With Frozen (opening today), can you imagine what it would feel like if you wrote the songs and this was your first Disney animated feature? A dreamlike sense of "Is this really happening?" Exhilaration? Trepidation? For Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, it's all of the above and more.
They should have little reason to worry. Frozen is already impressing critics and generating Oscar buzz for its superb songs. And that should also come as no surprise, since Robert co-wrote the songs for Broadway's The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q; and Robert and Kristen wrote the songs for the 2011 Winnie the Pooh feature and for Finding Nemo - The Musical and The Seas With Nemo and Friends at Disney Parks.
GREG EHRBAR: This whole experience must be surreal to you.
KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ: To be able to sit in a room and play—and by "play", I mean to imagine and collaborate with people like John Lasseter, Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck and all of the storyboard writers and the Story Trust here at Disney- it's a dream come true. It’s better than any Master's program in terms of learning how to tell stories. We just soak it all up and go, "Wow! We’re here!"
ROBERT LOPEZ: When I graduated college I looked around at the landscape. I had been a Sondheim aficionado and everything I wrote kind of sounded like Sondheim. But then I looked up—I watched all the Menken things and I joined the BMI workshop, which was where Alan Menken honed his craft. I realized how incredibly influential their work was to all of musical theatre. It changed the world. Ashman and Menken changed the art form, really, and I realized I wanted to be a part of that. I really have no idea how it happened that we’re here and we're doing it, so we’re not taking a lot of time to look around, but we are really enjoying the ride.
GREG: As Disney history goes, the collaborative process between story artists and music people goes all the way back to the Silly Symphonies and Snow White. The best scores were the ones in which the songs were integrated almost inextricably from a narrative and you guys have certainly done that. In fact I saw on Facebook where you said that Oklahoma! is usually cited for that, but The Wizard of Oz should get more credit for doing it, too, and so should Snow White.
ROBERT: That's true, that's absolutely true. The kind of songs we wanted to write for Frozen were the kind that, if they were removed from the movie, nothing would make sense at all. Each song needed to bear it’s storytelling weight, but as a result a lot of the songs ended up on the floor as the story changed over the year and a half that we worked on it. We live in Brooklyn, so through video conferences, we could be in the Story Room every day for two hours with the team, hashing out where those songs should go, what the story would be, what Anna wanted, who Elsa was and things like that.
KRISTEN: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck were really open and incredible. You don't always get that with people who have achieved their kind of success. Together, we were all trying to figure out how do we tell this epic adventure story musically. There were times where we had to say, “If you have them do this or that, they can’t sing a song here because this thing happening in front of the song doesn’t launch it properly. And to their credit, they always listened and said, "I know you guys are on to something and we’ll listen to you."
ROBERT: When you’re coming up with a scene that leads into a song, there have to be “arrows” pointing to that song. They were incredibly receptive to what we bought to the process.
KRISTEN: And also they allowed us to have a lot more input on storyboards and weighing in on what the artists were doing with our songs. They always gave us a tremendous amount of collaborative power in that situation, which I hear doesn’t always happen.
ROBERT: The whole animation process was just magic to us. We got to watch it all develop. Just to be able to have a front row seat for this incredible Disney process was such a treat
GREG: I think you brought a certain kind of musical innovation to the Disney animated feature. While Frozen, as a musical, is done with respect to the form and classic nature of a Disney musical feature, you introduced the "revue" song. There have been funny songs in a past Disney films, but the song that Hans and Anna’s song, "Love is An Open Door," and Olaf's song, "In Summer," have that affectionate but satirical revue feel, sort of like Avenue Q without the spicy language.
ROBERT: (laughs) Right, right.
KRISTEN: (laughs) Well, the Hans and Anna song had some work to do because you had to understand why Anna would just rush into the arms of someone she'd just met. We had to take the audience on "the most fun first date." We used to call it the "Golf 'n Stuff." It's a reference from The Karate Kid - the scene where Ralph Macchio takes Elizabeth Shue to Golf 'n Stuff and they play Skee Ball and end up singing karaoke and it seemed like they were made for each other. That was fun for us. I certainly dated a guy like Hans - where you had a great date and then you find yourself taking two years to get extricated from that! How does that happen? It happens because you have a magical date where you sing cheesy karaoke together!
ROBERT: It always worked for me.
KRISTEN: And we wrote "In Summer: especially for Josh Gad, the voice of Olaf.
ROBERT: I know Josh Gad from having collaborated with him on The Book of Mormon. He really is a creative, comic force. We know his voice, what he is good at and what’s funny about him. In terms of the animation, the storyboard artist was Jeff Ranjo and he just did an amazing job. He got it immediately.
GREG: When you
look at "In Summer," it’s very compassionate to Olaf's situation and yet it is
kind of making gentle fun of his complete naivete That seems to be a thread in
your work. The best kind of satire contains a measure of affection. You lose
something when it's purely snarky. In Frozen and Winnie the Pooh, you love the
characters but chuckle because sometimes they’re a little delusional, too.
ROBERT: That's true, that's very well observed. We always try to write in a balanced way, so it's really more homage than satire. With Disney, it's very difficult to fall back on true satire. You want to write a "real" story without a whole lot of irony because irony tends to get a little flimsy.
KRISTEN: You shoot to make something that will stand up ten months from now, then ten years from now and then ten decades from now. You work your butt off doing it. There are 25 songs that we wrote for this movie that didn’t make the cut.
ROBERT: An animated movie has fewer song slots than a Broadway show. The very last bit of the movie probably doesn’t have any songs at all, so every song has to count.
GREG: But when a song you loved is cut, how do you weather that?
KRISTEN: I was just talking to my children about that on the way here. It is my job to teach them two things: kindness and resilience. When they asked what resilience was, I said, "You know Mommy and Daddy used to come back from a screening of Frozen and we would be very depressed and we would eat a lot of sandwiches, but then after about a day or two we’d say, 'Okay, time to write another song for Frozen?' That’s resilience. We could choose to get upset or to be grateful that we have this opportunity."
ROBERT: You also have to be a bit compulsive. I think we’re gluttons for punishment in a weird way. There is nothing more important in our life than each other, our family and songwriting –
KRISTEN: -- and sandwiches.
ROBERT: The kinds of movies that I watch over and over again are the ones about the pain of the creative process like Topsy Turvy and The Sweatbox, movies like that. I assume Saving Mr. Banks is going to be one of those that I watch on a loop, because I’m fascinated at what people go through to create the movies or songs that I dearly love.
KRISTEN: There are about five things that Bobby will watch again and again, like The Making of Star Wars and The Making of The Godfather. We did watch those movies every time we came back from a screening. We’d watch The Sweatbox and saw that, after a disappointment, Sting got up and Sting did it. That was very inspiring for us. To convey the messages of Frozen - about sisters, family and the power of love over fear - that opportunity reminded us of our "true north" and got us back in the ring.
GREG: Sometimes the pain as well as the joy, no matter who you are, that is part of the creative process.
ROBERT: Absolutely. It’s unavoidable because no one is good 100% of the time. You don't really know what project you’re going to end up with when you start on one. You only have a vague idea. Then it seems like everything shifts as something that you’re proud of falls to the floor. You have to embrace the idea that losing something important to you can make way for something even better.
KRISTEN: Morey Yeston, our teacher at BMI, used to always say, "No matter how many shows you finish, no matter what you achieve, no matter how many awards you get, if you start a project you are starting at the beginning. It’s just like starting for the first time."
ROBERT: You’re just as dumb as you ever were.
GREG: Do you kind of trade off on music and lyrics, do you sort of go back and forth?
ROBERT: We work at it together, both at the same time.
KRISTEN: Bobby plays the piano and we do a lot of talking about story and situation. Then we create what Bobby calls a "notions box" of things to pull from, whether it's a hook, words or a rhythm. We just keep building and building until something jells.
GREG: So it's not like Ann Sothern and Robert Young in the movie, Lady Be Good? They just sat down and wrote a song in a few seconds - and it was a Gershwin song!
ROBERT: Once in a while it approaches something like that but most of the time it’s more like "AAACK! No way! What have we got?"
KRISTEN: Sometimes I’ll give Bobby a lyric and go out for a run and when I come back he will have musicalized it, but those are very few and far between.
ROBERT: Ann Sothern didn’t have to go out for a run, though.
KRISTEN: Yeah, well, she probably didn't eat as many sandwiches.
GREG: That leads to you as partners in business, creative and marriage. My wife and I are very loving in our family, but there’s a necessary aspect of business organization to it as well. Is that the way you see it?
ROBERT: Yep. It’s like that, and communication is the key to both enterprises. It's about constantly talking not taking shortcuts with each other, really hearing what the other person has to say, realizing that conflict can be good and that it can lead to something better. That goes for family and marriage too I think.
GREG: When somebody says a phrase and it’s part of a song, my wife and I usually just start singing it. Do you do that, too?
KRISTEN: Yeah, sometimes. For Bobby, it will usually be either a Beatles song or something from Sondheim. For me it will be Lady Gaga or Pippin.
GREG: So I guess you like all kinds of music because there is a very eclectic feel to the score of Frozen.
KRISTEN: Definitely. I would say I have more of a foot in the top-40 world than Bobby naturally does just because it somehow gets in by osmosis, but Bobby loves some of the classic hits. He’s also a huge Billy Joel fan. That’s how he gets the girls. That’s how he got me.
KRISTEN: It does sound corny but it’s true and we remind ourselves everyday to be mindful of being grateful to be in this position as a couple, a family and songwriters.
GREG: And the songs you've created will go on forever. That’s awesome to consider. Being part of a Disney project like Frozen is a major achievement.
KRISTEN: We’re incredibly grateful.