Known for writing original music for Disney’s Winnie the Pooh and Frozen, for which she and her husband, Robert Lopez, won an Academy Award and two GRAMMYs, Kristen Anderson-Lopez is now returning to her roots for her latest project: In Transit, an a cappella musical now in previews and officially opening on Broadway Sunday, Dec. 11. The show, starring Justin Guarini of American Idol fame, tells the intertwined stories of 11 New Yorkers navigating the challenges of city life.
Yes, before becoming a sought-after lyricist for upcoming films such as Disney’s Gigantic, Lopez made music with her mouth in the a cappella group Bob Ross Juice Box with In Transit’s book, music and lyric co-writers, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth. It was there that the idea for a “theatricappella” experience first came together. “We were not fantastic as a group, but I’m really excited that we found our way to writing and sharing these stories,” Lopez tells ET.
The first song for the show was written in 1999, when Lopez enrolled in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York City. “That’s where I met my husband and that’s where I learned to write musical theater,” she says of her time in the workshop, whose alumni have written music and lyrics for A Chorus Line, Avenue Q, Little Shop of Horrors and Ragtime. It was there she discovered her calling as a lyricist. “At that time, it was like having a rush of first love. So anything that happened in my life that year, I would turn into a lyric.”
A New York native, Lopez was inspired by the city. “They were looks at what it was like to be single in NYC or, you know, how annoying it was to be on the subway,” Lopez says of the lyrics she would write and her a cappella group would perform at their next gig. Soon, they discovered they had enough songs for a show and on Sept. 13, 2001, Kaplan, Lopez and Wordsworth met at Ford’s apartment, where the four of them promised themselves they would write a love letter to the city.
In the 15 years since, the group stopped performing the songs. “We were able to look at it from the outside as a show,” Lopez says. The show evolved and landed Off-Broadway in 2010 before finally making its way to Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway with additional vocal arrangements perfected by Deke Sharon. (Sharon previously served as executive producer and coach of NBC’s The Sing-Off and wrote arrangements for the Pitch Perfect films.) Oh, and a little thing called Frozen happened.
While Lopez’s husband, Robert, had has success on Broadway, co-writing the music and lyrics for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the pair wrote seven songs for Winnie the Pooh, it wasn’t until “Let It Go” became a phenomenon that the pair became internationally recognized. Frozen grossed over a billion dollars worldwide at the box office. “Let It Go,” sung in the film by Idina Menzel, sold 10.9 million copies in 2014, peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and earned Robert EGOT status.
Now, the animated film about Elsa and her younger sister, Anna, is being adapted for Broadway, first opening for a limited run in Denver in 2017 before heading to the St. James Theatre in New York City in the spring of 2018.
While the script is quite similar to the film, Lopez and her husband had to expand the eight songs heard on the soundtrack to 23 for the stage in nine months. “You’re at the bottom of a giant mountain that you need to climb, and that’s where we were September of 2015,” she says of having to turn those core songs into a musical by May of this year. “We said, we know we have something to say and let’s just dig deeper.”
Beyond the movie, the dresses, the backpacks and the endless assortment of promotional items that have made Frozen a billion-dollar brand, Lopez says the story “comes from a very personal, emotional place of what happens when a family is dealing with secrecy and shame and how you heal that.” As a result, they were able to go deeper with Anna’s character, in particular, and build a real romance between her and Kristoff.
An unlikely source of inspiration: Star Wars. During the writing process, Robert discovered the podcast Star Wars Oxygen: The Music of John Williams, which dives deep into the music and choices Williams made with the score. “That really influenced how we approached Frozen musically,” Lopez says, adding that it also influenced her writing. “Suddenly, you have a burst. You birthed a new sound that feels like it’s related to what exists but is the bedrock to build a new song on.”
Of course, they were able to test new songs on their two daughters, who were around during the writing process of the film and musical. “They’ve heard everything,” Lopez admits, before adding that they performed the demo for one of the new tracks. (But before you get too jealous, they haven’t seen any of the production. “It’s been during their school hours. School is important.”)
“What’s nice is we were given the focus to do that,” Lopez says. Unfortunately, their commitments to Frozen, Gigantic and In Transit did mean they had to turn down some opportunities, such as writing music for Moana. Eventually, Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda was hired for the soundtrack. “A little secret: We recommended him for the job,” Lopez says with pride. “They asked for some names and at the top of the list was Lin-Manuel. Don’t look now, but that little Lin-Manuel has taken over the world.”
As for Disney’s animated adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk, which will follow Jack as he encounters a child giantess living in the clouds, Lopez promises a very different tone than that of Frozen. “Frozen was darker than what Gigantic is going to be,” she says, while still promising epic moments. “But each project is like a child. You have to let it unfold and meet it where it needs to be. We’re in the middle of forming it right now.”
While they’re still figuring out what Gigantic will ultimately sound like, one thing is for sure: They’re not trying to write another “Let It Go.” “We’d go nuts if we tried to write that for every project,” Lopez says. “But you just don’t know. We didn’t know we had ‘Let It Go’ when we wrote ‘Let It Go.’”