On December 1, 2022, we introduced three Guild members who are in their freshman year of college to three Oscar, Grammy, and Tony-winning DG Council members. They spent an hour on a Zoom call asking questions about craft and making a life and career as a dramatist. What follows is a version of that transcript edited with the approval of the participants.
Isabel Tongson: What did you do straight out of school, whether it be undergrad or [grad school]? What were your first steps?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I think I have the weirdest story, so I’ll start. I grew up writing musicals for the kids in my back yard, but by middle school, high school, I had sort of gotten the message, “Oh, you’re a girl so you have to be an actress,” because I didn’t have many examples of female songwriters in my world. Now I know they were there, but not championed by the industry in any big way. Jumping ahead, when I finally got out of school, I got into this company called the Jupiter Theatre, where we did like thirteen musicals in one year. I was basically like an indentured servant, getting paid $50 a week but downloading all of this musical theatre into my body. I was rehearsing or performing from early morning until night then after the shows we apprentices ironed the shirts and threw out the garbage and then did it all again the next day. For a full year.
I came to New York after that with my Equity card, and then proceeded to play nuns in New Hampshire for like the next four years. When I wasn’t playing a nun in New Hampshire I would temp in investment banks or law firms. And kind of had this come-to-Jesus moment where I was like, “Is this what my life is going to be? Is this why I went to Williams College and graduated magna cum laude?” While doing a fringe show, someone turned to me and said, “I think you’re a lyricist.” And I was like, “What do I do with that?” I learned about the BMI workshop when I was 27. I had never even known there was this free training ground to learn the craft, but I figured what the hell, I’ll try. I wrote a song about shaving my legs. I wrote a song about taking a quiz in Cosmo magazine, and another completely gendered, crazy song about auditioning for Cats and luckily Lynn Ahrens was on my panel. All these older gentlemen had no reference for what I was doing, but she was like, “You’re interesting.” I got in to the first year, and then the first time I wrote my first original song, it truly felt like the skies opened. I was like, “Ah, this is what I’m supposed to do after long last.” That’s my story.
Robert Lopez: For me, it’s a shorter story. Once I decided I didn’t wanna be an actor, which was in sixth grade –
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Tell them why, Bobby.
Robert Lopez: My mother told me I had no chance. She was like, “If you didn’t get Tevye in sixth grade, what chance do you have?” She always gave me the straight stuff, but she was very, very supportive of my writing, as was my dad. So, I was lucky I got to write musicals in high school. I wrote a musical every year for this drama group that I was in, and I benefitted greatly by teachers being incredibly supportive of me and encouraging. I went to college and still had no idea how to possibly make money with this skill of writing songs that were very, very derivative of Stephen Sondheim.
I tried to become Alan Menken’s assistant. I had a friend who knew his sister. I tried to get my name to him, and the message came back, “He doesn’t need an assistant right now but what you should do,” he recommended, “is join the BMI workshop.” Which is what I did. It was such a great place to meet other collaborators, which was something I didn’t know about. I really had never written a song with anyone else. It was there that I learned how to do that, learned that it was a lot of fun to collaborate, and that the work of me and my collaborators was always better than the sum of the parts.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: And I like to say it was one-stop shopping for me—for a career and a husband.
Robert Lopez: Yeah, me too. We have the first set of BMI kids, you know.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I’m not sure. Doug Katsaros and Elise Morris! And I think there’s another married couple with kids.
Robert Lopez: That’s true. I always tell young people who are graduating to join BMI workshop because it’s a great community. It’s a great place to, if nothing else, have an audience every week listen to a song you wrote.
Stephen Schwartz: I have a story that overlaps, and I think there are some common lessons to be drawn from this. I went to Carnegie Mellon, and there was an extracurricular organization there that put on an original musical every year, and I co-wrote the musical the four years that I was there. The third year, the show that I wrote was called Pippin Pippin—why there were two Pippins in the title I no longer remember. When I graduated, I came to New York with that show and started hawking it around. And through that, I garnered my agent [who] took me around to play for producers, and ultimately two producers who were not interested in Pippin called to see if I wanted to write the songs for Godspell.
So, the common thread is that all three of us had things to show. When we got out into the real world, we were able to do more than just say, “Oh, I’m a writer,” and then have someone say, “Well, what have you written?” “Well, I haven’t written anything yet, but I know inside I’m a writer.” We had actually written things. Needless to say, all four of the shows that I did at Carnegie Mellon were terrible, including the original Pippin Pippin, but I learned a great deal from putting them up in front of an audience and being horrified about the things that I thought were genius that actually didn’t work at all.
Just to continue this common thread, I got to know Benj Pasek and Justin Paul when they were at University of Michigan, and they did the same thing. They wrote a bunch of songs, and they had friends of theirs who were musical theatre students at Michigan demo them. So, when they graduated and came to New York, they had this demo of songs which they called “Edges.” They even got their friends together and booked Joe’s Pub for a night and performed the songs. And that’s how they began to be noticed. The point being: write something and have it to show.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I should also let you know Stephen wrote an autobiography with someone, and it is wonderful.
Stephen Schwartz: Well, actually a woman named Carol de Giere wrote a biography about me. Yeah, it’s called Defying Gravity.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: It’s so good. It tells Stephen’s whole story, which is miraculous, and I learned so much from it. And it also has these wonderful side notes about the mental game of writing. And it is a mental game in a lot of ways. It talks about the resilience that you need and how to handle the good, the bad, and the ugly. I really recommend it.
Stephen Schwartz: Thank you, Kristen. I allowed Carol to follow me around with a tape recorder. But I can’t really take credit for it. It was Carol’s idea to include these little sidebar creativity notes as well.
Leilani Patao: I have a question going off that. When you were all in your early stages writing in school, how’d you get over the feeling that like what you’re writing is terrible and just keeping going?
Stephen Schwartz: I didn’t realize it was so terrible when I was doing it. I think you need a kind of blind arrogance in order to do this at all, and I think that I always had a belief that I could write musicals, even if what I was doing wasn’t so great and I could feel it not working. I could also feel myself learning from it. I think you have to just press on. You know, Bobby talked about the influence of Stephen Sondheim, which of course was vast on everybody who followed him. I bring that up because he has this wonderful couplet in Sunday in the Park in which he says, “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision. They usually do.” And I think that’s the thing. You just have to keep going and be as true to yourself as you can, and others will let you know if you have no chance. You shouldn’t be deciding that for yourself.
Robert Lopez: Yes, I completely agree with that, and yes, I think everything we write as beginners is beginner writing, which is fine and necessary. On the other hand, another way to get through the tough times is to evolve a process that you love to go through, so that writing a song isn’t something that you hate doing—because it’s hard enough to do it if you don’t like your process. Part of my long arc has been from someone who never really liked writing, but liked having written things, to someone who now enjoys the writing process more than necessarily the product. And that all comes from collaboration and some inner psychological work that I’ve been trying to do. But it’s wonderful when you value the people you’re writing with and yourself more than the pressure of needing to do something great.
Stephen Schwartz: I think that’s great advice, Bobby.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I would add that I was trained from the day I came out of my mother’s womb to never be arrogant and to always worry about other people’s feelings more, so I let it stop me for years from actually saying I’m a writer and leaning into having a voice in this industry. Finally, there came a moment where I realized I could live as a shadow artist my whole life and wait for other people to give me permission (which was never going to happen) or I could take the risk of putting myself out there knowing some people might like it, and some people just won’t.
And the other thing that I say all the time (and I remind myself sometimes) is that we are all experts on who we are and how we see the world. Nobody has ever had all the experiences that you’ve had. Nobody has ever lived the life, had the vocabulary, knows the stories and all the books. You have a singular, divine, lifetime in the making expertise. So don’t waste your time showing up at the page thinking, “I’ve got to be brilliant, I’ve got to be Stephen Schwartz, I’ve got to be Sondheim.” Truly, all you have to do is show up to the piano or the page and pour your own truth out. Because if you do that, it will be creating something that no one else on the entire planet could have ever done. And if you just count on that truth, well, you will create something without getting in your own way. Then you can listen when people will say, “I wanna hear more from that protagonist, or that villain isn’t working for me,” That’s when you can go back and build on your collaborator’s suggestions. But don’t do it at the beginning. At the beginning, just pour out your truth.
Casey Lyons: First of all, it’s an honor to be talking to you all. What is one piece of advice that has stuck with you throughout your career thus far that you wish you knew earlier?
Stephen Schwartz: I think what Bobby said earlier about being more invested in the process and working with your collaborators than the outcome is something that has evolved for me as well, and I have found very valuable. He also spoke about collaboration, and I think musical theatre is, if not the most collaborative art form on the planet, certainly one of them. Even if you’re writing both music and lyrics, as I usually do, [or] if you write book, music, and lyrics like Lin-Manuel Miranda, you’re still working with a director, a producer, actors, designers, et cetera. And how to collaborate and when to say to your collaborators, “Listen, I know you’re not seeing this my way, but please just live with it a little bit longer,” when to hear what they’re saying and see there’s another way to go, one learns that. When I worked with John Caird, that was a great piece of advice that he gave me. “There is always another solution.”
One of the things that I think is very interesting about the BMI workshop that Bobby mentioned before—I didn’t participate as a student, but I have done some work with them, and I think it’s really interesting when a whole class gets the same assignment. Because then when you solve it for yourself, you think, “Well, this is the solution. There’s no other way to do this.” And then suddenly you hear there were twelve other ways to do it. And I think knowing that makes you less precious about what you have come up with. Bobby also alluded, I think correctly, to writing as difficult. Even if you find a process that’s fun and joyful for you, it’s still really hard and can be really frustrating, and so when you finally have written something, there’s a tendency to want to hold onto it for dear life. And one of the things that I had to learn was to be able very willingly to let go of that, but also to know when to stick to my guns.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: That’s a good point! We just also finished reading Mary Rodgers’ book Shy, so I’ll speak to something that resonated with me, which is that so many of her projects kind of fell apart because of wrong choices made by her collaborators or producers. And I think she had a lot of great work that never saw the light of day because she was in the very difficult position of not being able to fight for what she believed. I struggle with it, too. I recognize that maybe there’s something gendered in what I’m about to say, but in my experience, my husband does not have to put huge amounts of energy into being nice to his collaborators. And honestly, it’s the biggest source of friction between the two of us because how we go about being heard by our collaborators is that I’m like the catch-more-bees-with-honey kind of person, don’t ruffle their feathers, listen, listen, listen.
Robert Lopez: Yeah, she tells me, “Don’t you see we’re a girl? We can’t act that way.” And I’m like, “Don’t you see we’re a man? We’ve got to stand up for ourselves.”
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Right. We approach collaborative conflict differently, but I recognize that there are those times that it’s really important to figure out a way to stand up for my point of view. When I feel very strongly about something, I have to take a breath and not give in to that voice that tells me to let it go so everyone will be happy. I put huge energy into finding a way to get my point across without it being controversial or lead to a power struggle. There is still quite a bit of unconscious bias around women speaking up. You can very rationally and calmly say “I disagree,” and they’re like, “Stop yelling at me!”
Stephen Schwartz: Yeah. One thing is that I learned you can ask someone to just live with something for a while. Writing a show is a very long process. I have said to collaborators on occasion, “I hear that this is not working for you, but I really believe in it. Just live with it for a couple of weeks and then after that, if you still feel so strongly that this is wrong, let’s talk about it again.” And that’s worked a lot of the time. First, it’s worked that they come to feel differently about it, but it’s also worked for me that I’ve come to realize, oh, you know what, they have a point I didn’t see initially. Now I see [the] problem and I think I can address that.
The other thing I think is to be able to articulate. If you feel strongly about something, it’s helpful to be able to explain: “Look, this is why I think this works, and this is what I was trying to achieve, and this is why I believe in it.” And that helps to frame the context for them as opposed to just saying, “Well, I like it.”
Robert Lopez: Yes. It’s inner work that you have to do to see the logic behind your own taste and to be able to explain that in a dispassionate way to someone. I can very rarely do it. It’s very hard.
I [want] to backtrack just a bit to talking about collaboration. I was an intern when I first graduated at Playwrights Horizons. I worked for Ira Weitzman, who was nice enough to listen to my demo tape. I was writing music and lyrics myself, and I wanted to be, like Stephen, a composer/lyricist. Ira told me that very same bit of advice that Stephen just said. Even if you [write] music/lyrics/book, the theatre is about collaboration. You have to evolve those people skills in order to be able to do it, no matter who you are. And also, you won’t necessarily get a job from the merit of your first show. You have to be introduced to people, and they have to want to spend seven years, or however long it [takes], in a room with you.
So, on the advice of Ira, I approached another person in the class to write, never [thinking it] would lead to anything. I just thought, “Well, I’m gonna do what he says because he’s probably right. I need to learn to work with people.” And that turned out to be Jeff Marx because he had written a great comedy song earlier that cracked the class up. We started having fun working together, and as a result, we wrote a show that people had fun watching and wanted to see. So, I think it was really good advice, and I’ve always admired Stephen because he is a genius solo songwriter but continues to work with other people, and it shows [his versatility] and how his ego doesn’t really enter into the choices that he makes about his career. It’s very inspiring.
Stephen Schwartz: Thanks, Bobby.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Another little piece of advice is that writing is rewriting. Nobody teaches that until you’re out in the produced world and you realize like, oh, this show was a show that I thought was done, but oh dear, I just saw it in front of an audience, and it needs a giant overhaul. My first show was a TheaterWorksUSA show, and you really learn, like, oh wow, you cannot put a ballad in front of a bunch of sixth graders and expect them to not cough and move, and then you’ve got to go rewrite it. Jennifer Lee, who we work with at Disney Animation (she’s our Frozen collaborator), is the ultimate re-writer. In the animated world, you do at least six iterations of the whole movie. So, it’s not like you just get a script [with] the songs carefully chosen for you to do.
You are writing the movie with them, and as the movie crumbles, so do all of your songs. You are basically building a giant Lego city in a gymnasium every three months. And then the people come with the baseball bats and bash down the buildings, and then maybe you have the firehouse and the mailman, and you take him and the firehouse to another gymnasium, and you build the whole next version around that. All of that means rewriting, and that ties back to having fun. You’ve got to have fun because it’s awfully painful when those songs fall on the floor. [Once] Bobby and I realized our favorite thing to do is be in a room writing music together, losing songs became less devastating. We would remind ourselves it’s not such a tragedy that we wrote 27 songs that never saw the light of day for a movie that never saw the light of day because, let’s face it, we even write songs on vacation.
Stephen Schwartz: I think that’s really good advice. Leilani, I think it also speaks to [your] question worrying about everything being terrible because just know you’re gonna rewrite it anyway.
I have a friend who’s a screenwriter and whenever he’s starting a new project, he labels his first go-through “shitty first draft,” because it allows him to spew it out and not worry about how good it is.
I think what Kristen just said is so true. When I’m writing I’m like, “Well, I’m probably going to end up rewriting a lot of this anyway, if the song even winds up being in the show. It’s unlikely to wind up in whatever form it comes out now.” It gives you the courage to just do stuff and know that if it’s not good, you’ll go back and fix it.
Robert Lopez: It is nice to know that as much work as you have to do and as many songs as you have to throw out and rewrite, that the bookwriter’s working ten times harder. There are so many more pages, so many more connections and causal problems that they have to deal with in the working out of a plot.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: And so many more notes. We just did a workshop of the movie musical that we’re working on, and it went really well, but then the bookwriter and the producers all came in and for the next three hours, everyone just talked at the bookwriter. At the end, she goes, “Um, so whose turn is next? Who else is getting notes from everyone?” Poor bookwriters.
Robert Lopez: What you said about shitty first drafts, Stephen, reminded me of working with the South Park guys. Trey always calls his pages “dogshit” in the beginning. He’s like, “I just typed three pages of dogshit. Would you like to read them?” All their episodes are written over the course of a week, so they have to work very quickly, and they’re animating as they’re writing. The episodes always air on a Wednesday, so they kept telling me to save my polishes for “Perfectionism Tuesdays.” Just let it be bad until Tuesday. That’s when we make it good.
It’s a nice way to think of it and to give yourself the permission of writing a bad first draft, not stopping yourself as you go. I think that’s the key to getting over writer’s block because I think writer’s block is just overactive editing as you write.
Leilani Patao: I had a question on collaboration, and then you guys just answered it. So, what was the best money you ever spent for your work?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Therapy. I’m not kidding. Learning to put words to things that you feel deeply about and to put those feelings into words. Learning how to know your intent versus your impact with your own collaborators and learning how to regulate yourself in stressful situations. You can sometimes be in previews in a very, very high-pressured situation where you have exactly two hours to get the thing right before it’s seen that night, and you have to rewrite something fast, and learning how to contextualize your own anxiety so that you can just focus and breathe and get it done. This continues to be the best money I spend.
Stephen Schwartz: Also, I have a saying: “In lieu of inspiration, do research.” And now it’s easier because a lot of it you can just Google. When I was working on Pocahontas I thought, “Well, I’m bad casting for this, but I’m not going to turn the job down. So, how do I make myself better casting? Well, I’ll go buy books of Native American poetry, and I’ll get a bunch of research books about Native American history and culture and try to steep myself in it, and then maybe I can write it better.
Robert Lopez: On another related note, starting out, I would write on both sides of the paper, and I would be nervous about wasting paper and ecological impact of that. And I think once I gave myself permission to be like, no, it’s okay, you can kill a few trees – sometimes valuing your own time and your own self as a writer doesn’t cost a lot of money. And related to that, I think we had moved into a townhouse around the time Frozen came out, and we thought, “Oh, now we have the room for it, we can write in this big basement room. We’ll put two desks in there and be able to have one location for our house and our work.” And I think that nearly killed us.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: We almost got divorced. We hated each other ‘cause we sat in this dark basement with two monitors between us. So, you’re like, “Are you paying attention to me or are you looking at something on your fucking screen?” And we would hear the kids would running upstairs, and you could hear that they knew we were downstairs, and they wanted our attention. It was terrible. So yes, the best thing we ever did was we bought an apartment and turned it into our studio a half a mile away from our house up in the bright sky. We gave ourselves space to be creative and, for us, changing hats was important, like walking to the office and becoming our writer selves, and then walking home from the office and becoming our partnering and parenting selves is really important. Learn to make space for your writer self and don’t feel guilty about it! Creating a ritual and carving out a place in your life where you are a working writer is not a luxury, it’s a necessary tool. Leilani?
Leilani Patao: I was gonna ask what is the difference between writing for Disney or for movie musicals as to writing for stage musical?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Well, you’ve come to the right place, Leilani.
Robert Lopez: I think they’re oddly similar in a way that we were alluding to before, in that animation is very iterative process, and they’re able to do it relatively cheaply in the beginning because you’re not looking at animation. There’s a script and then they do storyboard reels of the script with temp recorded dialog and your demos interwoven in, and you can sort of see a rough version the movie. And that’s a lot like doing a reading or workshop of a stage piece. And you end up doing a similar number of iterations on a similar schedule. It’s a little more breakneck in the movies because they’re paying people, and there’s a release date. In the theatre, it’s all on the writer. When the show is ready, then it’ll go.
But what’s different about it, I mean, there’s lots of things that are different. In a movie, songs are not the most impactful things that can be in a movie. You really believe in explosions, for example, in a movie, or a car going off a cliff or, you know, plot.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: A wolf chase.
Robert Lopez: Yeah, even just something as simple as a close-up of someone’s face, someone putting poison in a cup. It’s a narrative medium in a way that theatre isn’t. Theatre’s really emotional, and the biggest thing you can do on stage in a musical is to have everybody start singing, step downstage and sing. I think the storytelling is much more on the songs on stage. And you can’t have as many in the movies. The animated movies are shorter, so they really can only support maybe at the most—I think Hunchback probably has the most of any Disney.
Stephen Schwartz: I believe that’s the most, and it’s eight. Whereas most stage musicals have like what, twenty or so?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Right, yeah. Frozen has seven and a half, but then to turn Frozen into a stage musical, we wrote another thirteen songs. As Bobby mentioned, the Broadway stage could not use a close-up of Elsa as she’s trying to do take off her gloves during the coronation and is worried her secret will come out. Instead, we had to transform that moment into an internal monologue song because you don’t get the benefit of close-ups or animated action magic. The songs must dramatize that tension or excitement.
The other thing I would say that’s slightly different, at least the way that Disney handles it, is that we are mostly just dealing with the storyboard people and the director, but when you’re in the room creating a musical, you’re working with the choreographer, you’re working with the actors, you’re working with the music director, and you’re all together. At least for the songwriters, there’s lot more time-sensitive, in-person collaboration while developing a stage musical, which is wonderful and exhausting. And there’s a lot more of intense collaboration over shorter weeks than in animation when you’re basically working business hours over weeks and weeks and weeks to create things.
Robert Lopez: I have a quick question for Stephen related to this about the process of making Enchanted and Disenchanted. Live action films are not like animated films. You have to write it, then shoot it. Did you go through any workshop with either of those?
Stephen Schwartz: No. And animation is much closer, as the two of you have described, to doing a stage musical because of the various stages it goes through and because of its collaborative nature. I still haven’t even seen the final Disenchanted.
Robert Lopez: It’s good. You should see it.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: It’s on Disney+.
Robert Lopez: It’s got great songs.
Stephen Schwartz: With the Wicked movie, so far it’s been different. Our director, Jon M. Chu, is very collaborative. And of course probably because it’s adapted from a show that Winnie Holzman and I created.
Enchanted was a little bit collaborative because Kevin Lima, the director, was more collaborative. But on Disenchanted, Alan [Menken] did the score, so I think he had more back and forth, but basically once I handed in my lyrics and they were approved, I could just be dead. I’ve heard from many writers who do live action movie musicals, that basically once the movie starts shooting, the director is just like: “Go away.”
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I will say we just did a musical TV show that’s going to air soon. Because we executive produced it and wrote all the songs, we couldn’t just go away. When we finally were done [writing] the songs and producing the songs, we then had to do all of the shooting and the post. And I was like, “Remember when we used to just get hired to write songs and then someone else did all this stuff?”
Stephen Schwartz: There you go, double-edged sword.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: It’s a double-edged sword. There are definitely jobs that you wish that you had more say on, and then there are definitely jobs that you’re like, oh, I wish there was someone else to take all this responsibility.
Casey Lyons: I wanna go back to something that you said a little while ago about finding an inner monologue for Elsa in the Frozen musical. I was wondering, when you start giving a voice to these characters, what is your initial process in finding them? Is there a formulaic process for you, or is it just new with each thing you do?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: When we take on a job—especially if we’re going to be writing an original story for the job, or it’s an adaptation—it’s really important that I feel the heat of what it is…the big story of what we’re saying. Frozen was all about expanding the definition of true love in a Disney princess story, which was something that I, as a mother of two young girls at the time, really cared about. I [felt] nervous about the message they were getting [from] Cinderella all the time and how that works with my women’s studies classes. So, I was excited about that, and I was really excited when we started figuring out that it was really about shame and the way that shame or any family crisis can sort of freeze people into roles, and that was something I had a lot to say about. It’s finding the heartbeat and the heat under the project and then building the scaffolding. That’s where we start first.
Robert Lopez: Yeah, I think you respond to the part of the character that is you. And you know everything about that. I think we’ve been lucky enough to do only projects that we love and want to do with all our heart, so all the characters are some versions of us, I think, and maybe we’re not doing it right. Maybe we should be trying to find a voice for them that is a little bit more different and pronounced, but that’s the way we did it.
Stephen Schwartz: You know, Bobby and Kristen both alluded to the bookwriter. I don’t write my own books, thank God, because then I can rely a lot on the bookwriter. I always want them to go first, not necessarily to write an entire script, but write enough that I know who the characters are, how they express themselves, what kind of language they use, and so on.
Also, I referred to doing research. I try to get to a point where I can internalize the character enough so that I can see through their eyes, what they hear, and what they want. I completely agree with what Bobby said about you have to find where you and the character intersect and write from that point of view. My favorite character that I’ve ever written in my entire career is Frollo in Hunchback of Notre Dame. I just loved being him.
Robert Lopez: Oh, that’s so good.
Stephen Schwartz: Because of course you would never let yourself go there in real life. But it was so much fun to find the part of me that could be that perverse and project all my own shame and flaws onto other people, and I could just wallow in that when I wrote him. Also, I make like lists of things like what are the trees that grow in this place and what are the foods that they eat, and if you open the window what are you hearing? Lists that give me a lot of nouns to draw upon. And then how intelligent is the character? How articulate are they? What’s their vocabulary like? Do they misuse words? Do they have good or bad grammar?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: When we were working with Jen on all of this Frozen stuff all at the same time, she would send us a stream of conscious brain drain of what she thinks Elsa or Anna was feeling. She actually took the Myers-Briggs test as both of them and spent hours, like one full day inhabiting the psychology of both of them before we wrote Frozen 2.
Robert Lopez: She was paid to do this.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: She was paid. This is a good job, you guys.
Stephen Schwartz: I love that. I’m going to do that from now on. I love that idea. That’s brilliant to take Myers-Briggs test as a character.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Anna’s an ENFP just like me.
Robert Lopez: There’s a shorter version of it, a twenty-question questionnaire, that we all had to do for all the characters.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Right. You don’t have to do the full Myers-Briggs. You can just do the short one online.
Isabel Tongson: Who or what are or were your biggest influences when developing your writing style?
Robert Lopez: Well, I kind of alluded to before, Stephen Sondheim when I was a little kid. But I began to realize that imitating Steve was not going to lead to anything for me. Part of finding my own voice occurred when I was in college. I hadn’t really watched the Disney Renaissance films before, but I wanted to see what it was about. My friends and I went to see Hunchback one summer, and I was like, “Whoa, this is a real show. This is incredible.” And there really hasn’t been another one like it. And then after that I always thought, well gee, maybe I could do this Disney thing. Maybe I’d want to one day. I put it in my list of things I might want to do and look where I’m at.
Not only that, but Wicked has deeply influenced not just us but everyone. We were once in Chicago at a Dramatists Guild event, and Stephen was doing a panel called “Writing Wicked,” and Kristen and I were like, “Stephen, how come we’re not on that panel?” Because we’re all just writing Wicked now. It became a benchmark of what a musical should be. It’s one of those things that’s just in your brain now as what a musical should do.
Stephen Schwartz: And to me, Wicked is Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s basically The King and I with girls. I was very influenced by how Rodgers and Hammerstein constructed their shows. When I was a kid, I read the books to their shows and tried to understand how they were put together.
I have a lot of different influences. I think what I’ve heard people describe as my “style” is just a conglomerate of all the things I’ve seen and read and heard over the years that I particularly loved, I mean, Bobby referred earlier to Stephen Sondheim, and think from him for instance one of the things I learned from his work was how to build a number to a big finish, because I feel he did that better than anyone.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: Incredible. I do also have to say I did Godspell three times in high school. I went to high school in North Carolina, so we could only do musicals about Jesus.
Robert Lopez: Luckily there are three.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I did Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. And I’ve said this before that Godspell, in terms of an ensemble musical, not only transforms the audience—any kid who’s lucky enough to do Godspell gets their own spiritual community for that time. And I like to think about it creating ensembles where there’s also like a family that is incorporating the audience into that family.
And that leads me to my next influence. I used to be so afraid of getting married or having children and so afraid that that would be the thing that kept me from being a writer, but it ended up being the thing that gave me something to write about. The love songs that I write because of the journey I’m taking with my husband, that’s the heart of my work. And there’s nothing like having to raise a child to make you think about what stories you want out in the world. What do you want the world to look like for your children and how can you tell a story worthy of them? It also fuels your work not from a place of ego but from a place of purpose. I’m a huge fan of go out there, fall in love, make connections, build a life because that’ll give you something to write about.
Stephen Schwartz: Thank you, the three of you, for such intelligent and thoughtful questions that obviously spurred, our ability to answer with some length and depth.
Kristen and Bobby, I have to say every time I’m on one of these things with you, I feel like I learn so much from what you have to say.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: And from you always. And just so you guys know, we have a daughter who’s waiting to find out if she got in early decision someplace, so I totally understand where you are, or at least the next chapter of where you are. And boy, did your bios impress. I wish and hope that she’s not up against students like you.
Robert Lopez: And I know that there’s a whole unseen part of this discussion, which is all of your projects that you’re working on right now. I know we all wish you the best of luck with them and all speed getting them onto the stage or the screen.