Lawrence Toppman

She was ‘Frozen.’ Now ex-Charlottean Kristen Anderson-Lopez is on fire.

In Transit "Deep Beneath the City"

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How do you heat up a life that’s been “Frozen”?

Do you expand the highest-grossing animated film in history into a stage musical? (Yes.)

Do you sign on for “Gigantic,” a Disney princess movie whose grosses may live up to its name? (Yep.)

But first you go back to a time when you were in transit from schoolteacher in the Bronx to Oscar-winning songwriter. You do that with “In Transit,” the riskiest feat of your career – Broadway’s first a cappella musical.

The show follows 11 New Yorkers who aren’t in touch with their lives or each other; they live in the past or future but not fully in the present. It goes into previews at Circle in the Square Theatre Nov. 10 and gets an official opening Dec. 11. And Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who has worked with it off and on for 15 years, is thrilled and exhausted.

“Part of what’s super-painful for a female artist with two young children is that you have to be at (rehearsals and) previews every night,” says the Charlotte Country Day School grad. “You have to wait until the crew has meetings with the director to talk about what changes we’re going to make. Then you have to write them overnight. Meanwhile, the 11-year-old gets up at 6:30 to catch a 7:30 bus. So at 6, the alarm goes ‘Doodle-oodle-oodle’ and you go ‘&^$5#@!’ 

Next up for Anderson-Lopez and her husband: Conjuring the next Disney princess – Inma, a 60-foot-tall, 10-year-old girl in the upcoming “Gigantic.”

That crew includes director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, a triple Tony-winner; Ken Travis, sound designer for “Aladdin” and “Newsies”; and vocal arranger Deke Sharon, famous for the films “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Perfect 2.” He’ll coordinate sopranos, tenors, basses and human beat-boxers so they blend and register with the audience, which sits on three sides of Circle in the Square’s thrust stage.

You’d think Anderson-Lopez could relax on a weekend getaway to Charlotte, where she has dropped two daughters with her parents in Waxhaw and bolted for private time at Ballantyne Resort with husband Robert Lopez. But not quite.

“Right now, it’s like a thousand Lego pieces on the floor, getting put back together one by one,” she says. “It’s 11-part harmony over a 300-page score. And no one’s EVER secure (before opening). I can’t think of a more vulnerable time for a human being. You’re full of shame: You just want to hide and eat M&Ms. It helps me understand Elsa!”

A film changed everything

So much in their lives comes back to Elsa, the “Frozen” queen whose flares of temper create ice storms and chill the hearts of her people. Before that 2013 film grossed a billion dollars worldwide, he was famous as the Tony-winning composer-lyricist for “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon.” She was best known for collaborating with him on Disney’s 2011 reboot of “Winnie the Pooh.”

“There used to be a bit of a power dynamic,” she says. “Bobby had such visible early success that there were times I felt, ‘Oh, I’ve got to defer to him.’ I don’t feel that way any more.” So they’ve gone into the Disney stage version of “Frozen,” which will debut in Denver in August 2017, as full partners.

We just scratched the icy surface of the story in the film. There’s a lot more ...

“Frozen” songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez

“We had to start with the seven songs in the movie and end up with 23 in nine months,” she says. “We couldn’t use songs we cut from the movie, because the characters had changed. We had a first read in May, with wonderful Broadway actors bringing the story to life for Disney’s big guns.

“We just scratched the icy surface of the story in the film. There’s a lot more (to see): what is it to be in a broken family, to live in fear and shame? The romantic relationship between Kristof and Anna needed development. Bobby and I have always wanted to write a real musical theater romance: They hate each other, then there are sparks....And we got deeper into Hans, the person we all know who says the right thing and does the right thing and is waiting for his moment to pounce.”

Says Bobby – everyone calls him that – “You can’t read someone’s eyes in a theater, the way you can in a movie closeup. So we have new moments for Elsa where she expresses her feelings. And the big scene at the end, with boats going through the ice and the reindeer falling into the water – we can’t do that onstage. So we’re trying to find the emotion of every scene through music. That goes back to opera, with Monteverdi making strings play faster to suggest horses’ hooves in war.”

Music and emotion have gone hand in hand for them since they met at a BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, fell in love – at once, as she recalls – and married in 2003. (Their first joint project: Songs for a musical “Finding Nemo” at Disney World.) They work in a traditional melodic mode, as inheritors of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s heart-on-sleeve tradition rather than Stephen Sondheim’s ironic detachment.

Life in Disney’s world

That makes them naturals for Disney Studios, where they’ve been trusted with the next variant of the princess model. The studio describes the film this way: “Set in Spain during the Age of Exploration, ‘Gigantic’ follows teenage adventure-seeker Jack as he discovers a world of giants hidden within the clouds. Along the way he meets Inma, a 60-foot-tall, 10-year-old girl, and agrees to help her find her way home. But he doesn't account for her super-sized personality. And who knew giants were so down to earth?”

Meg LeFauve, co-writer of “Inside Out,” and Nathan Grano (who directed “Tangled”) will co-direct. Other details are under wraps while producer John Lasseter and his brain trust set the film on a trek toward its release in fall 2018.

“John really is my hero,” says Kristen. “If you don’t have your feet on the ground, this business can turn you into a jerk. He’s a good example of an artist who’s always making art out of his own curiosity and his need to help people get closer to their families. Everything he does is trying to make the world better.

“When I find myself struggling with ‘How do I sustain a life in this business?’ I tell myself, ‘Find your inner John Lasseter. Be curious. Be grateful. Remember to be kind and love the people you work with.’ And he makes good wine. We drink a fair amount of it.”

She applied the Disney/Pixar brain trust model to “In Transit.” In that creative crucible, “The best idea wins. There’s no ego in the room.” Just as she speaks of a Disney family, there’s a “Transit” family.

She and three composer-lyricists – James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth – came up with the idea for a “theatricappella” show after singing in an a cappella group in 1999 and 2000. They met at Ford’s apartment two days after the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, to create “a love letter to New York,” in Kristen’s words. It became “In Transit” and had an off-Broadway run in 2010.

Backers balked at moving such an unusual show to a more expensive Broadway house. But over the years, as tenacious producer Janet Rosen amassed financing and hired heavyweight talent, it found a home.

She never left the choir

Kristen stayed involved because choral singing has been a crucial part of her life since her years at Country Day (1986-90): “Here’s a shout-out to Gary Forbis, the incredible choir director who gave me – from what I can tell – one of the best choral educations in the country. I could sight-read music. I could sing harmonies. And he did everything from Benjamin Britten to a ‘Grease’ medley.”

Forbis, hearing this, recalls a girl who “had a flair for music and drama. She was always bubbly. She saw the world through a child’s eyes, in a way. When I heard she was working on ‘Frozen,’ which is based on children’s literature, I thought, ‘That’s Kristen.’ I remember her standing out in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (as Mary Magdalene). She was full of energy and enthusiasm, and that always came out on stage.”

It still does in conversation, when you ask about “In Transit.”

“You’ll see something you have never seen before,” she vows. “You’ll see human beat-boxers use circular breathing to do four beats at a time while providing a melody. You’ll hear songs that sound like country music, that sound like music you hear at Christmas, that sound like ‘Hamilton’ or contemporary pop.

“We’re serving a pu-pu platter of a cappella while investing you in characters who are caught in the universal struggle of trying to get somewhere, without first being where they are. I’m fighting that problem, whether careerwise or relationshipwise or even weightwise. I struggle with the same thing, because I need to be in four places at the same time.”

“In Transit,” “Frozen,” “Gigantic” – oh yes, the fourth is “Up Here,” a musical she and Bobby have long worked on. It got a reading last summer in La Jolla, Calif.

“It’s about a man’s mind. The whole stage reflects his consciousness,” says Bobby. “He’s an introvert who has trouble living with other people, and the girl in his life is completely extroverted. People can never really see into each other’s brains. We describe them as parallel universes: Everyone’s walking around with a universe in their head, and they’re never living in the same universe as each other.”

So it’s –

“A little bit autobiographical, yeah,” says Kristen. “One of the first times we broke up, Bobby would just clam up. I had no tool to get into his universe, yet all he wanted was some kind of communication between us. Over the years, we have built the safe channels and learned the language, so we can say ‘Time to have a talk about this. Where are we?’ 

Adds Bobby, “That leads to a great collaboration, too. Not only a great marriage but a great collaboration, where we are always communicating and never get tired of each other.”

Riding the fame train

The junior member of the team – he’s 41 to her 44 – is the youngest EGOT winner in history. (That’s Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.) But he says past acclaim hasn’t smoothed their way, especially in their own minds.

“We just focused on making ‘Frozen’ a good story,” he recalls. “It kept failing us in certain ways, and suddenly it flipped from something that was in trouble to something that worked. All three of my successful (projects) have taken me by surprise. I am always waiting for a reality check.”

Adds Kristen, “We wait for the other shoe to drop. That’s the self where I have to say, ‘I hear you! Go back in the closet, so I can get some work done!’ If you’re constantly worried about matching the last thing, you stagnate as a person and an artist. You have to follow your curiosity, even if something appeals to only 20 percent of the audience.

“For ‘In Transit,’ the little underdog show that possibly could, I was standing with my three best friends from when I was 27 under a marquee on Broadway. I told myself, ‘This is a moment of success. Whether it’s received well or not, whether people buy tickets or not, we are all still close. And look how far this train has gotten.’ 

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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