With Up Here, Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez Are Blending Broadway & TV
The musical rom-com series is the latest collaboration from the couple who brought us the Frozen soundtrack.
How does a musical power couple spend Valentine’s Day? For songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez — who have been married for 20 years and share two daughters — it looked like family dinner followed by music tech work a month before the premiere of their musical rom-com series, Up Here.
Blending their personal and professional partnership is nothing new, though. “What’s great about Kristen is that she is my very best friend,” Lopez says. “It’s like a playdate every day. When we approach it correctly and put each other above the material, it always results in better work.”
Based on the couple’s 2015 stage musical of the same name, Up Here revolves around the budding relationship between Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes): two lonely people whose insecurities, personified by singing voices, threaten to cut their connection short. It’s the latest project to come out of the Lopezes’ long-running collaboration, which has generated such earworms as “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Agatha All Along” from WandaVision, and helped Lopez become the youngest person ever to reach EGOT status, after collecting an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony by age 39. (He recently became the first person to earn enough awards for two EGOTs, while Anderson-Lopez, for her part, just needs a Tony to complete the set.)
But before they nabbed all those trophies, they were a couple of creatives who met in 1999 New York City — just like Lindsay and Miguel. “Neither of us had experienced dating since the ‘90s ... so we didn’t want to write about swiping and apps and all that stuff,” Lopez says. Setting Up Here in the recent past let the couple tap into their personal experiences, though the show isn’t autobiographical. “I can promise you, [Robert] never cried from a hand job,” Anderson-Lopez says, referencing a particularly awkward hookup from Episode 1.
The eight-episode season (which is now streaming on Hulu) features original songs, and co-stars Broadway luminaries like Katie Finneran, Andréa Burns, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. “We’re really trying to see if we could do a new musical in this other genre that we love, the streaming half-hour sitcom series,” Anderson-Lopez says. “And see if you could go as seriously as if you were going on Broadway, and seeing a new musical in New York.”
Below, the Lopezes discuss working together, their Frozen family, and their go-to lyric for beating songwriter’s block.
On Bringing Up Here To TV
Which song was the most fun to watch come alive?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: There was something fantastic about shooting “What If?” on Sixth Street, the street that I walked when I was 20-something in the ‘90s. I couldn’t afford to live there. I had to live in Washington Heights at the time. So to have the whole street shut down and have huge moon lights and cameras everywhere, and dancers, and trailers — it was a very surreal moment.
Robert Lopez: For me, it was the main title-slash-finale. That was a dream of ours: to write the main title for our own sitcom. In Friends, you have “I’ll Be There for You,” and you hear the short version in front of every episode. And then they released a longer version for the radio. We thought that [idea] would be cool to use as the finale of the entire musical, so we surprise the audience with more of that song. It keeps going, and it climaxes, and it brings everybody back. It’s cool to take something from television, something from Broadway — the main title and the finale — and morph them together.
Were there any musical TV shows that inspired you when taking the adaptation from stage to screen?
Kristen: Every musical TV show. When I was a little kid, I used to think the purpose of God was for me to pray to them to do the musical episode of The Brady Bunch: “Dear God, please let it be the one where they try to win the plate for their mom and dad’s anniversary,” or, “Please let it be the one where Peter’s voice changes.” From then on, it was Fame. And then it was when Annie got turned into a musical [film] with Aileen Quinn. And then Glee. And we’re huge fans of Schmigadoon! If there’s singing and storytelling, we’re there.
On Partnership, In Every Sense Of The Word
What has surprised you most about the collaborative process as your partnership has evolved?
Robert: We used to hate when a song would get cut. But now, since we like our process so much more than we used to, we don’t mind when a song gets cut because we get to go back and write another song — which is kind of our favorite thing.
Kristen: It’s not surprising to me, but when he just spontaneously comes up with a beautiful piece of music — it’s just an incredible gift to be the first person to hear one of the top composers in the world.
What was your first dance song at your wedding?
Kristen: It was “In My Life” [by The Beatles].
Robert: The little classical bridge, the piano solo. We did an improvised courtly waltz.
Kristen: Bobby also created the wedding march. We didn’t do the traditional wedding march. I came down the aisle to a beautiful original composition. And my friend, James Allen, composed a beautiful version of “The Irish Blessing.” Everyone sang a cappella.
Robert: And my brother-in-law requested “The Chicken Dance” from the DJ.
Are there any ‘90s songs that remind you of the early days of your relationship?
Robert: The CD that we always had in our player back then was the soundtrack of Magnolia, all those Aimee Mann songs. We just loved that. And that’s sort of where we started Up Here, this new version — we thought of a six-piece, indie rock band, and we put it together using Tom Kitt, who did the arrangements along with myself and Justin Ward Weber. It was different than a lot of the projects we’ve done, where we have a bigger orchestra with clarinets and all that stuff. This was making rock music.
Kristen: It was so much fun because while we were recording, we would have a story hour before we played. I would be like, “OK, I need you to channel the most jealous, alienated feeling into this” for “So Many Ways.” On “I Am Not Alone,” I was like, “I want you to feel as cosmically connected to the person you love. Channel every bit of your biggest, most romantic, softest heart into playing this.” And it really did change the way the music came out.
What music do you turn to when you need to get out of writer’s block or a creative funk?
Kristen: “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new” [from Sunday in the Park with George’s “Move On”], which is basically Sondheim’s beautiful stream-of-consciousness gift he gave every writer — every artist — about how to get out of writer’s block.
Robert: The other incredible thing we had in this process was a writers room. We were able to dip into this collective hive of stories and feelings and ideas, and come up with a zillion ideas for a song. And not only that, Steven Levenson is one of the best book writers on Broadway and understands the architecture of a musical. It’s been a beautiful collaboration. We had to write all this stuff in a very short amount of time, and I don’t remember ever being stuck.
Kristen: No, we had so much to say about self-doubt, paranoia, and crippling voices.
On Their Frozen Family — & Their Real One
Frozen turns 10 this year! How do you view the soundtrack’s legacy today?
Kristen: There’s this incredible family that came out of Frozen. We have a group chat — that whenever something good happens to Kristen [Bell], or Idina [Menzel], or Jonathan [Groff], or [directors] Jennifer [Lee] or Chris Buck, we’re so connected to this incredible group of artists and human beings. And that was not something that I recognized we would have 10 years ago.
Robert: And also, those 10 years that have elapsed since Frozen came out were mostly consumed by making more Frozen — making the Broadway show, making Frozen 2. And now they’ve announced Frozen 3. And honestly, it’s been one of the great joys of our life to have these characters that have supported more and more musical universe building.
Your family has been such a major part of your story. Does music play a big role in your everyday life at home?
Kristen: Oh, yeah. Both our kids are in musicals. One just finished playing Olive Ostrovsky in Spelling Bee. We saw it four times in four days. And the other one is in Bye, Bye, Birdie. They’re both incredibly musical. Katie, our oldest, is turning into a beautiful singer-songwriter herself. When she sends me a piece of a song, I feel as excited as when Taylor Swift drops an album. Because she’s so good, and her voice is so beautiful. And I’m not just being a stage mother! I really think she’s got something special, because she’s got her father’s melodic sensibility and my psychological sensibility.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.