A psychic in New Orleans once told actor Kristen Anderson that she was actually a writer and she was going to meet someone of “undisclosed ethnic origin” in either “a class or a club.” Anderson, who was in a relationship at the time, didn’t believe her. But it wasn’t long after that the relationship ended, she started writing, and within a couple of weeks of being accepted in the first year of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, she met a third-year composer of “undisclosed ethnic origin.”
“Half Filipino,” clarifies Robert Lopez.
“He walked in the room and he had this shiny black floppy hair and this blue shirt. And he was so cute. And I was like, ‘I love him. I'm gonna marry him,’” says Kristen (now) Anderson-Lopez. “Then he proceeded to play a female puppet.”
She introduced herself after the presentation and he slipped her his demo cd with his phone number on it.
So, that’s the meet cute—that part in a romantic comedy when the two lovers-to-be meet…cute. Since that moment, the two have been making beautiful music together. Rather, beautiful musical theatre together. They have each been represented on Broadway with other teams: she is one of the four writers behind the 2016 acapella musical In Transit; he is a Tony winner for both Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. As a team, they have written the songs for the Disney films Frozen, Coco, and Frozen II, as well as the Broadway production of Frozen. Together they have won two Oscars (for “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Remember Me” from Coco), two Grammys (again, Frozen) and an Emmy Award (for “Agatha All Along” from Marvel’s WandaVision).
And, if you didn’t see where we were going with the meet cute…their latest project is a rom-com: the musical television series Up Here. All eight episodes premiere on Hulu March 24.
Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes play Lindsay and Miguel, the potential paramours at the heart of the musical. The problem, though, is what’s in their heads—the voices in their heads, to be more precise. For Lindsay, who has recently broken off an engagement with a dentist to pursue a writing career in New York, the voices are her parents (played by Katie Finneran and John Hodgman) who constantly question her choices, and her best friend from junior high, Celeste (Sophia Hammons), who brings all of Lindsay’s pre-teen anxieties about boys to the forefront. Miguel, a video-game designer turned investment banker, is constantly hounded by his own protective mother (Andréa Burns), a mean girl from high school (Emilia Suárez), and an alpha male (Scott Porter) with a lot of questionable advice about dating and manhood.
The Lopezes used their stage musical Up Here, which premiered at La Jolla in 2015, as a jumping-off point. “There were a lot of things about [the stage version] that, by the time we got it on its feet, we wished were different,” says Lopez.
In the stage version of Up Here, only the voices in the man’s head are represented. The Lopezes had also wanted voices in the woman’s head, but they couldn’t figure it out for the two-hour stage show. “On stage, it felt a bit awkward to have to set up so many different realities,” says Lopez. Before they could really dig into retooling the show, they had to shelve it because they were on deadline to write Frozen for Broadway and the Frozen II film.
When they saw the television mini-series Fosse/Verdon in 2019, they immediately clocked the story-telling talents behind it: director Thomas Kail (a Tony winner from Hamilton) and writer Steven Levenson (a Tony winner for Dear Evan Hansen). “This team knows how to go from reality into a psychological world that represents the thought and psychology of the main character,” says Anderson-Lopez. “These guys know how to do what we’re trying to do with Up Here.”
When Kail, coincidentally, called during the pandemic asking if they had anything that might work as a streaming series, the Lopezes were all in. “All of a sudden, we were being presented with this Bentley of a car to drive and we couldn’t help but be like, ‘Yeah, let’s drive it. Let’s throw out everything we have from the stage show and let’s make a new show with Tommy and Steven,’” says Lopez. Television comedy writer and producer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel was also brought on board.
The stage show was always “subversive joy” as Anderson-Lopez puts it, but it was also a bit darker, “because we were only in the man’s head,” the female half of the team says jokingly. The series leans more into comedy. The internal voices have gone from abstractions like “The Critic” to actual people from the main characters’ lives—a change the Lopezes credit as one of Levenson’s best ideas for the restructure. In addition to the initial three main inner voices each of the two characters have, other voices from their past pop up throughout the show. (Keep your eyes peeled for stellar appearances from Brian Stokes Mitchell as a children's author with a circus kink and Norm Lewis as a video game wizard!)
While Kail, Levenson, and Sanchez-Witzel brought new form to the book, the Lopezes carry their deep knowledge of Broadway musical structure to the screen. Every episode is its own musical with a beginning, middle, and end. The entire arc of the season works as a mega-musical of sorts, with an “I Want” song, an act break, an 11 o’clock number, and a finale. And though they didn’t use the song score from the stage show, they have incorporated some of the original musical themes and motifs. The Lopezes have written over 25 new songs for the series. The soundtrack will release on March 24 in conjunction with the series release.
For Lindsay’s arc in the show, Anderson-Lopez channeled some of her own internal voices about living up to expectations in her childhood. And she says it’s something that Mae Whitman easily understood “having been a child actress who grew up in a world where it was her job to live up to the expectations of what every adult was telling her she had to do on set every day.” Anderson-Lopez allows Lindsay, like she did herself, to turn away from those voices. “It's time to say, ‘Thank you very much.’ I have to figure out, what does my voice want to say? What's my authenticity? How do I stop living up to what I think I'm supposed to be, to actually become who I am?”
And of course, they borrow bits from their own relationship for the series, too. When Robert first asked Kristen out, it was via email. He wrote “Would you like to have a beverage or a coffee (with me)?” Anderson-Lopez shares: “We quote it in the ‘Tiger Shark' song a little bit—at the end of the song, he sort of does a parenthesis ‘with you.’” (Although "Tiger Shark" is an entirely different scenario. It's Miguel's alpha-male inner voice encouraging him, in an '80s rock anthem, to be a man..."like a tiger or a shark, or a tiger shark." The song ends with a pumped-up Miguel singing along with his inner voice, "And, bro, a female tiger shark might want to mate." "With you, just to clarify," adds the voice.)
The 1999 setting for Up Here is also a nod to their courtship. “There’s a poetry to 1999 that we’ve always liked in our relationship. We were able to take risks and really commit and go for it with each other because the world was going to end in a month,” says Anderson-Lopez. “On some level, subconsciously, I thought that was going to happen. That the world was going to end on Y2K, so why not take a risk with this weird composer?”
The couple also admits that they don’t know anything about the modern dating scene. “We don’t know about the swiping and the ghosting,” says Anderson-Lopez. “We got to know each other through interacting and through having these long phone calls on a landline that would last hours, where you could sort of whisper intimately in each other's ear.” In the series, early in Lindsay and Miguel’s relationship, after they’ve already hit a bumpy spot and are not on the best of terms, Lindsay gets knocked on the head and Miguel is the one to call her every hour throughout the night to check on her. And it’s through these landline phone calls that the audience sees their affection for each other really begin to bloom.
Of course, in any good rom-com, the couple has to break up and get back together. In Up Here, Lindsay tries to go all the way to Vermont and back in one day to set things right with her ex-fiancé before meeting up with Miguel that evening. Things go awry. The Lopezes know all too well the difficulties of communicating sans cell phones in 1999. “We broke up one day because we decided to meet after work at Barnes and Noble,” says Anderson-Lopez.
“The Barnes and Noble in Chelsea, right?” remembers Lopez. “But there were two! So I showed up at one and she showed up at the other. We waited half an hour, nobody was there. And then I was running out of quarters to call her answering service. And then we both switched and went to the other Barnes and Noble. It took us two hours to meet and I was ready to kick over a lamppost by the time we did.”
A whole generation of musical theatre lovers can say, with certainty, thank goodness that the world didn't end with Y2K and our lovers got back together.