When composers have a tune that becomes a worldwide sensation, the pressure is on to write the next big hit. After penning the generation defying earworm “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez had everyone wanting to know: what’s next? Lucky for them, they had been working on a new musical long before Frozen was on anyone’s radar. Up Here, the duo’s latest project, is now making its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Lopez, who won Tony Awards for The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, says the idea for the show has been with him since 1997. “I only like the ideas that seem compelled to live,” he says during a break from rehearsals for Up Here. “I’m pretty ruthless with them. This one kept suggesting itself to me. I’m pretty lazy, so when I do work on something, it’s when I feel a compulsion.”
Up Here is the story of a 30-something man who covets a relationship with a t-shirt designer but whose inner moral compass has him second-guessing the impulse. “We like to characterize it as a love triangle between a man, a woman and the thoughts in a man’s head,” Anderson-Lopez says. “How do you communicate with someone when you have thoughts saying, ‘don’t do that’? It’s really hard to get out of your own way.”
Lopez gives his wife credit for taking what might have been a cerebral concept and making it more universal. “When I invited Kristen to work with me on this,” he reveals, “the [ideas] started moving in a way they hadn’t in years. She was the one who suggested it be a romantic comedy, which was brilliant. It took the idea out of the head and gave it something audiences and I could grab on to and make a plot that was compelling.”
Anderson-Lopez offers a little more of the storyline, which is being kept mostly under wraps until people see the show. “There are some static characters and some fluid parts: The [man’s] thoughts are repped by a chorus and the ever-changing infinite chorus, which changes and evolves musically,” she says. “While they represent his arc, there are secondary characters that have arcs. And they exist in the real world.” Got it?
Slightly more details come from Lopez. “It’s not a small musical, even though it’ s a small story,” he says. “We have a large ensemble and a rather large orchestra, because consciousness is vast. Every moment they break into song is a chance to do something fresh in the form of the musical—to use music in a different way than it’s been used. That’s what made it fun to write.”
Surely that originality is what made it fun to create, as well. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to do such a large show that is, in so many ways, risky,” Lopez says. “Quite often those are the shows that never get done. We’ve had a lot of luck with taking risks.”