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Writing Songs for “Frozen”: An Interview with Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

Writing Songs for "Frozen": An Interview with Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

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

KRISTEN:  Absolutely. 

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:  Right!

KRISTEN:  No.

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?

KRISTEN:  Exactly.

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.

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Comments

Bethany de Maio

This couple are amazing- I hope I can collaborate with them one day..

Christine

It's spelled "Maury Yeston"

TheCarMan

Earlier I heard my daughter listening to a CD, to which I asked, "Why are you all of a sudden listening to Finding Nemo?" She replied that it wasn't Finding Nemo, it was Frozen. Are you kidding? … I could have bet the house that it was the former. The same inflections, the same style of voice, similar musical motifs … etc. etc. Is this all there now is at Disney? Another rehash of material? Yes, I understand that composers do acquire a certain sound that identifies them just from listening (Beethoven, Bach, Wagner are great examples), but if anyone else made this soundtrack as it stands, they would liable for outright copyright theft … and rightly so. Far too little originality here.

gabriela

can I use let it go in my film for the film festival

Arlen Miller

Great interview Greg!!!

Nic Kramer

I'm still hoping that these two eventually work on a Muppet project. While I enjoy Bretts' songs for the Muppets, I really want Robert and Kristen to have their turn. I'm still dissapointed that the Henson Company didn't pick up Robert's proposed "Kermit, Prince of Demark" idea which he tried to sell in the late '90's as I found his song demos very catchy.

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