On a Saturday night in 2000, Kristen Anderson sat unhappily at home. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, Robert Lopez, and for reasons she didn’t quite understand, she’d sent him out on a date with a friend of hers. She’d started seeing another guy, but he was out with someone else, too.
She spent an increasingly frustrated evening trying to reach both of them — on landline, on cell, via AOL. And then, because she’s a lyricist, she wrote a song about it. “I was like, ‘Channel it, channel it into lyrics,'” she recently told the Voice. She called it “Saturday Night” and the lyrics are, in parts: “So I’m totally fine/Just sipping my wine/From a box!” and then “But please, oh please, oh please/Don’t be out with some slut!”
This particular sad night had a happy ending. Anderson and Lopez reconnected and got married a couple of years later. She hyphenated her name. They now have two children. He’s also a musical theater writer; his first Broadway show, Avenue Q, won a few Tonys. His next, The Book of Mormon, won a few more. Together they wrote music for children’s television and a little-seen Winnie the Pooh, before composing the blockbuster score for Disney’s Frozen.
Now Anderson-Lopez is making her own Broadway debut with In Transit. It’s the first a cappella musical to make a stop on the Great White Way. The story, about a group of young New Yorkers trying to make their way (and their train), features music and lyrics by Anderson-Lopez, Sara Wordsworth, James-Allen Ford, and Russ Kaplan. “Saturday Night” is one of its highlights, and while the tech has been updated from its AOL origins, the emotionally raw comedy remains the same.
On a recent afternoon, Anderson-Lopez was working at the Park Slope duplex that she and Lopez use as a shared office. Their display case there is crammed with awards, which in addition to Lopez’s Tonys include Emmys and Grammys (their twin Oscars live at home, nearby). Their kitchen cabinets burst with an atypical take on office supplies: wine, potato chips, and Disney figurines.
In talking about her work, Anderson-Lopez is unusually warm and unusually wry — part den mother, part wiseass. While she and her husband typically share music and lyrics credits for their joint projects, Anderson-Lopez is often responsible for the initial arc of each song and how it serves the story, while Lopez does a lot of the precision work. “I’m a big-picture thinker,” she said, while he’s the one who knows “that there needs to be an E minor in that chord.”
“She has this story mind and the ability to kind of cut to the essence of what something should be about,” Lopez, who was working in an adjoining room, chimed in. He also trusts her to stand up, whether to him or to a roomful of Disney executives, for the words and themes she thinks are essential to a story or a song. “She fights really hard for the things that she cares about,” he said.
What she cares about the most, professionally and maybe personally, is redefining what a leading lady is. “I’m really trying to fight through a world that wants to keep us sexy, attractive, likable,” she said. “I have lots of songs to write about trying to get there and then going fuck it.”
As Jennifer Lee, the writer and director of Frozen, told the Voice, “Her heroines are as flawed as every real person is and that’s what I love.” Tom MacDougall, the music supervisor of Disney and Pixar, similarly praised Anderson-Lopez’s “fearlessness… She speaks to real women and real situations.”
That’s why Frozen‘s Anna sings, “Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy” — perhaps the first Disney princess to discuss her GI tract. And it’s why In Transit‘s heroines — Jane, who can’t start her career, and Ali, who can’t stop texting her ex — are recognizable. They behave like real women, and in Anderson-Lopez’s spirited lyrical style, they sound like them, too. On a first date, Jane sings, “But he seemed kinda cool/And I stayed kinda cool/Then like, suddenly, we’re kissing/And he smelled so good.”
In Transit, like all of Anderson-Lopez’s projects, is full of such weirdly evocative language. “She has just such a flair with contemporary words,” said Wordsworth. “She captures an honesty and a sincerity of character while being funny. A lot of people can’t do that, they’re either funny or sincere, and Kristen is so great about capturing both.”
It took Anderson-Lopez a few years to figure that out. For a while she said, “I was a mediocre actress who didn’t know she was a lyricist yet.” After graduating from Williams College in 1994, she tried to support herself with acting gigs, without much success. When she did land a job, she often spent time backstage writing parody songs.
Based on those songs, some composer friends urged her to apply to the storied New York musical theater workshop run by music licensing company BMI. She first met Lopez there, at a showcase. “He walked in the room, I had one of those animal things, like ‘I’m gonna marry him!'” she said. “Then he went up and put on a red wig and proceeded to sing like a girl puppet.”
Her first-year final project was a ten-minute musical. Recalling how much she’d enjoyed performing with her college a cappella group, she teamed with Ford, another composer in the workshop and a former member of Yale’s Whiffenpoof a cappella ensemble, to write Oedipus A Cappella. She joined Ford’s a cappella group, Bob Ross Juice Box, which also included Wordsworth and Kaplan. In 2000, they began work on what would become In Transit, a story about a group of twentysomething New Yorkers trying to negotiate love, work, family, and what to do if the turnstile won’t take your MetroCard.
At the time, an a cappella musical was not only unprecedented but nearly impossible to execute. “It’s a really risky thing to do a first to try and pull off a musical with no instruments,” Anderson-Lopez said. In the absence of a conductor and an orchestra, the actors would need in-ear technology that could cue all of them simultaneously, and that didn’t yet exist. A further challenge, one that director Kathleen Marshall has had to solve, is how the actors double as the instruments, providing vocal orchestration for each song. “They’re singing these eleven-part harmonies while they’re moving furniture, while they’re changing clothes backstage. It’s kind of amazing,” Marshall explained.
And, they all had to wait for a cappella to transcend its annoying, collegiate associations, “that insider group that stood in a row and thought their jokes were funny and sang ‘Ray of Light’ badly,” as Anderson-Lopez put it. Despite the popularity of the Pitch Perfect movies and NBC’s The Sing-Off, she is still worried the format won’t take. “To get butts in the seats, we really have to help people know that you’re going to forget that it’s a cappella.”
Whether or not In Transit is a box office success (it opened Sunday to mixed critical reception), Anderson-Lopez’s work on Broadway will continue. The musical version of Frozen debuts in 2018, and she and Lopez have written sixteen new songs for the adaptation. Up Here, another musical the couple wrote together, stalled out after a dismissive 2015 New York Times review (“endearingly goofy but inconsequential”) but is now being revised.
After all, Anderson-Lopez has a lot of songs to write, a lot of stories to tell, a lot of wisecracks to make. She wants to keep creating women who dare not only to dream but also to mouth off and screw up. “I can’t see ever being able to write one of the old-fashioned heroines that were really just there to be beautiful and sing a beautiful song,” she said. “I really want to allow a broader spectrum of life.”
In Transit plays through June at Circle in the Square Theatre.