The golden couple behind Frozen: 'Letting it go is drinking a bottle of chardonnay'

It’s the grand slam – an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony – and Robert Lopez has done it twice. The EGOT champ and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, his wife and co-composer, talk about penning songs during fights and picnics – and taking Elsa to Broadway

A little while before married composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez collected their second shared Oscar, they went skiing. You might think the man who co-wrote Let It Go for the animated smash hit Frozen would know his way around some fresh powder. But this was Lopez’s first time staring down a snowy mountain. According to his wife, the mountain won.

“He hated it,” she says. “I didn’t hate it,” he protests. “I’m just scared of heights.”

One of the most acclaimed musical theatre artists of our time, Lopez earned a couple of Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar and three Tonys by the age of 39, becoming the youngest person to achieve “EGOT” status. When the Lopezes won the Oscar for Remember Me from Pixar’s Coco, about a Mexican boy stuck in the Land of the Dead, he became the only person ever to rank as a double EGOT, having won at least two awards in all categories. Anderson-Lopez, who co-wrote the 2016 Broadway musical In Transit, has two Oscars and two Grammys. So she isn’t doing so badly herself.

Listen to Remember Me from Coco

I meet the Lopezes, both round-cheeked brunettes, at an Italian restaurant in New York, a few blocks from where the Broadway musical version of Frozen has begun previews. It includes the seven and a half songs they wrote for the 2013 animated film (Reindeers Are Better Than People is the half) and 12 new ones for the stage version. “Everything that was a closeup or action scene needed to become a song,” Lopez says. Though they’d written and discarded 26 extra songs while creating the movie, only eight bars of a hand-clap chant have been salvaged from all that. (Those hoping for an appearance of snowman Olaf’s rejected soca song Hot Hot Ice will have to live with the disappointment.)

Frozen has a rumoured budget of $50m (£35m). A lot is riding on its cold shoulders. But its composers are warm, goofy and unfailingly unpretentious. (At the Oscars, Anderson-Lopez strode glamorously to the podium and then pulled an acceptance speech out of her bra.) They’re the board game-playing, movie-loving, Star Wars-obsessed musical theatre geniuses next door. When they arrive for lunch looking uncharacteristically glitzy – a suede coat for him, a red dress and lavish mascara for her – Anderson-Lopez immediately apologises. They’ve just come from a photo shoot, she explains.

Asked about his awards, Lopez doesn’t answer about just himself. “We just don’t want to play it up,” he says. “It’s not a thing that is very meaningful to us.” If he deserves an award, he says, it’s for choosing his collaborators wisely. “There’s not one award that I won alone.”

So yes, the humility is genuine. So is the nerdiness. Name another big-league songwriting pair who would have dreamed up a line like, “My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around.” But the modesty masks remarkable craft and frank subversion. Avenue Q, which Lopez composed with Jeff Marx, and Book of Mormon, written with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are buoyant, mischievous works. One prominently features puppet sex and had audiences humming Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist and The Internet Is for Porn. The other includes a merry number with a multilingual chorus of “Fuck you God!” (The “Fuck you in the eye!” lyric is an uncredited Anderson-Lopez contribution.)

Jelani Alladin as Kristoff with Andrew Pirozzi as Sven in the Broadway musical version of Frozen.
Jelani Alladin as Kristoff with Andrew Pirozzi as Sven in the Broadway musical version of Frozen. Photograph: Deen van Meer

Even Frozen, arguably less lewd and sacrilegious, disrupts the Disney formula with a primary relationship that is between two sisters, rather than between a princess and whatever prince or ice harvester happens by.

The Lopezes met years ago in the BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) workshop for budding musical theatre writers. He was a few years ahead of her. One day she saw him put on a wig and sing like a girl, and she knew she wanted to marry him. And she hoped he wasn’t gay. Because they write together and live together – in a handsome Brooklyn limestone with their two school-age daughters – they work almost all the time.

They’ve had breakthrough moments in diners, atop picnic tables, on the subway. If they some day write a chart-topper about ravioli and iced tea, know that it all began right here. “We’re always pretending and playing together,” she says. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘I just got an idea!’ and that’s when Bobby is like, ‘No. Tell me tomorrow.’”

Avenue Q at the Noël Coward theatre, London, in 2006.
Mischievous … Avenue Q at the Noël Coward theatre, London, in 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“I love going to sleep and if I start to think about a writing problem right before bed, then I have to stay awake all night,” he explains. “So sometimes I feel like I’m playing a little bit of defence in our marriage.” They’ve both learned to keep down work talk around their daughters. “We now kind of know: don’t pitch an idea in the middle of a hike on our family vacation,” she says.

And yet, it’s their family life that underlies all of their best work. The song – whether for puppets, missionaries or princesses – usually begins with something intensely personal. “If it’s something that doesn’t really connect to our own experience … then it doesn’t happen,” she says.

Take Avenue Q’s There’s a Fine, Fine Line, a direct quote from a premarital fight, or Let It Go, which materialised during a walk in the park when they started asking each other how it would feel to stop striving for perfection and instead “just binge-watch The Bachelor and drink an entire bottle of chardonnay”. (This is Anderson-Lopez’s version of letting it go, though she says that she has since moved on to vodka.)

Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez performing together in 2017 in San Francisco.
Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez performing together in 2017 in San Francisco. Photograph: Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for The Walt Disne

For Coco’s Remember Me, they drew on the guilt they feel whenever they have to leave their kids for work-related travel. The song begins as a lullaby sung to a baby, in part because whenever they go away they leave custom lullabies for their daughters, a lot of them kitten-centred. To keep the girls close, they took them to the Oscars this year, despite Lopez’s worry that it might have “fundamentally messed them up”. The girls handled it fine.

They know that their songs will evolve in listeners’ heads. Let It Go has been adopted as an LGBTQ anthem. As Lopez says, “a lot of songs from musicals become that”. But the score begins with what’s in their hearts. (Will Elsa have a girlfriend in Frozen 2, the sequel they’re currently writing? They’re not sure she’s ready for a relationship.)

It’s never been as simple as him writing the music and her writing the lyrics or as she once suggested, her dreaming up the big ideas and him figuring out the key changes. Neither is sure who came up with that fractals line, but they’re proud that the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson now uses it in a PowerPoint slideshow. Whatever their methods, they work – the groaning awards cabinet says so. Success has made them financially comfortable, though they’re still careful “not to overdo anything”, Lopez says. And their reputation means they can pick and choose their projects, though as Lopez says, he’s always done that. Not Anderson-Lopez: “I’ve had to hustle a little more than you, boy wonder,” she says affectionately.

Watch Let It Go from Frozen

But what has changed – or what Lopez is trying to change – is the sense that work matters most. He’s doing his own letting-go, with more introspection and less chardonnay. “I really kind of let a lot of my illusions and expectations drop this year,” he says. “I realised that the song you’re writing on any given day is not as important as the woman you’re writing it with.”

“This was a revelation,” Anderson-Lopez says. His mood used to darken when they worked; they used to fight about it. “He was like, ‘This is just who I am when we’re writing.’”

He used to think that nothing was as important as getting the song right, Lopez says. “But what that does is it puts you in a little bit of a hell. I think we write better songs now, because it’s a lot more fun. We’re caring about each other more than we’re caring about the song. But the song still gets written and it’s still just as good.”


Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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