In A Tale Of Two Sisters, The Story's In The Songs

Nov 24, 2013
Originally published on November 24, 2013 5:52 pm

When you hear the name "Disney," you might picture a few things — Ariel the mermaid perched on a rock, or Mrs. Potts observing the blossoming love between a beauty and a beast. But just as important is what begins playing in your head: The songs that accompany these moments are perhaps even more iconic than the characters who sing them.

The new Disney film Frozen aims to add to that list with a tale of two sisters. The older sister, Elsa, is born with the power to create snow and ice out of her hands. As she grows up, her powers become too strong, and she is forced to hide them. The sisters are divided; Elsa lives in fear, while Anna longs for connection.

Husband-and-wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote eight songs for the film. Robert Lopez is best known for composing songs for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon — songs that are far from G-rated. But the two both got their start in children's theater, and they say making the transition from edgy to family friendly is easier than you'd think.

"I think a story is a story, a character is a character," Kristen Anderson-Lopez says. "If your story is edgy, your songs are edgy. If your story is full of heart, your songs, hopefully, are full of heart."

The couple spoke to NPR's Arun Rath about the music of Frozen; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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If I say Disney, I bet you get songs running through your head right away. Maybe it's Ariel's ballad in "The Little Mermaid" or Mrs. Teapot in "Beauty and the Beast." The new film "Frozen" hopes to add to the Disney cannon. It's the tale of two sisters who are princesses.

The older sister, Elsa, is born with the power to create ice out of her hands. As her powers become dangerous, she's forced to cut herself off from everyone, including her sister, Anna. Of course, magic and true love are key to breaking the curse. It sounds like classic Disney, about as far away as you could get from this.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The Internet is really, really great.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) More porn.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I've got a fast connection so I don't have to wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) More porn.


RATH: That's the classic Broadway anti-kid show, "Avenue Q," written by Robert Lopez. He also wrote the music for "The Book of Mormon." Robert and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, wrote eight songs for the new Disney film "Frozen." It turns out they both got their start in children's theater. Making the transition was easy.

KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ: I think a story is a story, a character is a character. And if your story is edgy, your songs are edgy. And if your story is full of heart, your songs, hopefully, are full of heart.

ROBERT LOPEZ: On top of that, we try and be a little subversive, whether we're doing something for families or something for grownups. I mean, it's - you try and locate the line and then tow it.

RATH: Coming to this project, did Disney come to you with a story and say, we want you to write some songs for this?

LOPEZ: They approached us with a story. And, in fact, it was a piece of art that really hooked us in. It was the two princesses as young girls. And they look just like our two young girls.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Who are waiting outside the studio right now.

RATH: That's right. You guys are married and have two daughters. And so were they an inspiration for these characters?

LOPEZ: Oh, absolutely. And not just an inspiration. We actually brought them into the studio.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: They're in the movie.

RATH: Yeah?

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Our oldest daughter sings - she's the youngest singing voice of Anna.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Do you wanna build a snowman? Come on let's go and play.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: They helped us with lines. They were always the first people to hear any of the songs that we wrote.

RATH: So you bring your work home, and it's actually fun for the kids, which is not usually the case.


LOPEZ: But one of the best things about working on it was that we were able to work on the story with the team every day. They had a story when we first joined the project, but it was very much influx, and they really wanted our opinion as musical theater writers.

RATH: I was wondering about how much back and forth there was, because certainly some of the songs like - Bobby, one that made me think of you in particular was "Reindeer Are Better Than People."


LOPEZ: Yeah.


JONATHAN GROFF: (Singing) Reindeers are better than people. Sven, don't you think that's true? Yeah, people will beat you and curse you and cheat you. Every one of them is bad, except you.

LOPEZ: I - sometimes, I feel that way. Not specifically about reindeers but I kind of like animals better than people sometimes.


RATH: Is it hard, though, writing when, you know, these characters are being animated after you've done the music? Do you have, like, a drawing you work with or...

LOPEZ: The people we worked with on the visual side were the storyboard artists. And they basically illustrate the script as though it were a comic book. Those drawings are kind of put on reels along with some temp dialogue or temp singing. And the whole movie gets put on reels like that. And if you can get it to work in that format, that sort of less-than-perfect format, you know you have a story that's working.

RATH: I want to come back to one of the other songs of the film, this great character, who's a snowman - a sort of a living snowman - and he has a song about summer, even though he's never experienced it, and some delusions about summer as well.


JOSH GAD: (Singing) Bees, they'll buzz, kids will blow dandelion fuzz and I'll be doing whatever snow does in summer.

LOPEZ: Yes. That's the character of Olaf the snowman. He somehow comes to life and longs for heat and all things warm.


GAD: (Singing) I'll finally see a summer breeze, blow away a winter storm. And find out what happens to solid water when it gets warm.

RATH: And it turns into a running joke in the film about he's just not aware of that limitation. So was that - did that come from that song and from you?

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: We had two hours of conversation every single day for two years. It took us a while...

LOPEZ: You could say...

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: find Olaf. But we were in the room when we all realized he's a snowman who wants the summer. How sad is that?


RATH: Well, it's a classic character thing, being attracted to what destroys you, right?


ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Like me and chocolate.


RATH: I wanted to ask you also about writing for some very established characters because you did some of the music for the "Winnie the Pooh" movie that came out in 2011. And it really nailed the spirit of the original. I came to it like a lot of people probably did thinking that they better get this right, because Winnie-the-Pooh is very important to me.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Well, we were both raised on an incredibly steady diet of Sherman Brothers.

RATH: These are the - the brothers who composed so much of the classic.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Who composed - right.

RATH: "Mary Poppins"...


RATH: ...and "Jungle Book" and...

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: And (singing) let's get together, yeah, yeah, yeah.

RATH: Yeah.


ANDERSON-LOPEZ: One of my favorites.

LOPEZ: I think they understood that every song you write for Disney has the potential to be a classic. So you kind of try to knock the ball out of the park every time you step up to that. They were our heroes as we worked on this movie and, obviously, Winnie-the-Pooh too.

RATH: There's one more I've got to ask you about Winnie-the-Pooh. Bobby, I understand that you had some vocal talent in "Winnie the Pooh."

LOPEZ: Yeah. I was the...


LOPEZ: know, the sound of the tummy, Pooh's tummy.

RATH: Pooh's tummy.


LOPEZ: But I had to sing with that, so I was (makes noise).

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: He's very talented, so many hidden talents.


RATH: That was awesome. I'm sorry. I'm just disarmed by that.


RATH: Composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote music for the new Disney film "Frozen" which opens this week. Thank you so much. It was really fun talking with both of you.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Thank you so much.

LOPEZ: Thank you.


RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.