in whichever ways they can.

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Credit list for the campaign?

Key Production:
Joshua Seftel: Director
Jeremy Mack: Executive Producer
Anna Bick Rowe: Executive Producer
Drew Levin: DP
Jeremy Medoff: Editor
Andrew Lerner: Co-Founder, Executive Producer
Maryam Banikarim: Co-Founder, Executive Producer
Jesse Kranzler: Producer
Dana Kuznetzoff: Producer
Abby Raphel: Producer

Client: NYCNext
Perry Ascher
Susie Banikarim
Sydney Berger
Rachana Bhide
Quincy Confoy
Brian Donovan
Phoebe Ellman
Michael Ferguson
Shannon Fox
Cathy Gay
Andrew Golomb
Jiawei He
Lori Klamner
Amanda Lazaro
Natasha Lerner
Nicky Lerner
Donna MacPhee
Catherine McCormack
Susan McPherson
Nancy Oda
Shena Patel
Jennifer Reingold
Blake Ross
Grace Santa Maria
Robert Sgalambro
Alexandra Shapiro
Uyen Tieu
Megan Valle
Marcia Zimmerman

Production: Smartypants
Lindsay Blatt: Talent Producer
Sabine Rogers: Field Producer
Marki Yaccino: Production Manager
Jacob Breland: Production Manager
Karl Schroder: Additional Cinematography
Jesse Sanchez-Strauss: Steadicam
Calvin Falk: Steadicam
Kevin Jacobsen, Steadicam
Mike Guaspari: 1st AC
Sam Tetro: 1st AC
Adam Roberts: 1st AC
Bri McCarthy: 2nd AC
Cal Heller: 2nd AC
Nada Stjepanovic: 2nd AC / MM
Bridget McQuillan: 2nd AC / MM
Ash Bean: 2nd AC
Julia Gowesky: Gaffer
Ted Maroney: Gaffer
Derek Sexton Horani: Gaffer
Ryan McCluney: Grip
Nick Pietroniro: Grip
Kevin Villafuerte: Grip
Matt Discala: Grip
Matt Jimney: Sound Mixer
Josh Heller: Sound Mixer
Keith Lee: Sound Mixer
Laura Thomas: BTS
James Frazier: PA
Ishmael Green: PA
Scott Bausemer: PA / Driver
Anna Beth Riggs: PA
Jordan Reis Alexander: PA
Steve Benjamin: Asst. Editor
Nick Cancelliere: Asst. Editor
Melissa Ulrey: Asst. Editor
Sophie Glassman: Intern
Lily Ross: Intern

Music
Scott M. Riesett, Tom Kitt, and David Rosenthal: Producers
Zane Mark, Brian Usifer, and Darryl Archibald: Additional Production
Derik Lee: Mixer
Tom Kitt: Orchestration and Arrangement
Joseph Joubert: Additional Arrangements
David Rosenthal: Additional Orchestrations

Instrumental Recording Session
Joseph Joubert: Piano
Damien Bassman: Drums & Percussion
Angie Swan: Guitars
Michael Olatuja: Bass
Scott M. Riesett: Producer
Tom Kitt: Producer
Ian Kagey: Recording Engineer
Teng Chen: Assistant Engineer
Recorded at Power Station at BerkleeNYC (New York, NY)
Mark Rivera: Saxophone
David Rosenthal: B3 and Strings
Recorded at Sonic Adventures Studio
David Rosenthal: Engineer
Kaz Fernando: Assistant Engineer
Crystal Taliefero: Additional Percussion and Percussion Arrangements
Recorded at CTstudio
Crystal Taliefero & Michael Lattanzi: Engineers
Chloe Flower: Additional Piano
Tom Kitt: Additional Piano
Bobby Sanabria: Additional Percussion
Ben Stiller: Voice-Over

Suzanne Vega Recording Session
Colin Mohnacs: Sound Engineer

Alexa Ray Joel Session
Recorded by Parker S. Lyons at MonkMusic Studios in Easthampton, NY

Legal
Randy Feinberg

NYU
Julian Cornell: Engineer
Mingyang “Jerry” Xu, David Peck, Michael Matsakis: Assistant Engineers
Dr. Elise Sobol: Director of Music Education, NYU Steinhardt
Parichat Songmuang: Manager, Dolan Recording Studio
Dr. David Schroeder: Chair, NYU Steinhardt Music and Performing Arts Professions
Bobby Sanabria: Percussion
Recorded at Dolan Recording Studio at NYU Steinhardt

NYCNext Volunteers

Rachana Bhide
Phoebe Ellman
Michael Ferguson
Jiawei He
Lori Klamner
Nancy Oda
Robert Sgalambro
Megan Valle

Special Thanks To 

Asif Ahmed, Annaleigh Ashford, Kaitlyn Brennan, Jon Butensky, John Campanelli, Kevin Carey, Brian Cashman, Grace Cashman, Cameron Crowe, Niki Russ Federman, Donna Gryn, Sarah Jeffreys, Billy Joel, Mikael Jorgensen, Emily Lazar, Claire Mercuri, MUSE, Ken Rich, Ben Stiller, Nick Trotta, Josh Tupper, Lia Vollack, Michael Williams, Kim Youngberg, Carla Sacks and Jason Zillo

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