Interview

‘Let It Go’ was about pressure on women: Frozen’s songwriters on redefining Disney

As ‘Frozen the Musical’ arrives in London, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez tell Elizabeth Aubrey how their own daughter’s obsession with being a perfect Disney princess helped them to shape Elsa into a new kind of icon

Thursday 02 September 2021 09:00
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<p>Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez - the duo behind the hit song “Let It Go"</p>

Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez - the duo behind the hit song “Let It Go"

On its 2013 release, Disney’s Frozen was a box office phenomenon. As well as earning more than $1.3bn (£95m) in cinemas and overtaking Toy Story 3 as the highest-grossing animated film of all time, it redefined what it meant to be a Disney princess, tearing up age-old gender stereotypes with the character of Elsa – a feminist icon for our times. The film also won two Oscars: Best Animated Feature and Best Song for “Let It Go” – Disney’s first top 10 chart hit since 1995.

The film’s songs, written by husband-and-wife songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, were central to the film’s success. From watch-and-sing-a-long screenings at the Prince Charles cinema in London to Glastonbury and beyond, the music delighted fans young and old. The film spawned a sequel, a tour, and an acclaimed Broadway musical. Now, a new version of the show is about to hit the London stage for the very first time.

“This will be my West End debut,” Kristen beams, calling from the family home in Connecticut with husband Robert. The pair are currently isolating after being exposed to the Delta variant but are hoping they’ll be able to travel to the UK to see the new show this autumn. For now, they’re getting daily updates from the cast and crew on how the production is progressing.

“This is an even better version, a better physical production than Broadway even,” Kristen explains. “It’s the new flagship of the Frozen franchise. We keep getting glimpses of it through videos and it looks like they’ve took what we learned from Broadway and just plussed it. We have a song that apparently Samantha Barks [Elsa] is just knocking out of the park called ‘Dangerous to Dream’ where you kind of get a new insight into what Elsa would wish for, if she had the chance.”

Robert says fans are in for a few surprises, too: it now being a “quintessentially English” version and “unlike anything you would see on the Broadway stage”. He adds: “It’s the same story you know from the film but with things to make it more theatrical and more of a musical than it ever was in animated form. It’s told entirely through music on the stage which is one of the things that makes it so beloved to us. There’s also a new song in the production in Act II that we wrote,” he says, which is being kept under wraps before the show’s opening night in London on 9 September. The couple starts to excitedly hum some of its lines.

They met in 1999 at the acclaimed BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York, “dating first, later writing songs together,” Kristen laughs, after bonding over a shared love of musicals, especially the work of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The couple married in 2003 and later had two daughters, balancing parenthood alongside a busy career in songwriting for the stage and screen. When the call came asking them to work on Frozen – the project which has made them a household name in the US and beyond – there wasn’t even a script.

“We knew that it was going to end with the sisters saving each other. After a read-through, everything else fell to the floor because it felt very much like a live action thing where Anna was this perfect, annoying princess and Elsa was this evil girl with spiked hair who froze her sister’s heart, came down to the village with her evil snowman and destroyed it,” Kristen says dejectedly. “Nothing about it sang. The [first] writer was sacked and then Jennifer Lee came on board and we re-created everything.”

Samantha Barks (centre left) and Stephanie McKeon in technical rehearsals for ‘Frozen'

The songwriting duo suddenly found themselves heavily involved in the creation of the characters and the story. Robert says they drew on their own two daughters to help inform the songwriting. “We knew from this one image we had from Disney – the image of the two sisters – that we’d have a lot to say about this. The two little girls reminded us of our little girls.” Kristen agrees, saying the offer came at a time when she and writer Lee were both having challenging conversations about their young daughters dressing up as princesses.

“We were struggling with the same issues,” she says. “My daughter wanted to dress up as a Disney princess every day. As a feminist, I was thinking: ‘What does this mean?’ She also wanted to be a princess bride, the bride version of the Little Mermaid. Just being the Little Mermaid wasn’t enough anymore.” Kristen and Lee said the Frozen team set about creating a modern-day feminist hero, “rebuilding from the ground up”, creating a character both their daughters – and other young girls – could relate to more. The idea of tearing up ideas of unattainable perfection that girls see daily was particularly important to them. As Kristen puts it, “we switched the perfectionist narrative up. It was a thrill”.

Once the narrative started to take shape, the process to create the music was gruelling. “Frozen was still being built at the same time as we were writing the music,” she says. “You have one draft and then six weeks later it falls to the floor, then you have to start all over again. We had 27 songs at one point for Frozen,” they laugh, putting their arms around one another and mock grimacing as they remember the long hours and demanding schedule. “We really had to stick to the calendar, or we just wouldn’t make it. We were in the basement of our house writing for nine months trying not to freak out.”

The film’s musical centrepiece, “Let It Go”, was performed by Idina Menzel in the film in her role as Elsa; a shorter version was performed over the film’s closing credits by musician Demi Lovato. It was later released as a single, reaching the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and a year later, Kristen and Robert were at the Oscars picking up an award for Best Original Song. The song’s roots lay in them considering the pressures of perfection that young girls and women face.

“The song really started to find its way when we started to think about pressure. The amount of pressure I felt at 16, [then] as a [young] woman, then as a mother of two girls. The pressure to have everything perfect, to stay thin, to have a nice house, the pressure to participate in everything all the time. The pressure as a woman in my early forties too: I don’t think I’ve ever felt so exhausted and put upon,” she says.

Samantha Barks in costume as Elsa

Kristen also felt such pressures herself as a woman in an industry where female songwriters are still painfully rare. “The numbers are abhorrent,” she says, of the lack of female songwriters in theatre. “We’re still dealing with only 10 per cent of all musicals in the West End and on Broadway being written by females. I truly believe that the more diverse voices you bring in, the better the product is going to be and the more we’re going to learn about the female experience.

“It really is about looking at those unconscious biases that are at play when you make staffing decisions, when you make ticket buying decisions, and saying, ‘This might be new, but I’m going to try it’, if you really care about moving the needle forward.”Frozen felt like it moved the needle forward, they say, and they tried to build on this in what came next via the musical and sequel.

The couple found the sequel a challenge to write, especially as it came out of tragic roots. Chris Buck, the director of Frozen, lost his young son soon after the original film came out and the loss inspired many of the sequel’s emotive themes.

“His family had just gone through the world’s hardest thing to ever go through: the song ‘The Next Right Thing’ came out of that,” Kristen explains. The song’s lyrics are poignant: “This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down/ But a tiny voice whispers in my mind/ ‘You are lost, hope is gone/ But you must go on/ And do the next right thing’.” “It was a message of ‘life is going to be hard, but you can do it, you must continue’,” Kristen adds.

While not as commercially successful as its predecessor, the duo say taking risks and not being afraid to fail is a vital part of their songwriting process. They use the motto of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, whom they worked with writing another Oscar-winning song for animated film Coco. “He says they have a policy of fail as big and as quickly as possible because that’s when you really learn you know, ‘oh that’s what this movie isn’t’. That’s really important information.” Robert agrees: “Every creative project is made up of moments of failure along the way. Some end in failure and some end in success but they all have this common component of failure.”

Robert and Kristen (far left) with the cast of ‘Frozen 2’

They’ve certainly had plenty more successes since Frozen – take their recent work on Marvel’s retro hit show WandaVision, which they both describe as “a dream project”. It came about from a friendship from Robert’s music college days, when he was a student with the show’s director Matt Shakman.

“Matt called Bobby in the summer of 2019 and said: ‘I have something I want to work with you on,’” Kristen explains. “He said, ‘I can’t tell you what it is, you have to say “yes”. You have to say “yes” in order to find out what it is’ – and because Marvel is so protected and the firewalls have firewalls...we said yes,” Kristen laughs. “But it was an easy ‘yes’ to give,” Robert adds, “because I was praying against all hope that Marvel would one day call because as a family, we love Marvel. Little did we know that it would be such an involved, creative and out-of-the-box idea that involved our perfect skillset.”

How did it compare to working on Frozen? “The metaphor we use is with Frozen it was more like we were architects and with WandaVision it was more like the building had been built... and we were getting hired to decorate the lobby,” Kristen explains. “I mean none of these are ever easy. There’s always a moment that you hit the blank page and you have to open yourself up to creativity and trust yourself. But the stakes were not as high for us. We could mess up and go back and try [new things] quickly... and there was a freedom with that.”

Now, the couple are working on another project, writing a live action adaptation of Jen Wang’s 2018 graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker. “It’s really a fairy tale, but with a twist. There’s always a twist with what we do,” Kristen smiles, “Always something surprising.”

Will another “Let It Go” be on the way? “You always hope for every song that that happens,” Robert says. “But you’re never able to identify which if any do, usually none. If we knew why it happened, we would definitely be making more of those,” he laughs. As they end the call and go off to their basement studio to work on more new music, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before another musical masterpiece will emerge from this songwriting force.

‘Frozen the Musical’ runs at Theatre Royal Drury Lane now

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