Sodajerker presents… Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
The podcasters talk with the multi-award winning husband and wife team about their work on the Disney smash hit ‘Frozen’
Robert and Kristen are both native New Yorkers. The former was born in 1975 and took to music at an early age, taking up the piano when he was just six. He wrote his first song at the age of seven and by age of 14 he was already writing his own musicals for his high school drama group. He continued to hone his writing talents for the next few years, as well as studying English at Yale, and upon graduating in 1997 he enrolled in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop which was essentially an intensive course on how to write musicals.
Kristen similarly showed an interest in the performing arts, starting as a child actress in commercials and kids’ theatre, then studied theatre and psychology at college. Relocating to New York shortly after graduating, she worked a series of jobs and did more acting work before also joining the BMI Lehman Engel workshop, where she was to meet her future spouse and musical collaborator in 1999.
At the time, Robert was working on a brand new puppet-based musical entitled Avenue Q with his then collaborator Jeff Marx. The show eventually premiered in 2003, the same year Kristen and Robert were wed, and was a huge hit winning two Tonys in 2004 for Best Musical and Best Original Score. In the wake of Avenue Q’s success, Robert began working on the Book Of Mormon in 2005, with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It premiered in 2011 and it too was an instant smash, winning three Tony awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical.
Meanwhile Kristen co-wrote the off-Broadway musical In Transit, which opened in 2010 and won critical acclaim. She was also the recipient of a 2014 Lilly award which honours the outstanding achievements of women in theatre.
The first official song Robert and Kristen wrote together was for Disney’s children’s show, Bear In The Big Blue House. The two also wrote together and separately for other kids’ shows like the Nickelodeon series Wonder Pets and Disney theme parks, most notably Finding Nemo – The Musical. Their relationship with Disney was further strengthened when they composed a number of songs for the 2011 Winnie The Pooh movie.
Then, of course, came Frozen. The pair were first approached by Disney in 2011 to work on the film and, as we know, when it was eventually released in 2013 the movie was a colossal box-office smash, thanks in no small part of Robert and Kristen’s outstanding contributions on the songwriting front. In fact, the soundtrack album topped the Billboard 200 for four non-consecutive weeks – the first movie soundtrack to do so since 2003. Meanwhile, the film’s signature song Let It Go performed by Idina Menzel became a Top 5 Billboard hit, winning the 2014 Oscar for Best Song and collecting a Grammy the same year for Best Song Written For Visual Media. It has since become one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, shifting over 10 million copies in 2014 alone.
In Sodajerker’s seasonal episode, the husband and wife team responsible for some of the most memorable movie music of recent years, explain how they make it happen…
You’re married, you’ve got kids, you’ve got Disney on speed-dial… When you’ve carved out the time to write, what kind of things will happen in the room?
Robert: “Generally, first we talk. We talk about the story, about the characters, because that’s the work that needs to get done before we can even think about writing melodies or lyrics. We need to talk about the theme of the project, how the characters relate to each other and where the point of entry of the song is. When do the characters break into song? That’s the moment when you can make a really cringe-worthy musical or a fantastic one; when the characters break into song.”
Kristen: “I think we also talk a lot, just in general, about what we’ve seen before, what we know from the past and what’s going on now. What we see in pop music, what’s happening in the Broadway world, how people are music, and we do think about how we can do something fresh, how we can do something that’s palletable but hasn’t been done before. That’s a big part of what we do when we’re tackling moments that are similar territory to other Disney movies: how can we be new.”
We read somewhere that you build up a collection of bits and pieces, and you might call it a ‘notions box’?
K: “Yes, that’s Bobby’s very masculine metaphor! Bobby in particular really doesn’t like to charge into a song. I like to charge and say, ‘I got it!’ and start scribbling. Bobby likes to circle it and circle it and circle it. So we’ve found compromises where I can dive in and scribble, and then from those scribbles we can collect phrases or a rhythm, then Bobby will go and noodle on the piano and not feel the pressure that the song has to be done. Out of that might come a melody or a groove that we like and then, if you collect enough of those, you do start to have something.”
R: “Then when you actually start writing, it’s like a lot of swatches of fabric that you can weave in.”
When you write are usually on some kind of deadline and writing for a specific project, or will you sometimes write for the sake of writing?
K: “Oh gone are the days of writing for the sake of writing, although every once in a while I’ll think of something I want to write and scribble it down in my phone for a future date. But, at the moment, we have a large backlog of deadlines and we just try to find the joy in the thing that we have to keep knocking out next, knowing that we’ve got a huge mountain to climb of two movies and a Broadway show that have to be done in the next 18 months.”
Both of you have done a lot of collaborating with other people as well. Do your contributions change depending on who you’re working with?
R: “Yes and no. Usually I like to be able to influence the story and the dialogue and the lyrics and the melody. I like to be able to have my fingers in all those areas and that’s how it is with me and Kristen, and that’s how it has been with all my collaborators – the South Park guys and my Avenue Q collaborators. So even though the specifics – of how much or how little on every song – might change, I could call myself ‘the composer’ and leave it at that, but I always like to have my collaborators feel like part of the writing of the music and feel the power to say ‘no, that’s too inaccessible’ or ‘that could be better’ or ‘play that up an octave’ or ‘what if the melody did this?’ I don’t want to be the gatekeeper of the music – I want to collaborate freely, back and forth.”
K: “I find that Bobby and I, as we have continued to work together now for over 12 years, there’s a trust that we have. When things are going well and we’re in the flow, I feel safe to say, ‘Can we try this melody?’ in a way that I wouldn’t do with other composers. I also really trust Bobby as editor and ‘plus-er’ – plus being a verb.”
R: “That’s a verb we learned from John Lasseter. It’s his word for making things better without the negative connotations of that.”
K: “So I do trust that I can hand over very raw material that I might not send out to someone who I collaborated with once-a-week. We just have a much free-er back and forth, in general free of judgment. Sometimes, if we’ve had a recent ‘ego blow’ our critical voices can get a little louder in the room, so then we have to put in the time to say, ‘stop it, get rid of that critic!’ But I work differently with him, because I trust him and I feel we have a much more easy back and forth.”
There’s an incredible sense of humour in a lot of musical theatre and comedy has been a big theme in your work as well. Did you guys always have a strong instinct for what you thought could be funny in a song?
R: “I had never really put that together, writing as a kid. I’d always loved comedies and humour and I loved being funny around the dinner table. I was in a humorous singing group at Yale – we did a lot of sketches and jokes. But I’d never really decided to be funny in a musical theatre song until the BMI workshop when I realised that it’s a great way to feel like you’re connecting with an audience – making them all laugh and cracking them all up – it felt like there was real power and energy in doing that.”
K: “I grew up listening to funny songs and my dad was really into novelty songs that were kind of goofy, like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer and things like that. So I grew up worshipping the funny lyric.”
When you guys are working on a project, is it sometimes difficult to feel like you want to write? Have you got tricks which help kickstart that flow?
R: “Yes, I never want to write so I’m good at those tricks! I always love to listen to other songs that could be useful to draw inspiration from, and I love watching any kind of YouTube, even if it has nothing to do with what we’re supposed to be doing. Somehow it always leads to laughter, talking and fun, and I feel like you have to manufacture that fun in order to get to a place of creativity.”
K: “I like to reward ourselves with treats. I like to say, ‘If we finish this lyric or this verse, we get to have a sandwich!’ There are a lot of sandwiches involved in our writing process and I am also fiercely ‘type A’ – I was the student that liked to get an A – so I like to have somebody to show to, who will validate us, even if it’s just our agent. It’s harder when we’re just writing in a vacuum for weeks and months, so I also find deadlines, like a workshop or a table-read, are super-important for us to get our ducks in a row and keep moving, and not just spending weeks and weeks on the same song.”
Is it good sometimes to not write together?
R: “Yeah, sometimes we do that – more and more actually. We’ll take little breaks from each other to flow, I guess. Sitting in the same room doesn’t always lead to material getting generated, because one person stops the other.”
K: “We just bought a new office so I get my own room with my own door to close, because often I’m having to flow while I’m hearing the traces of Bobby’s piano coming through headphones and I’m trying to write to a different melody. So I’m going to have my own silent chamber and I’m really looking forward to it!”
With the writing process on Frozen, it sounds like that project was quite intense for a couple of years?
R: “Yes, we were brought in the tail end of what the normal development process is. I think it’s four years for a movie, generally, and we got brought in for the second two years, or really the last 18 months because that’s how long we had to finish our work. We knew it would be crazy, but we didn’t know how crazy it would be. Every three months there was a screening of the film and we tried to write as many songs as we could for that screening. But what tended to happen was the story wouldn’t work and all of the songs would get cut! For the second screening, we wrote Let It Go and In Summer and those scenes got slated for production, so those songs had to go in. But even with those in, we ended up writing 25 songs.”
K: “And often we wrote several iterations of a song before it became the song. For instance, there were three different iterations of the troll song as it pertained to three different themes that kept changing for each screening.”
R: “Yeah, there was a song called Someone Else’s Shoes because the whole movie – for that version – was about being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We literalised it and made the trolls kind of force Kristoff and Anna to switch shoes, for real. Then we sang a whole lot about foot fungus…”
K: “And all the things you can get from borrowing someone else’s shoes! Like those rental shoes you get at a bowling alley. It was foot disease song! Super-fun Disney – I’m amazed they didn’t eat it up!”
In the writing of Let It Go, did it actually start with that very distinctive piano intro, or was it some other section?
K: “Oh Bobby played that vamp as we were talking about what it would feel like to be isolated and alone. He played that and I got chills and said, ‘That’s it! I don’t care what we’re writing, we’re writing that beautiful piano motif. ‘Let it go’ was the first piece we had from that song, because part of our process with Disney is that we’re very involved in story, so we talked for two hours almost every day during the making of Frozen, with a conference room in Burbank. We would just go back and forth on like, ‘where’s the story today?’ So we pitched the idea of a song called Let It Go once we realised that this was going to be a moment where she let her powers come out, but she was also having to let go of everything she’d ever known.”
It’s a hugely ambitious song, thinking about the range of the melody and what Idina Menzel had to sing. And lyrically too – we would’ve given you the Oscar just for getting the word ‘fractals’ into the song!
R: “Haha, yeah. We wrote it knowing that Idina would just have to get through it once, to record it. We didn’t think of the idea of having to sing it over and over again, which she had to do now, ever since!”
K: “It’s a very difficult song and it’s incredibly ‘range-y’. One of things that Bobby and I both have is a huge range. It may not be the best singing voice you’ve ever heard, but Bobby can go really low and super-crazy high, and so can I. So what happens is we often can’t find people who have those skills and also have an incredible voice that can do it each day of the week. So we’re trying to keep our ranges a little more realistic, though Idina does it and does it beautifully, and we really lucked out with her.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 62-minute interview with Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.