Interview with the Oscar-winning songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez (Disney’s Frozen!)
Editor's note: The piece below was written before the 2018 Oscars. In the time from interviewing them to publishing this piece, they won even more awards.
Today I saw the movie Coco for the first time (spoiler alert: I cried 17 times).
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez wrote the Golden-Globe and Oscar-nominated title song, “Remember Me,” for the Disney Pixar film, and I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the Golden Globes recently and caught a glimpse of them sitting in their finest at a round table with other artists I love (like the director and writer of Frozen, Jennifer Lee). A few months ago I sat at a square table on my porch in San Diego, California, phone in hand, about to call Kristen and Bobby.
Before I dialed their number, I remembered the first time I heard their voice – when I watched them accept their Oscar on my TV in 2014. They changed me as an artist that night – or rather, they changed my perception of who gets to be a professional artist. The day after the Oscars that year was the first day of my life that I could easily name a female writer who’d won an Oscar. I’m sure Kristen isn’t the very first, but she is the first to me, the first I saw, the first to open up a new little space of belief I never knew I needed. But need it I did.
And then there was Bobby’s last name – Lopez, one of the few last names at the Oscars that reminded me of the ones at our family Christmas parties; Bobby and Kristen felt familiar and accessible to me in a way no Oscar-winning artists ever had.
Before Kristen and Bobby, I subconsciously thought you could only be a professional artist if you were an egotistical genius who turned everything you touched to gold. But Kristen and Bobby taught me what it really meant to be an artist: simply, to make art. Over and over again, even – or rather, especially – when it involves throwing your art in the trash.
They were among the first artists who taught me how to recognize, value, and persist through the entire creative process.
And they know a lot about the creative process; together they wrote the songs for Disney’s Frozen, and they have individually and together written many wonderful musicals on and off Broadway such as Avenue Q (Bobby), The Book of Mormon (Bobby), In Transit (Kristen), and Up Here (Kristen and Bobby). And now, Frozen is on Broadway.
I dial their number and the phone rings. They say hello like I’m an old friend.
Right away Kristen lets me know that they’ll have to hop off the phone in exactly 30 minutes because they have an old friend coming over for lunch – it’s actually Bobby’s best friend from childhood, she tells me. She emphasizes the childhood part as if to ensure me that they wouldn’t cut off our conversation for just any old friend.
They could have told me that they had to get off the phone in exactly four point eight minutes because they needed to hop on one foot and eat half a slice of Cajun beef jerky and I would have understood. Nevertheless, the respect of her reassurance takes me by surprise (I never realize how patronized I often feel in life until people like Kristen and Bobby make me feel the exact opposite.)
While the egotistical artist fills a room, suffocates, the humble artist creates space, makes you feel welcome in spaces you once thought you didn't belong.
And that’s what Kristen and Bobby confirm for me once and for all – that the best part of a professional creative life has nothing to do with winning Oscars. It doesn’t require heels or tuxedos. It’s subtle, grand, and within reach, every single day. But it’s hard to find, and definitely hard to see alone.
1. We need each other, To raise us up and round us out
To date Bobby Lopez is the youngest person to ever win the EGOT.
I didn’t know what an EGOT was until Tracy Jordan had the ambition to achieve it in the TV show 30 Rock. For those of you who haven’t seen 30 Rock, this exclusive EGOT club is made up of only twelve artists (to date) who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
Bobby is the most recent.
And the youngest
And the one to win all four awards in the shortest amount of time.
Bobby will be the first to tell you that this didn’t happen because of him alone; there were so many other people. We need other people to help us develop and achieve as artists – teammates and teachers. Coaches and collaborators. Patrons and parents.
When Bobby’s parents moved to a sublet in New York City that included a piano, they decided to get him lessons, and I can’t help but think of the music that might not exist today had they not chosen the piano teacher that they did. This piano teacher was unlike any I have ever heard of. This piano teacher had Bobby write original songs every week.
Original. Songs. Every. Week. Can we let that sink in for a minute? I feel like we breeze past this point oh so quickly, but I just can’t go on. Not yet.
The youngest EGOT winner started writing original songs when he was a kid. It’s so easy to ignore that even when things seem to happen early for people (Bobby is the youngest EGOT you’ll remember) a closer look usually reveals decades of prior practice.
I like to pause on these moments. Remember that Bobby started writing songs at that age. It is one of those moments that chips away at that subconscious myth that held me back from my own art for so long – that being an artist is so much less about the midas touch and so much more about craft. Practice. But also belief – belief in what you can do, who you can be, and that people like you can do the thing you want to do professionally.
Bobby started a creative songwriting habit at a very young age, but as we talk it’s clear to me that even more than the early exposure to and practice of the creative songwriting process, the biggest impact his piano teacher had was on Bobby’s belief about who was allowed to write songs, who was allowed to practice this creative magic and when. He remembers this seedling of belief, the one that kept him going even after the lessons were over: “I grew up thinking music was something a kid could write.”
2. When you’re chasing down a dream, and your will to run is gone
This sense of artistic legitimacy fueled Bobby’s creative pace throughout his youth and during his time at his fantastic high school where students wrote musicals every year (fyi, Lin Manuel Miranda also attended this high school - and art programs are being cut from public schools).
But after all those years of practice, all that creative output, by the age of 22 Bobby felt burnt out. He remembers:
“I had used up all this energy, but I wasn’t any further professionally.”
He was exhausted; he’d been writing and composing since he was a child, and now here he was a year out of college and he wondered where it all had gotten him, really. (You see, even EGOT winners get burnt out, feel unsure, think about giving up, even.)
This breaking point exists in any kind of creative pursuit; Bobby describes it perfectly – it’s that moment when you feel like you’ve given everything you have and it still hasn’t moved the needle.
This is one of the hardest parts of the creative process. It’s the most difficult time to believe in yourself, because all the hard evidence points to the fact that you do not have what it takes.
You stop for a moment and consider all you’ve done, all you’ve tried, all you’ve made, all the energy you’ve poured out, how hard you’ve pushed, and yet everything around you looks exactly the same. In one terrible instant you realize that the mountain you thought you were climbing all this time was actually a treadmill set on incline. You feel tricked. Confused. Kind of stupid. You don’t know what else to do but hit “stop” and let the treadmill slowly descend. You step off and look around and feel muddled – how is it possible that you’re still in the exact same professional place you were when you started?
Were you tricked?
Are you crazy?
Are you seeing things?
You could’ve sworn you tripped on rocks.
You could’ve sworn you felt the altitude change.
You could’ve sworn you were going somewhere exciting.
That there were hiking signs.
And your shirt is all sweaty and gross.
But you step off and your surroundings are still the same.
Nothing has changed.
Except your heart rate.
This is the part of the creative process where you go nowhere, but your calves get stronger.
But how do you know when it’s the right time to stop, to step off, look around, decide on your next course of action? When you feel totally burnt out.
I think hitting bottom is okay.
I think trying to avoid that feeling is avoiding your own EGOTness, your own creative potential.
3. You live on Avenue Q! Your friends do too
Finding yourself at the place of burn out is not a sign you are not cut out to be an artist.
Burning out is not the same as giving up. The difference is in what you do next, in the faith you still have.
Bobby stepped off the inclined treadmill and still believed the mountain was there; he just needed to find the base. He started by looking up, for the peak. He found someone there within his reach, someone at the top of his professional mountain – songwriter Alan Menken. And just in case you don’t have a playlist on your phone you listen to every time you write filled exclusively with Alan Menken compositions (though I highly recommend that you do), Alan has composed the music for films like Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid, and more.
Bobby went to school with Alan Menken’s niece, and that is easily one of those details that can feel like pure luck. And yes, that’s a pretty lucky thing that Bobby didn’t control. But what he did next? That was all him.
He boldly asked his classmate to ask Alan if he needed an assistant.
Alan didn’t at the time, but this is why looking at the top of the mountain and asking questions can be a great place to start for any of us; because the generous artists at the top will tell you where the best trails start. The life-changing ones.
Instead, Alan told Bobby about the BMI Workshop, a premiere musical theatre training program in New York City.
The BMI Workshop would change everything for Bobby – not only is it where he would meet a lovely and talented songwriter named Kristen, but it’s also where he found a vital missing piece to his artistic career. While Bobby pretty much had the song writing process down at this point, according to him, he didn’t really know how to connect his songs with other people yet. He mastered the craft first, but now he needed to master the connection – a transition anyone who wants their art to be more than hobby must make.
The BMI Workshop taught Bobby how to connect with an audience; it surrounded him with other artists and writers who were treadmill trained, ready to climb together.
This is also where Bobby learned what it really meant to be a professional artist, that there was so much more to it that than just writing songs. There were other skills a professional must develop: networking, persistence, grit, resilience, courage, and the strength to not let the little things get you down, at least not for too long. According to Bobby, some of these skills were much harder for him than others.
Songwriting? Check. Networking? Uhhhhhhhh……
Bobby learned the skills he needed, yes, but he also learned an even better shortcut for some of them; Bobby discovered the magic of creative collaboration at the BMI Workshop – that as an artist you don’t have to do it all or be it all. Instead, sometimes it’s better to find collaborators who complement your best skills.
Bobby began to connect with people whose skills complemented his own, people like Jeff Marx (together they created Avenue Q, which led to the first “T” of Bobby’s EGOT, and they also wrote four songs for the music episode of the TV show Scrubs, one of which was nominated for an Emmy).
Throughout our conversation Bobby talks a lot about collaboration, almost as if he wants me, and all of us, to understand that an EGOT is not a singular thing – that you don’t have to do any of this alone.
4. It’s time to see what I can do / to test the limits and break through
Like Bobby, Kristen started practicing her craft at a young age, otherwise known by it’s more common nomenclature: playing. And for Kristen, quite literally; she put on plays in her backyard and loved telling stories and putting on concerts. “That’s what I did for fun,” she tells me. “I would direct them and I would write them and put them together and star in them.”
But while teachers really honed in on Bobby’s writing skills, Kristen received a different message initially.
“Over the years I got the message that, ‘She likes theater so she has to be an actress.’ No one said to me, ‘She likes theater, she’s a director’ or ‘She likes theater, she’s a writer.’”
This is what happens when you’re underrepresented in a field, and why it can be so difficult to break through. “Nobody thought of me as a writer or director because there was really not a lot of models to pull from.”
These messages are more powerful than I think we all wish. It’s too much to ask people to ‘believe in themselves’ alone. We need other people to believe in us, too – to see from the outside what we cannot see. It’s why actors have directors, athletes have coaches.
The outside messages are powerful.
Kristen pursued acting in college; she graduated and went on auditions. But somewhere around the time she got an acting job as a nun in New Hampshire, something felt off. “I definitely had this moment where I felt like, I’m not using my brain, I do not feel in alignment with my purpose.” It’s not that Kristen didn’t think actors used their brains, of course. She meant her brain, her superpower. She could sense acting wasn’t it.
It’s that feeling you get when you’re not truly interested in what you’re doing. You have all this brain power that isn’t being used, and it wants to go somewhere. You feel uneasy, itchy, unsure, and deeply disconnected to what you’re doing. And all of a sudden, you look around and realize the sacrifices you’re making for this thing you don’t really want to be doing don’t seem worth it anymore. Not because it’s inherently not worth it, but simply because, it’s just not your thing.
This is a very scary place to be – especially when it happens after you’ve gotten a degree and started a professional path in the thing. It’d be easier to ignore the feeling and press on.
But Kristen decided to do the brave thing. To pay attention to what was changing within her, a “swirling storm inside,” perhaps. It was only a matter of time before it would come spiraling out.
During one of her acting jobs, Kristen found herself rewriting some lyrics on the fly, and someone noticed.
“The music director I was working with was like, ‘You’re a lyricist.’”
There is so much power in what we say to each other, especially when it comes to what we believe we’re allowed to do in the professional world. It’d be nice to say we shouldn’t allow people to tell us what we can or cannot be, who we are or who we are not; there are so many times we should ignore what they say.
But that doesn’t change how powerfully other people’s words can direct our paths, or how beautiful it is when a caring mentor or friend says a thing that moves you forward, or, even more importantly, opens a professional door.
This music director was blown away by how fast and clear Kristen was able to write a song. “What do I do with that?” she asked him. He told her about this thing called the BMI Workshop.
On the first day of the BMI Workshop, Kristen presented her first full song, her power flurrying through the air for the first time. “It felt so unbelievable to put words to music, to tell a story and connect to an audience. It was like the sky opened up and I was like, Ah, now I’m in alignment with what I love.”
5. There's a fine, fine line between reality and pretend/ And you never know 'til you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb
The BMI Workshop ignited a new goal for Kristen. “It was at that moment that I started to form the goal of, I want to do this. I want to be somebody who does this and tells stories from my own experience that connect with other people.”
Kristen didn’t begin by thinking of Broadway or writing for record-breaking films or walking on stage to receive an Oscar, though. “I was more like, I want to get paid to do this.”
Her goal was to write songs professionally. “The idea of being able to do something that you love and get compensation for it was my first dream. And that created little micro dreams along the way. Somewhere very deeply in my soul I was like I want to do this on Broadway, like my heroes. I would joke about it in a secret kind of way, like When I’m on Broadway...haha, but it was really the goals that felt tangible that were far more useful for my own persistence.”
(Neither Kristen nor I knew at the time she said this that months later she would be nominated for her first Tony award for Frozen on Broadway).
When it comes to focusing on big dreams or small goals, what I’ve observed is that different things work for different people at different times. For some people, the Big Dream is what fuels them to do the daily work. For others the Big Dream is suffocating and it’s the one task in front of them that helps them progress the furthest. For some (me!) the pendulum swings month to month, year to year.
What worked for Kristen early on was focusing on micro goals, from wanting to get a job writing for Children’s Theater to “I want to finish this song by Friday.”
It doesn’t matter what fuels you, it just matters that you find what does, and ignore all the rest.
6. Throw it away, Throw it away! Tear it up and throw it away. And go about your day
While Kristen would have been happy to write songs for a living without anyone ever knowing her name, her and Bobby’s songs are recognized around the world and have been nominated for All The Awards. So naturally, because of this Grand Success, they never experience any kind self-doubt because anytime someone says anything mean or they have a bad day of work, they just look at All The Awards and magically feel so much better. Right?
“I don’t think anybody feels like they belong,” Kristen tells me. “That’s the dirty secret of the whole thing.” And Kristen has been in rooms with some of the best professional artists in film and musical theater. “The one thing that I find we all share is this feeling of, Are we giant frauds? When is someone finally going to say, What are you doing here?”
An award, or reaching a certain professional level, doesn’t change the self-doubt.
Do you feel like you don’t belong? Like a fraud? An imposter? Excellent! You’ve made it! You’re just like all the professional artists you love and admire.
Don’t wait for the self-doubt to go away to begin. Aside from a few exceptional moments (or unless you’re an ego-maniacal-bordering-on-super-villain sociopath), the self-doubt will creep up throughout your artistic career.
What to do with it? Drown it out with the work. Practice in public. Write. Sing. Direct. Create. Find your collaborators. And know that every time you make something that ends up in the trash or wonder if you really have what it takes, remember that all professional artists, even the ones who win All the Things, still feel like this all the time.
“I think the second that you feel like, Well, I really belong here,” Kristen explains, “is often the point you stop writing from a human place and you start writing from a place of maintaining your position, which is never going to be where the good stuff comes from.”
Self-doubt can be a superpower; Lin-Manuel said it’s like rocket fuel. It can blow things up, so you have to be careful – but if you hang in there, keep it from crushing you and instead let it fuel you to keep going, keep working, keep getting better, then it might just change everything.
It turns out that the desire to belong, that icky feeling of being all wrong, or not enough, is the very place where your art can be found.
“You got to find ways of getting out of your own way,” is how Bobby puts it. “The fears come - it’s that natural anxiety of What are people thinking about me or What are people saying?” The internet can be a horrible place for this kind of thing, as Bobby admits, and with all the endless feedback he explains how easy it is to stumble on conversations people are having about your work: “if you are unlucky enough to poke in on a bad one—" Kristen finishes this sentence for him, “—it can stay with you.”
It’s when these kinds of things stay with you that the rocket fuel can blow things up. It’s not that you become immune to the initial blow. It’s just that you learn how to keep going.
Bobby explains: “It’s the kind of thing that gets in your way and it haunts you; it can be really discouraging. What they don’t tell you when you were a kid is that if you plan to put things out into the world, not everybody will like them. People will hate on them and you have to find a way to be okay with that.”
But “finding a way to be okay with that” doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Bobby and Kristen’s assurances of this are one of the things that stay with me forever – that you can be a professional and still be sensitive. The latter is actually pretty essential for an artist, but can be difficult when it comes to dealing with all the professional kickback of putting work out into the world that some people will 100% hate.
Kristen confirms this when I ask her directly how she deals with such harsh criticism or rejection; she answers almost before I finish asking the question, and not with the Morning Talk Show answer. She tells the truth: “Therapy is really good. It’s not easy. It’s always raw. It’s always painful to hear your work is dismissed or didn’t connect with somebody. And it’s very easy to globalize that into like, I suck, I suck, I suck.” (Kristen actually sings this last part, a song from Jason Robert Brown's Last Five Years, a song that gets stuck in my head even months later: “I suckkkk, I succcck, I suuuuuuuck!”)
It’s okay if you get the “I suck” song stuck in your head sometimes, when things are raw. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to give yourself permission to eat a whole sleeve of cookies under a blanket and hug your dog for an hour. Whatever helps.
The key is not letting the song go any farther than that. That is where the danger is. As Kristen explains, “It’s when you globalize it that you begin to give up and stop doing what you love.” Which doesn’t always mean you rely only on your inner strength or your dog’s ability to sit still for a whole hour. “I think it’s also really important to proactively protect yourself.”
When Kristen worked on the acapella musical In Transit, she decided to do just that. “I was really firm with my co-writers on In Transit that I did not want to hear anything that anyone was saying on the internet about it, especially during the initial creative process. Like any new project, I know there will be a lot people who hate this idea, and I knew I couldn’t let their voices get into my head about it. Some of my collaborators are better at reading it and not caring. But I hear it too loudly in my head so I have to create a bubble or wall.”
There is a time to read the reviews and cry, and there is a time not to read at all. You get to decide what’s best for you.
And in the end, you simply learn how to let it go, and keep going.
7. There’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time
Kristen may know when to ignore comments from the peanut gallery, but like any professional artist, she also knows when feedback is crucial.
Feedback is the good twin to its evil twin, Criticism; it’s the secret sauce that turns persistent work into great art. Kristen’s protective comment bubble isn’t impenetrable; it has a door, and she chooses who to let in.
So who gets to comment? Who gets to give feedback?
“Good writers, my friends who have done something that I admire, people I trust,” she shares. “It’s vital to listen to the people you trust, your director, and to the audience who has paid for your thing. It’s important to stay open to those voices but closed to the voices that are not in the arena but sitting there throwing rocks.”
People who don’t invest don’t get a say.
Those are the people whose comments you can ignore.
8. Come on let’s go and play
Kristen and Bobby’s approach to feedback and the creative process, as well as their true love for and pursuit of their craft, has led to them winning many Big Awards.
(During my last week of editing this article I see them on my TV at the Golden Globes and learn that they’ve been nominated for another Oscar). I ask them about their first Big Award experiences, what it’s really like. “Those moments when you win a bigger award are very intense moments,” Bobby shares. “There was a night that we won the Tony for Avenue Q. We thought, We won the Tony! We beat Wicked?! I was now a Broadway writer with a Tony award after having been a temp the year before. I had spent almost my entire life trying to become a writer, and now I had just kind of won the rodeo. It was amazing how everything changed in that one night.”
That overnight success thing? These are the moments that get things all muddled in our culture. But you know the truth. Bobby was writing songs in elementary school. This Tony was no overnight thing, but that doesn’t change the fact these moments can change a life overnight.
“Everything changed,” Bobby remembers. Soon after Kristen quit her day job and she and Bobby got married and moved to Manhattan.
“But then everything became its polar opposite,” Bobby shares as he remembers how quickly the dazzle of awards night can drop. “All of a sudden, this huge anxiety set in. We had to intentionally remember who we are and why we do what we do. It’s not for this huge prize, it’s what we want our work give to people - that’s the reason why we do it. Not awards but the joy of writing and what is fun about that whole process.
“For example, we’re about to go into Frozen Broadway rehearsals and we are going to cut stuff, because that is what happens in rehearsal. But I’ve been reminding myself, What’s the thing I like to do better than anything better in the world? It’s write songs with Kristen and spend time with her, being creative and playing. That’s what rewriting will give us a chance to do more of. When you look at it that way is actually kind of fun and it’s exciting that we get to keep doing the things we love.”
Kristen thinks back to her first awards show experience: “I don’t know if it’s because my parents raised me to be like, Don’t think you’re better than anyone, but the moments that are supposed to be these incredible highs like winning an Oscar or even Broadway opening night, are actually full of anxiety and not that fun for me. They’re full of brand new experiences I’m not used to like Kelly Ripa asking, ‘How did it feel?’ Nothing in your life ever prepares you for that kind of attention. It feels like exercising a muscle that you don’t, or, well, that I certainly did not have.”
Kristen’s mantra was: “Don’t think you’re better. Work really hard.”
“I definitely don’t do it for those highs because they are just terrifying and they all usually include wearing very constricting clothing and very uncomfortable shoes and very uncomfortable eye lashes.” Every time I catch Kristen on camera at one of the Big Awards Shows now, I remember this and laugh. And I think about how that night and those annoying eyelashes are not why she does her art.
I think the lyrics. “That perfect girl is gone.” I think about how behind every piece of art we love is a story. A person. A girl directing plays in her backyard.
“What drives me now in my art,” Kristen shares, “is that it’s really fun to just play with Bobby, like he said. And just be like, Wouldn’t this be cool? Or, wouldn’t this be fun to try? It’s like pretending when you were a kid.”
When Bobby was a kid he really wanted a toy guitar; his mom and dad got him a real one instead. Recently, Bobby sang the Oscar and Golden-Globe nominated song he and Kristen wrote for Coco at his mom’s funeral, and he dedicated their most recent Oscar win to her memory.
You don’t cry 17 times from art that someone makes to win an award; that kind of reaction only happens when you experience someone else’s time and heart poured out on screen, page, canvas, or melody.
We affect people most with our art when we pull from our story, release it with childlike abandon, and hone it with professional dedication, learning along the way from the people who inspire us to be more than we could have ever been on our own.
Lyric from Fixer Upper, Frozen
Lyric from A Little Friendly Advice, In Transit
Lyric from Avenue Q Theme, Avenue Q
Lyric from Let it Go, Frozen
Lyric from There’s a Fine, Fine Line, Avenue Q
Lyric from Tear it up and Throw it Away, Avenue Q
Lyric from There’s a Fine, Fine Line, Avenue Q
Lyric from Do You Wanna Build a Snowman, Frozen