Rollins Alum Wins Emmy for Sofia the First

John Kavanaugh ’83 earned the coveted honor for penning the theme song for the popular Disney channel show.

Princess Sofia  and her pet bunny Clover. (Photo courtesy of Disney Junior) 
Princess Sofia and her pet bunny Clover. (Photo courtesy of Disney Junior) Last Friday, John Kavanaugh ’83 won an Emmy for his work on the theme song for Sofia the First, the wildly popular animated series on the Disney Junior channel.

The former Rollins music major, who studied piano and theater while at Rollins, was thrilled to earn his first Emmy. “I’m ecstatic,” Kavanaugh says. “It’s very exciting.”

He described the scene at the Daytime Emmy ceremonies at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as a bit chaotic but fun. “I was nervous about winning; I was nervous about losing; and I ran up to the stage [to accept the award].”

He and songwriting partner, Craig Gerber, the series creator, were also nominated for outstanding original song, “I Belong.”

The Origins of Emmy Award-Winning Music

The two musical works posed different challenges for Kavanaugh.

The theme song had to tell the story of Sofia, a young girl who becomes a princess after her mother marries a king. Sofia faces ongoing challenges to prove to the royals around her that she is worthy of her title. Moreover, the introductory tune had to be easy to follow and catchy enough to make youngsters want to sing it. That’s a lot to accomplish in under a minute.

“We wanted to quickly tell the backstory, so kids who hadn’t seen the premiere would get a sense of how she became Sofia the First,” Kavanaugh says. “We wanted the music to have touches of Disney princess magic, but also have a young, fun, light vibe that younger kids would like.”

The second song, “I Belong,” occurs at a point when Sofia questions whether she can fit in with the rest of the royal kids. The feeling of being left out, Kavanaugh says, is something with which nearly everyone can identify.

Celebrating the Emmy are John Kavanaugh (left), who wrote music and lyrics, and Craig Gerber, who co-wrote the lyrics and is creator and executive producer of the animated series. (Photo courtesy of Disney Junior)
Celebrating the Emmy are John Kavanaugh (left), who wrote music and lyrics, and Craig Gerber, who co-wrote the lyrics and is creator and executive producer of the animated series. (Photo courtesy of Disney Junior) “Being different or feeling that you’re different is not easy,” he says. “I wasn’t the athlete that my brothers [or] so many I grew up with were. I was the musician, and I was different. I was very lucky and always felt encouraged and supported, but, of course, we’ve all [known] the child who’s not quite like everyone else [who gets] picked on or bullied.”

“I Belong” coincides with a storyline about self-worth, kindness, and sacrifice, in which Sofia has to take a princess test.

“Sofia wants to fit in and is going through the journey to find the confidence to show them she belongs, but also to simply be herself,” he says “The [other] girls think [being a princess is] about fanning and dressing and dancing. … My favorite line in the song is ‘Is it all about the fan and what dress someone wore? ‘Cause I would think that what’s inside should mean a whole lot more.’ ”

Talents Developed in Central Florida

After graduating from Rollins in 1983, where he gained renown for putting on his own musical revues, Kavanaugh got one of his first steady gigs as a songwriter and musician at Walt Disney World.

His duties included rehearsing performers, writing music for park shows and conventions, and playing live accompaniment. After a variety of songwriting jobs, he eventually became musical director for the first season of The New Mickey Mouse Club on the Disney Channel and produced at Walt Disney World.

Along the way, he also composed for Universal Studios’ live stage shows The Flintstones and Sesame Street, and several songs for the latter were later used on the T.V. show.

Ariel Winter, who plays Sofia, and John Kavanaugh at her recording session for Sofia the First. (Photo courtesy of Rick Rowell, Disney Junior) Ariel Winter, who plays Sofia, and John Kavanaugh at her recording session for Sofia the First. (Photo courtesy of Rick Rowell, Disney Junior) Kavanaugh’s accomplishments include writing “Joseph’s Lullaby” for Broadway star Michael Crawford’s album On Eagle’s Wings for Atlantic Records and composing the theme to the 2003 Special Olympics, “You’re The Dream,” sung by the Walt Disney Records star Myra.

So the opportunity to become musical director and songwriter for Sofia in 2012 seemed, in some ways, like a natural progression.

“I had written many songs for the company through the years—a Winnie the Pooh movie and lots for Tokyo Disneyland,” he says. “Jay Stutler, vice president of music at Disney Television Animation, was quite familiar with my work and thought my Disney touches and musical theater vibe would mesh well with this project.”

Although Kavanaugh does not have children, he had no qualms about jumping into a children’s series that could run for several years. Having grown up as the youngest of six siblings with dozens of cousins, he can easily recall what it is like to be a child.

In addition, he loved the opportunity the show gave him to compose in several genres, including ballads, swing, boss nova, rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll. He even wrote a funny rap for Clover the Rabbit, voiced by entertainer Wayne Brady.

Rollins Played a Vital Role

On the advice of a piano teacher, who knew a faculty member at Rollins, Kavanaugh applied and was accepted to Rollins, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to enroll.

Although eager to develop his skills, he relished growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, and loved being around his family. He really didn’t want to leave them, but he did. It was a slow adjustment leaving a warm family up north to living among strangers at Rollins.

“I was so homesick and felt so sad,” says Kavanaugh, who now lives in Los Angeles. “But within a few days, someone heard me practicing the piano at school.” That led to several opportunities to accompany performers and eventually to create a degree merging his twin loves of music and theater—at the time, students were strongly discouraged from majoring in both. “That’s what I always wanted to do.”

While on campus, he enjoyed learning from many faculty members, including Joe Nasif, professor emeritus of theater arts and dance, and William Gallo, professor emeritus of music. “They bent over backwards to support me,” Kavanaugh says. “They created programs for me. They couldn’t have been more accommodating to my specific talent.

Kavanaugh was especially grateful for the support of Rollins President Emeritus Thaddeus Seymour ’80H, who headed the College when Kavanaugh was here. He recalls Seymour requesting him to play at college events and at the president’s own occasional magic shows. Seymour also attended many of his musical revues and even taped one of his performances to make sure that Kavanaugh had a recording of it. “Thad Seymour had a huge role in my success. I can’t thank him enough.”

For his part, Seymour said Kavanaugh’s talent was obvious from the start and he supported efforts to let the student draw on the expertise of several departments.

“We just knew how talented he was,” says Seymour, who still keeps in touch with Kavanaugh. “When John would sit down at the keyboard, things would happen. He had an ability to orchestrate and almost magically create at the keyboard.”

Looking Forward and Looking Back

These days, Kavanaugh is focused on writing songs for the third season of Sofia the First, which has been a smash with youngsters and parents.

He heaps praise on the people he works with and figures he has written about 80 songs for the series so far. He’s also excited by talk that his musical, Having It All, which had two successful runs in Los Angeles, could be headed to the New York stage.

Remaining grateful for advice and guidance received at Rollins and from mentors in the business, Kavanaugh credits his mother’s talents and interest in musical theater for initially sparking his own.

His mother, who is deceased, spent much of her life raising six children, but always found time to produce and perform in musical shows, usually to support charitable efforts for service groups such as the International Order of Alhambra and Knights of Columbus.

“She could do everything I could do,” Kavanaugh says. “And more.”

UPDATE: On July 10, John Kavanaugh and Craig Gerber were nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for their song, "Merroway Cove." The song was created as part of the television show, Sofia the First, and aired during The Floating Palace episode. The Primetime Emmys will be awarded on Aug. 25.