Former Charlottean is front-runner for Oscar for ‘Let It Go”

While the rest of the world sings “Let It Go,” the beloved number from the animated hit “Frozen,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez can sing “Let It Come.”

She and husband Robert Lopez, who wrote the score with her, are front-runners for the Best Song Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday.

The album topped the Billboard chart for five weeks, which no soundtrack had done since “Titanic” 16 years ago. “Frozen,” which is about sisters in a troubled Scandinavian kingdom, will earn more than $1 billion worldwide and should end up as the highest-grossing animated movie ever.

The ex-Charlottean flew to Los Angeles on Wednesday to prepare for the event. I caught her before the second fitting for her Oscar de la Renta dress.

“I tried it on in the first week of January and haven’t seen it since,” she said. “I’m hoping I don’t need alterations, but then again, we have been stress eating. It’s black, with a sort of light pink decoration on the bust and a bow in back – which is either a homage to French couture or my senior prom.”

The road to this ceremony began more than three decades ago at a children’s theater in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and it has never swerved. It took her through Charlotte from 1986 to 1990, after parents John and Erin Anderson relocated here. (They now live in Waxhaw.) Teachers who influenced her still have recollections to share.

“I remember Mary Magdalene in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ” said Rob Williams, who directed it at Charlotte Country Day School. “Most kids never really become a character at that age, but I didn’t have to direct her at all: She was completely right. There are little miracles like that.”

Gary Forbis, upper school choir director there, recalled her work in honors choir and chamber choir: “She had tons of energy, which all seemed to go into her singing or acting. She was always upbeat, just a happy person to be around.”

A lifelong theme

Her most original work has been about the choice between conformity and independence, whether in the off-Broadway musical “In Transit” (about taking a crack at New York) or “Frozen.” Nothing captures that sentiment like “Let It Go,” which swiftly became America’s most popular song.

Anderson had a happy childhood: “From long ago,” she recalls, “my parents said, ‘We’re going to allow her to have this, and not get too involved with her success or failure.’ ” But she had to make the choice herself around the time she double-majored in drama and psychology at Williams College.

John Anderson remembers saying, “Kristen, you’re incredibly bright. In addition to acting, why not get a degree that would let you be a ... something.’ Not surprisingly, she got offers to be an investment banker. She told me, ‘I’m going to follow up with Morgan Stanley.’ I ponied up airfare, and she never went to the interview.”

Instead, after a theater internship in Florida, she bolted for New York. A parody song she contributed to a revue caught the attention of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She met Lopez there, married him in 2003 and teamed with him on songs for a musical “Finding Nemo” at Disney World. They paired again in 2011 for Disney’s film “Winnie-the-Pooh” and went into “Frozen” the next winter.

They like to be involved from the beginning of any story. So for two years, they had a weekly two-hour conference call from their home office in Brooklyn to Disney headquarters. But the project didn’t quite jell until they wrote “Let It Go” for ice queen Elsa, who retreats to a mountain palace. Did Anderson smell a megahit?

“The fact that (directors) Jennifer Lee and Chris Black and (producer) John Lasseter said they were going to (reshape) the whole movie around it made the difference. If it weren’t framed by the right story, it wouldn’t connect with people. Our favorite moment was going to a singalong version of the movie in January and sitting behind a row of teenage boys in the front, who were singing their hearts out.”

How do you craft a hit?

“In this case, the director was talking about the duality of Elsa releasing her past and her powers. We listened to a lot of different inspirations, Adele and Tori Amos and a lot of female songwriters. We called this ‘Elsa’s badass song,’ so we weren’t going to listen to more typical Disney traditions.

“We went for a walk in Prospect Park and threw phrases at each other. What does it feel like to be the perfect exalted person, but only because you’ve held back this secret? Bobby came up with ‘kingdom of isolation,’ and it worked. Back at our office, Bobby would vamp at the piano, and we’d improv melodies over that. I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s good – can you make that into a verse?’ We’d toss a lyric on the whiteboard, give it a rest, do it again and then piece it together.”

Popular as “Frozen” is, she said she has no idea whether it might open doors on Broadway. After all, Lopez has Tony Awards for “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon,” and he still struggles to find investors.

“When we have workshops for ‘In Transit,’ people like it,” she said. “But it’s risky: It’s an a cappella musical, so there are no instruments. We’re also working on ‘Up Here,’ a project about consciousness. People enjoy that, but it’s big, and it’s also original. Theater projects that don’t come from books or movies are the hardest to sell.”