Entertainment

Successful Disney writer 'knew what she wanted'

It was 1986 and a cast of teenage actors with the Children's Theatre of Charlotte was rehearsing for a production of "Godspell."

"Wouldn't it be nice if we had a flute?" someone asked.

"I play the flute!" piped up Kristen Anderson, one of the young actors. With her typical high-energy, problem-solving attitude, she pulled a flute out of a bag and started to play.

It's a moment Charlotte director Kevin Campbell fondly recalls. He says he could see way back then that the young artist had the skills and the ambition to succeed.

And she did. Most recently, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, 39, co-wrote songs for Disney's version of "Winnie the Pooh" with her Tony Award-winning husband, Robert Lopez. And she plays the voice of Kanga, mother of Roo.

For Anderson-Lopez, her art comes easily. She says the creative process is like being 5 years old and going to someone's house and saying, "What do you want to play?"

She and Lopez also adapted "Finding Nemo" into a musical theater production. It opened in 2007 and runs five days a week at Disney World.

"For a lot of kids, it's their first exposure to theater," she said. "You really have to cultivate a love for this art form."

Anderson-Lopez is the daughter of John and Erin Anderson of Waxhaw. John Anderson, a freelance columnist for the Charlotte Observer's Union News, saw his daughter's love for the theater bloom early.

When he took 4-year-old Kristen to her first play, "Her eyes were focused on the stage - they didn't twitch," he said. "She knew that's what she wanted to do."

In 1986, 14-year-old Kristen moved with her family from Westchester, N.Y., to Charlotte's Myers Park neighborhood. She enrolled at Charlotte Country Day, where she was seen as a "very strange, enthusiastic New Yorker."

Her family life was chaotic at the time - her mother had just given birth to twin girls.

Kristen threw herself into musical productions at the Children's Theatre of Charlotte.

She made her boyfriend blast Phantom of the Opera in his Jeep convertible.

"When most kids were listening to R.E.M., I was listening to Sondheim," she said.

She sang, danced, and acted, but her love of writing was constantly brewing. She once modified a school production of "My Fair Lady" so that everyone had a speaking part.

Arrival in the Big Apple

After high school, Anderson-Lopez left Charlotte to double major in drama and psychology at Williams College in Massachusetts. Upon graduating in 1994 as the elected class speaker, she was offered a job at an investment bank. On her parents' dime, Anderson-Lopez went to New York for the job interview. But when she saw a magazine posting for a musical theater audition, she skipped the interview.

She got the job and New York would soon become her home. To make ends meet in New York, for a decade she did cognitive tests on schizophrenic patients, sold vitamins to people on the Atkins diet, taught theater in Bronx public schools, and answered phones for Wall Street firms - all while pursuing musical theater and playing a lot of "singing nuns." She lived in Queens, the only place she could afford rent.

Love on Broadway

When Anderson-Lopez joined the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York City in 1999, "the skies opened." She realized, "I'm a writer, a wordsmith. I love to make puns and be creative."

It was in that program that she met Lopez. That was before he won Tony Awards for "Avenue Q" and "The Book of Mormon." She served as a sounding board and was often the first to critique his writing, she said.

The couple married in 2003 and are raising two daughters, Katie, 6, and Annie, 2. When "Avenue Q" hit Broadway eight years ago, its success allowed Anderson-Lopez to stop doing temp work and focus on writing. The Lopez family now lives in Brooklyn.

But Anderson-Lopez hasn't stopped reflecting on what it's like to try to make it in the theater in New York City.

In the award-winning "In Transit," an off-Broadway musical she co-created last year, she identifies with the struggling actress character who grapples with, "Do I give this up and take the corporate job?"

She's no longer dancing with that question. But new challenges come with success, like constant deadlines demanding songs and scripts. It's a challenge she often shares with her husband.

"We'll go to the office and start playing, throwing words and melodies out. If an idea strikes, I'll start singing along," she said. "We'll go live inside these characters and let their music come out organically."

Anderson-Lopez's agent, John Buzzetti, said aside from being "brilliantly funny" and full of "endless ideas," "she's not precious about her ideas."

If something doesn't work, "She's like, 'OK, moving on'," he said.

'Everyone has their honey'

When the couple auditioned for "Winnie the Pooh" in 2009, they walked in exhausted, having been up the night before taking care of their newborn daughter. They were asked to write a song to go along with a scene in which Winnie the Pooh is hallucinating about honey. The couple related to the hungry bear by channeling their own feverish state.

"Everyone has their honey - the thing they want but can't have," said Anderson-Lopez. "For us, it was sleep." They got the job.

The "Backson Song," also on the Pooh soundtrack, came about during a family "vacation from hell," said Anderson-Lopez. A few months after landing the "Winnie the Pooh" gig, they were vacationing on Fire Island, N.Y., and their youngest daughter, again, wouldn't sleep or nap. That's when Disney called, asking the couple for another song, pronto.

But they couldn't work without a piano. So they found a small church and asked the caretaker if they could use it.

They were tired and hot, but by tapping into their personal "torture" and invoking the intensity of the church's looming, ornate pulpit, another song was born.

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