Before Robert Lopez added his name to the list of only 12 EGOT winners in the world, and before his wife and collaborator Kristen Anderson-Lopez reached her EGOT halfway point with her own Grammy and Oscar, the two were simply young, driven artists looking to make it in New York City.
The pair met at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, what many consider to be the premiere training ground for young musical theatre artists. A young graduate with a B.A. in English, Lopez began working on a project with another BMI student, Jeff Marx. But it wasn’t until the two men were accepted to the Eugene O’Neill Musical Theatre Conference that their Avenue Q took shape.
“It was one of those few places that developed new work, and I always wondered how you got to be a part of it,” says Lopez of the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. “So it was very exciting for me when we got accepted there with Avenue Q.” It was on the grounds of the O’Neill that they solidified the irreverent musical comedy, and both Lopez and Anderson-Lopez (who tagged along as “the girlfriend”) realized the magic of the O’Neill. Then, Kristen experienced the magic firsthand when she became the artist-in-residence at the O’Neill in 2004.
Now, after 14 years, two Emmys and three Tonys for Lopez, an Oscar and two Grammys for the pair, 13 years of marriage and two daughters, the O’Neill’s annual Summer Gala honored the songwriting duo with a one-night-only concert featuring music from their vast repertoire. Stars from their shows, including Andrew Rannells, Rick Lyon, Jennifer Barnhart, Patti Murin, Betsy Wolfe, Russ Kaplan and Katie and Annie Lopez, performed songs (and cut songs) from The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, Up Here, Frozen and more. The Lopezes even joined in to belt out a few notes.
The young guns scrambling to find their footing in New York—much like Lopez’s character, Princeton—steadily, but quietly, have become understated masters of their craft.
True, Lopez may have burst onto the scene with Marx and Avenue Q—and later made waves again with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on The Book of Mormon—but he and Kristen have become a powerhouse writing duo in their own right.
Their collaboration is a constant flow of creativity. “Bobby and I, because there’s just the two of us and we live together all the time, very rarely work separately,” says Kristen. “We’re usually in the room together. Every once in a while, we’ll be like, ‘Hey, let’s break out to our other room and free-write. You noodle around on your piano, and I’ll go take my laptop and just try and generate some ideas,’ but most of the time, all the creation happens seamlessly.”
The two write from a place of personal experience, always asking themselves what they can offer a project. “Any time you write from a place of ‘Oh, look what I can do,’ it’s not as powerful as when you write from a place of, ‘What do I have to say that could mean something to somebody? What can I give?’” says Kristen.
For Lopez, it’s the gift of freshness and invention. “I love developing original projects from the ground up with a story that’s totally our own and pushing the boundaries that way,” he continues. “I try to look for something surprising.”
Whether turning Sesame Street-like puppets into swearing adults being as loud as the hell they want during sex or poking fun at Mormonism and proselytization, the unexpected is certainly a gift of Lopez’s. But perhaps less obvious is his instinct for musicalization—determining when his characters sing. “When it comes to song placement, that is where I feel like I step in,” says Lopez. “It’s really that moment of bursting into song that you’re able to take the audience completely by surprise. … That’s where I mostly focus my laser beams: on where the songs go and what they are and how they’re not the same thing you’ve always heard.”
“My husband and I both love this phrase called ‘the birth of joy,’” says Kristen. “I think we try to bring [that joy] through song into everything we do.”
So it should come as no surprise that the phenomenon that made them household names—and earned them that Oscar—was inspired from the ultimate joy: their daughters. “I think that Frozen was directly influenced by our experience having two daughters and the interaction between them,” says Lopez. “There’s a dynamic that two girls growing up in a house inevitably produces. Not that the characters are fully based on them, but we poured our feelings from that into it.”
Over the years, Anderson-Lopez has helped Lopez release those emotions, in life and in work. “Kristen is a believer in constant communication, and I think that’s what makes her such a great collaborator and a great partner, a great wife,” he says. “I tend to clam up—that’s one of my flaws. [My thoughts] tend to stay encased in my head … and Kristen drags it out of me both in the writing room and in our life. Now I’m a pretty good communicator, but I owe it to her.”
And the Lopezes feel they owe much to the O’Neill. The two are now inextricably linked, as the O’Neill officially named their primary rehearsal space for the team. The Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez Studio will be home to the development of new musicals each summer and a classroom for National Theater Institute students year-round.
The naming was a full circle moment for Anderson-Lopez, in particular. “I had been in that studio working for 54 hours straight,” she says, coming off of an intense writing session with her collaborators, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, for their Broadway-bound In Transit. “We were so touched and honored and blown away by that [naming]. I thought of my 15-years-younger self just thrilled to be [at the O’Neill] as a girlfriend and thought, ‘Hey you, keep working.’” And she and Lopez intend to.
“I don’t think anyone ever feels like a fully formed artist,” says Anderson-Lopez. “If you feel like a fully formed artist, then you probably have nothing else to write.” Lucky for us, she and her husband still consider themselves works-in-progress, and they still have a lot to say.
Take a look at photos from the Gala: