The world knows husband-and-wife songwriting team Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez as the creators of the song that plays on repeat in every household with young people in it, which transcends barriers of language and culture, which has brought the Disney oeuvre to a new level—the song people just can’t seem to let go, and with good reason.
To me, the Lopezes are distant cousins—indeed, though we’ve never met, they’re the only relatives I know who share my interest in theatre. I took the opening of their new musical Up Here at the La Jolla Playhouse as an opportunity to reach out to them and learn a bit more about the development process of this long-gestating passion project, about how they balance parenthood and work—and maybe suss out how much of their genius might be swimming in my gene pool.
KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ: So how are we related? Are we cousins?
ALLISON CONSIDINE: My mom and your mom are first cousins– so we are second cousins.
BOBBY LOPEZ: So what does that make us?
Maybe add a “removed” in there. Kristen, I remember meeting your parents at a family reunion and they said that you were into theatre—I didn’t realize then the scope of your theatrical endeavors. Bobby, you started developing Up Here even before Avenue Q, which opened in 2003. How long has this project been in your heads?
BOBBY: It must be almost 15 or 16 years—something like that. It was one of the first things on my list of things to do when I joined the BMI Workshop in 1997.
The musical is about a thirtysomething computer repairman who finds a potential romantic spark with a T-shirt designer, but the only thing holding him back from happiness are the voices inside his head. What inspired you to create this Technicolor subconscious world?
BOBBY: I am an introverted type and I’ve always been quiet and shy, but I have a lot going on on the inside. When I first joined the BMI Workshop, I learned that some of the guidelines to creating a musical are to select a project with an extroverted, larger-than-life main character who has clear external goals and an external obstacle, and that it should be set in the long ago and far away. To me, that seems like a challenge—to try and somehow write a musical that would break all of those rules, yet not break the rules of making a good musical. So I figured that if you set the musical inside the mind of this guy, you would have all of kinds of larger-than-life, colorful characters that would be his obstacles toward happiness, and because the inside of someone’s head is the most brightly colored, surreal landscape imaginable. And it’s never been done as a big musical before. It excited me to think that a small story is told with a big show and a big cast—to see a huge chorus that represented the world of his mind. I’d never seen anything like that done before, and it just inspired me.
What has the development process been from the conception in 1997 to the rehearsals at La Jolla Playhouse?
BOBBY: I thought about it for five years and didn’t do anything until Kristen came on board, and I said, “Do you want to do this with me?” She came up with the idea of making the story a somewhat traditional boy-meets-girl plot.
KRISTEN: I really enjoy romantic comedies. When I was in a bad relationship, people kept saying, “Wow, relationships have a way of bringing out all the good and bad in a person.” If you want to know what your issues are, get in a relationship and they’ll come out immediately. When Bobby told me about this idea, it was after Avenue Q and he was in Vegas, we had just had a baby and had just finished Finding Nemo the Musical for Disney. He was writing to a couple of Pulitzer Prize-winning book writers about it, and I was helping him sort of craft the letters and he turned to me and said, “Why don’t we just do this together?” We had already worked together on Finding Nemo and I had been sort of a librettist for that one, and so we started working. But it was also at the beginning of parenting, and working on The Book of Mormon and In Transit. So it has been a slow boil. It was supposed to come to La Jolla in 2011 and then some financing fell through. Then we were busy with Frozen, Book of Mormon, and In Transit. It took us another four years to time it out with our children’s schedules and our lives to get here in 2015.
You previously wrote Finding Nemo the Musical together, but how has it been to work on a full-length original stage musical?
BOBBY: It’s been exhilarating—it is so different and so strange and it comes completely from our imaginations. The story, obviously, is original, but the universe is also original. There is a moment when, for example, the main character, Dan, has just told the main female romantic lead, Lindsay, that he loves her but he got interrupted and separated. So he is back at home waiting to hear from her and trying to stay in a good mood, but getting a headache. And there is a big musical number called “Happy Go Lucky,” where these miners from his subconscious come in digging around, trying to find his “happy go lucky” and making his headache worse by banging their pickaxes against the walls of his mind. Then there is a parade of beautiful dancing cactuses who do a hoedown dance with him and poke him with their cactus needles.
KRISTEN: We’re trying to visualize what it’s like when you are trying to stay positive and all signs are pointing to: Don’t stay positive, it’s time to protect yourself, something bad has just happened. That horrible dissonance you feel when you put yourself out there and you haven’t gotten any positive feedback back. That is sort of the world of this musical, as opposed to Finding Nemo, where we could always consult the original script or go watch the movie. Right now when the director or choreographer—Alex Timbers and Joshua Bergasse—get stuck, they say, “Let’s ask Bobby and Kristen, it comes from their brains.” There is no text to turn to; it’s not an adaptation of anything.
You’ve got puppet designers, projection designers, dancing cacti. What has it been like bringing your visions to life with the creative team?
BOBBY: Alex has on the project since the beginning; we brought him in before we had finished Act One, which was in 2007 or 2008. So when people started to bring in designs just a few months ago, Alex brought us in to the design process and got our feedback about almost everything, from the costumes to the projections to the set. That is as involved as we have ever been on a visual design level. It is only appropriate that we be involved because we created the universe of this, and we have some idea how it will look.
KRISTEN: Alex also does weigh in on story. He is definitely a third collaborator on the whole thing. Since he has been involved since the beginning, I think it would be a very different piece if we had a different director. He also is a lot like Dan, our main character; both Bobby and Alex tend to be sort of soft-spoken, gentle, kind men on the outside but have tons going in on the inside. They both went to Yale, they both overthink things a bit…They both use large words.
With an approaching opening date set, what is the creative process now? Are things still changing in rehearsals?
KRISTEN: Things change every day. When we first got here, the first week we took a whole sequence out of Act Two, a whole giant 10-minute scene—and that was after just hearing the first read-through with no visuals. But every day we are shifting lines, changing intentions. We are in the room.
BOBBY: We are doing our best to try and cut it down, knowing that quicker is better. If it is a little long now, it will feel even longer further into the run and you want it to be as lean and mean as it can be—without losing what you love about it.
KRISTEN: And then the real work starts. You can’t really know what you have until you get it in front of an audience. You can never see things as clearly as you do when you are sitting in the back of the theatre and you are watching an audience experience it—because that’s when you know if what you imagined is resonating with all the minds in the room or not. That is a terrifying part of the process, and you just get through it and do the best you can to be good parents during that time.
That brings me to my next question: With two little girls, how do you balance work and life while trying to open a musical out-of-town?
BOBBY: Anyone who doesn’t have kids doesn’t know how hard it is to have kids. It is a constant job for both parents at all times. Even when your kids are as great as ours, it is just a lot of work, a lot of worry, a lot of being involved. And I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been with an original musical out-of-town knows how much work that is…So when you have both parents as sole writers on a new musical out of town, you have a recipe for disaster.
KRISTEN: My sister Kate is coming for previews, and that’s one of the harder times—when we are at rehearsals, putting in changes during the day, and we have to be at the show at night.
Honestly, as a mother in theatre the key is great childcare and also knowing when you have to say, “You know what? I’ve got to be with my kids right now.” That’s a hard thing to have to do. And I will say that musical theatre institutions and practices are really not set up for working mothers—like the fact that none of the regional theatres, except for La Jolla, really offer summer out-of-town slots. The Lilly Awards are really working on getting more institutions to have childcare—childcare is so huge, and right now we are lucky to be in a position where we can afford to pay our childcare independently.
BOBBY: We are taking a huge loss on this entire summer.
KRISTEN: And we are doing it because this is our dream project that we love, but if we didn’t have other royalties we couldn’t have done this.
So for those of us on the East Coast, any chance of seeing Up Here any time soon?
BOBBY: A 100 percent chance if you come out to San Diego!
KRISTEN: San Diego is a great city– we love it here, you should come! We don’t know what we have until we see it in front of an audience.
What has it been like creating this stage musical after Frozen?
BOBBY: I think it hasn’t changed very much, except that our process of working with Disney, with John Lasseter, with a number of the great minds at Disney and Pixar, has just educated us and made us better storytellers. So we were able to look at Up Here again in a different light and fix the story in a way that we weren’t able to five or six years ago when we were heading to our first production that fell through.
KRISTEN: When you work for Disney, you learn that story is everything and you can’t be precious, even if it is something you love—we wrote lots of songs we loved for Frozen that ended up on the floor. It has taught us the very tough lesson of sometimes you have to throw out your favorite things in order to serve the story. And we are trying to keep that in mind as we head into production.
BOBBY: Also, candidly, before Frozen and winning the Oscar, I think people who wanted to look at us as a husband and wife doing a vanity project were able to look at us that way—and now they are maybe more likely to take us seriously.
KRISTEN: I do think it is tough for women. Men are judged on their potential and women are judged on their successes. People will take a risk on a man based on potential; they will take a risk on a woman based on her past achievement. So Frozen certainly has opened doors for me. But that bias exists in our culture.
The other thing I will add is that our producers and La Jolla Playhouse are really taking a risk that other institutions and people tend to not. There are a lot of small original musicals and a lot of large adaptations of movies or books, but so few people take a risk on a bigger, original musical that comes just from the brains of the authors. La Jolla Playhouse is one of the few places that is incubating larger, original musicals in our country.
BOBBY: We think that is the sort of musicals people want to see—musicals that take a risk and that are on the scale that make them exciting. Not that chamber musicals can’t be exciting, but people love a big musical.
Up Here runs at La Jolla Playhouse July 28 through Sept. 6.