“It wasn’t written to terrorise”
Robert Lopez and wife Kristen Anderson-lopez are responsible for the song (sorry, parents) ‘Let It Go’. With his musical The Book Of Mormon in the midst of a hit Australian run, Lopez tells Stellar finding his creative spark has always been a family affai
With Robert Lopez’s comedy musical The Book Of Mormon in the midst of a hit Australian run, the man who brought us ‘Let It Go’ says finding his creative spark has always been a family affair.
The first song that Robert Lopez ever wrote was called ‘Oy Vey, What A Day!’ At seven, the New York native already had a flair for the funny. His talents only flourished. Today, Lopez is an acclaimed songwriter and lyricist, who co-created smash musicals Avenue Q and The Book Of Mormon and, at 42, is the youngest-ever EGOT holder.
EGOTS are a rare breed – only a dozen entertainers lay claim to winning competitive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. Lopez became one in 2014. A self-professed family man, he clinched the title when he and wife Kristen Anderson-lopez, a songwriter he met in music class in 1999, earned their Oscars for ‘Let It Go’, which became a worldwide hit after featuring in Disney’s Frozen.
Lopez insists he has no qualms about the song’s ubiquitous reign. “It was not written to terrorise anyone!” he says with a laugh. “It was written to solve a problem in the story, and to be a big moment. It’s always that for us.” The duo wrote new songs for an upcoming stage version of Frozen, which hits Broadway next year. “When we get to see it onstage now, it’s really powerful,” he tells Stellar. “It always makes us feel good to hear it.”
It had better, because the pair just can’t seem to escape Frozen’s icy clutches – or each other. They are creating new songs for the film’s sequel, slated for a 2019 release. Many would baulk at the thought of working intimately with their partner for days on end. Not Lopez.
“You get to spend all your time with your best friend in the whole world,” he reasons. “That’s good. It means you have even more in common; not just loving the same thing, having kids and living together, but being involved in a detailed way on a big project.
“Sometimes it can lead to trouble – you can have lapses in communication, more pressure and stress,” he admits. “But that usually leads to closer communication in the long run. She is the most important person in the world to me – she and our kids, obviously. I feel so lucky to get to work with someone who makes me so happy.”
Frozen was a family collaboration in more ways than one. Daughters Katie, 12, and Annie, eight, were roughly the same age as the young sisters in Frozen
when the film was being developed. They helped make demos that featured kids’ voices; Katie dreamed up a handful of lyrics. “They would be first to hear our work,” Lopez says. “We’d burn a CD and play it in the car as we picked them up from school. If they wanted to hear it again, we’d present the song to Disney. If they lost interest, that was not one we’d pass along.”
The girls also serve as a necessary reminder to their father that some of his work is decidedly not family-friendly. Lopez recounts taking Katie to see Avenue Q – which mixes humans, puppets and ribald humour – when she was four. “I was taking her in and out of the theatre all through act one [because of the frequent adult humour]. In act two, I ended up leaving her in her seat and sitting with her and watching it.” His key takeaway? “I realised there’s not enough filthy stuff in act two!”
Avenue Q, which Lopez co-wrote with lyricist Jeff Marx, was a surprise hit that went on to win three Tony awards in 2004, upstaging expected victor Wicked. Lopez has cited the film version of South Park as an inspiration; in turn, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone met Lopez when they came to see Avenue Q. Conversations ensued, creative sparks flew and, in 2006, the trio kicked off the development of The Book Of Mormon.
That musical hit Broadway in 2011, and tells the story of two American missionaries sent to a remote African village to preach the word of God. Since its premiere, it has consistently played to capacity crowds across the world. Its local production – 200-plus sellout performances in Melbourne and counting – took out a Helpmann Award in July. It broke the house record for the highest-selling on-sale period in the Princess Theatre’s 159-year history and is expected to create the same level of buzz when it hits Sydney next February.
IF AVENUE Q marked a stylistic sea change for mass-appeal musicals, The Book Of Mormon merely doubled down on Lopez’s penchant for puncturing holes in political correctness. Ahead of its debut, Lopez, Parker and Stone girded for protests. Instead, it became a bigger hit than its predecessor.
Lopez admits they were “all pretty stunned. Obviously, we’re not putting [the musical] up to offend anyone, but we did think we probably wouldn’t be able to avoid it.” He has a theory for its success: “I’m sure just the idea of South Park had a lot to do with why people came in expecting stuff that poked fun or crossed the line. Maybe what they weren’t expecting is that it’s also a real musical – with a positive message and a good emotional pay-off.”
Lopez credits his parents, Frank and Katherine, for his drive. The same year he wrote ‘Oy Vey, What A Day!’, his family was leasing a New York apartment with a piano. Wanting to bring some culture into their son’s life, Frank and Katherine paid for his piano lessons. (He and brother Billy, a screenwriter, have collaborated professionally and won two Daytime Emmys together.) His piano teacher asked him to write songs, which he did weekly. By age 14, he had expanded to full-blown musical treatments; he has not stopped since.
“It just never dawned on me that I should do anything else with my life,” Lopez says. “That of course meant I had no job plan after college.” Given he kickstarted his craft with a push from his own parents, could Katie and Annie become EGOT champs numbers 13 and 14?
“We’re never trying to push them to be [songwriters],” he tells Stellar. “It’s one thing when you’re being encouraged by your parents to do art like I was, and it is another thing when your parents are pushing you to do the things they do. That probably engenders a lot of rebellion.
“That being said,” he adds, “they have both written little songs and we love writing songs [together]. We always make up little silly jingles. We are that family.” The Book Of Mormon is now playing at the Princess Theatre Melbourne, and from February 2018 at the Sydney Lyric Theatre; bookofmormonmusical.com.au.
“‘Let It Go’ was not written to terrorise anyone!”
ICE AGE Songwriters Robert Lopez and wife Kristen AndersonLopez with their 2015 Grammy Awards for ‘Let It Go’, which featured in Disney’s Frozen.
HIGH NOTES (from top) Robert Lopez (centre) at the 2011 Tony Awards with South Park’s Trey Parker (left) and Matt Stone; with wife Kristen and daughters Annie (left) and Katie at the Frozen premiere in LA; global hit The Book Of Mormon; Ben Durocher in Avenue Q.