‘Up Here’ Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Bobby Lopez Interview
Mar 25, 2023
Written by Steven Levenson and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, with original songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Hulu original musical romantic comedy series Up Here follows the love story of Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes), who must overcome their own insecurities, anxieties and fears, and ignore the voices inside their heads, if they’re going to find happiness with each other. Set in New York City in the last days of 1999, with the dread of Y2K looming, Lindsay and Miguel sing and dance their way through their journeys of self-discovery, as they try to figure things out for themselves and each other.
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During this interview with Collider, the Lopez songwriting duo talked about writing songs for a musical about ordinary people, why the songs they write help them feel less alone, how their songwriting partnership has evolved, seeing Whitman and Valdes step into these roles, and having the ability to pick projects that they’re passionate about and can pour themselves into. They also talked about how they found out that there would be a Frozen III, and whether they’re on board to write the songs.
Collider: I absolutely loved this and had so much fun with it.
KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Oh, thank you. That’s so nice to hear. You’ve just made our day. You’re our favorite person.
When you hear the word “musical,” you don’t typically expect it to be a contemporary story about ordinary people. It’s Cabaret, it’s Chicago, or it’s something else that’s big and flashy, often set in some other long time ago period. Instead, you manifested anxiety and self-doubt and emotion into songs. Was it ever challenging to get people to understand what you wanted to do with this? Did anyone ever suggest, at any point, to add some crazy hook to all of this, like setting it in an outer space or something?
ROBERT LOPEZ: Oh, my gosh, it’s so funny that you say that because that’s exactly where this idea was born. When I was in the BMI workshop, long ago as a student, they were teaching us what stories make good musicals, and they always said, “Set them in the long ago and far away because everybody knows that people in the modern day don’t break out into song and it will strain credibility, if they do.” And then, they said, “Have your main character be extroverted and larger than life, and know what they want, and have clear external obstacles, in order for people to root for them, and then they get it at the end.” That bummed me out because I always wanted to write a story about ordinary people, people like myself who are very introverted and self-warning and have problems expressing themselves.
KRISTEN: Write what you know.
ROBERT: So, the idea was born out of that. What if you set the musical in the mind of someone like me, or someone like this? That was the first idea for it, but it’s really evolved into something quite special, thanks to our great team.
Image via Hulu
I love big, flashy Broadway shows, but it’s also fun to have something like this, that you can really relate to on a personal level because everybody’s had some of these emotions before.
KRISTEN: One of the reasons we love writing the songs that we do and writing the projects that we do is because stories that address things that we care about, and especially our psychology, make us feel less alone. One of the reasons we really held on, because we were working on this for 17 years – it took a while to really crack it – was that we really have something to say about relationships and how hard it is to connect. Bobby and I spent every single waking minute of the day together, we raise children together, we write musicals together, and there are still times that I turn to him and I go, “Who the F are you? What? Where is this coming from?” I feel like, if people feel a little less alone and a little more inspired to turn to their loved one or to take a risk and share something with someone they love and that they’re trying to connect with, then we will have done our job with this. And also, if they laugh at themselves. Huge emotions are funny. Picking up the phone to call someone can be the hugest, most epic risk that you have ever taken, in your entire life. And it can have a soundtrack that’s bigger than Mission: Impossible, to just say, “Hi,” to somebody that you want to know.
We know you guys as a duo, and when you’re so good at what you do, to the outsider, it seems like that must be effortless. Did your songwriting partnership just always work for you, or are you always changing and adapting and trying to shake things up? How different does it look now, compared to when you started doing it?
ROBERT: They say a good collaboration is like a marriage, and we’ve gotten to do both things, and use tips and tricks from one for the other. When we first got started, honestly, I was the one who had a little more success and experience. All my training said that the song is the most important thing, so however you have to get to that is the way you make a great song with your collaborator. But it was leading to a lot of, as it always does, push and pull and struggle. When asked, “What comes first, the words or the music?,” we used to say, “The fight.”
KRISTEN: “The fight over who’s gonna be in control.” Over the years, in collaboration, we’ve learned so much, as individuals, through therapy. One of the things we both learned is how to communicate differently. We actually learned this wonderful means of communication that we still use in our collaboration today where, if things get really tense, sometimes we have to say, “Okay, we need to have conscious dialogue,” which means that I’m going to talk to you and I’m gonna say, “Here’s what I’m feeling right now. I am feeling that your attitude is making me close down. I brought you something that was really fresh and raw, and you shut it down immediately. It makes me feel very defensive, and I’m bringing that defensiveness into the room.” And then, his job is to then reflect that back to me and say, “You’re feeling a little defensive because I shut you down. Is there anything else?” And then, I have to say, “Oh, yeah, and actually that other thing that happened at breakfast also made me feel this thing.” And he’s like, “So, you’re mad about what happened at breakfast. Anything else?” And then, I can go, “No, you’ve got that right.” And then, he has to say, “That makes sense to me because I was a dick at breakfast. I was just shutting you down.” And then, he gets to do his thing, and I have to reflect it back to him. That way, we really slow down the process and hear each other, and have to see it from each other’s point of view. That’s been a game changer in our relationship and in our collaboration, when things get tense.
Image via Hulu
I absolutely love Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes in this. I just think they’re both so spectacular. When you spend so much time thinking about something like this, before you get to do it, what’s it like to actually see the visual of what these characters would be and how they would bring these songs to life?
ROBERT: It’s a joy to get to work with Tommy Kail. One of the things Tommy does best of all is casting. He was the one that brought in Mae. When we heard Mae do “Please Like Me” for her audition, she just blew us out of the room. We were like, “This is Lindsay. Here she is.” And similarly with Carlos, who the writing room came up as an idea to play Miguel, he sent in a tape of him singing “I Am Not Alone” and just nailed it. We do our own demos. We sing everything for ourselves, and for a little while, we are the characters. But it’s when you hear that actor completely embody and change and elevate the thing that you made, that you know you’ve found the right person. Not only that, Mae and Carlos, when they met, had so much chemistry together. It just bounced off into the seats that we were sitting in. We just thought they were incredible together.
We got a bit of a surprise announcement that there would be a Frozen III happening.
ROBERT: It was to us, as well.
Please tell me that you’ll be returning to do the music for that. Did they tell you that was coming?
KRISTEN: They told us, the day of, and a little bit about what they’re thinking. It got us very excited. Now, we have to let the wheels of Hollywood do what they do, but we were very excited with their ideas.
Image via Hulu
When you have characters like the ones in Up Here, and we don’t have resolution to their story, and you have characters like the ones in Frozen, and you have the characters of WandaVision, are those the voices that are following you around, all the time?
ROBERT: The thing that we love about our own career, if we can say something we love about it, is that we get to pick projects that we feel so passionate about. With Frozen, when they showed us the pictures of Little Anna and Little Elsa, we were like, “That’s Katie and Annie. That’s our kids. This is for them. This is what we have to be saying to the world right now.” Same thing with Up Here, which is really about relationship and emotion and trusting that, if you work to communicate, you can communicate.
KRISTEN: WandaVision came, ironically, right before the world shut down and we were all living in our own little Westviews. WandaVision was about going through the decades with your spouse and celebrating what we love. We love TV theme songs. We’re eighties kids who were raised by the TV, so we knew all of that, and it was this great place to put our passion and our love. Everything we do, we pour a huge amount of our own selves into.
Up Here is available to stream at Hulu.
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