Writing the missionary musical

Robert Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, won the Academy Award this year for their song "Let It Go" from "Frozen."
Robert Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, won the Academy Award this year for their song "Let It Go" from "Frozen." (ROBERT GAUTHIER / Los Angeles Times)
Posted: July 28, 2014

If anyone is having a Best Decade Ever, it's composer Robert Lopez.

Along with 2013's powerhouse Frozen ($1.2 billion worldwide box office, the highest-grossing animated film ever) for which he cowrote songs with wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and his controversial Broadway smash written with South Park's creators, The Book of Mormon, at the Forrest Theatre starting on Tuesday, the 39-year-old is an EGOT (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) - and the youngest at that.

"Since I always work with collaborators, it's a nice way to get singled out," says the born-and-bred New Yorker.

Lopez got a Daytime Emmy in 2008 for Wonder Pets; another in 2010 for the same show; a Grammy for co-composing 2012's best musical theater album, The Book of Mormon, with Trey Parker and Matt Stone; an Oscar for 2014's best original song ("Let It Go" from Frozen); and a Tony for best score in 2004 for his puppet play Avenue Q, with Tonys also for best book of a musical and best original score for Mormon in 2011. "It really is just an accident that I won them all," he says.

Lopez may humbly think of those career highlights as accidental, but everything he does has method and intent. When he approaches a song, he prefers to have it "well set up" for success.

"I want to make sure the story and scene needs a song, and that the song that it needs is a moment, hopefully, we've never seen before," Lopez says. "That's how it gets a chance of hitting the audience for maximum freshness, interest, and humor." He is talking about melodies subtle and swelling with strong (or snarky) lyrics that always have a message: "It Sucks to Be Me" from Avenue Q, "Tomorrow is a Latter Day" from The Book of Mormon, and "Let It Go," a tune of empowerment "for girls and boys rising against the pressures of society."

A lot of prep work goes into a Lopez song. "There's gut feelings about what is fresh and what isn't," he says. "Plus, I'd like to think my songs live in your head, though I don't love hearing that people are annoyed by my songs, you know, when they get really popular."

The drudgery of popularity (he laughs when I call it such) started after meeting two pals and future collaborators, Jeff Marx and friend-turned-wife Kristen Anderson, at Yale.

Though he first found success with Marx and their jointly conceived Avenue Q, Lopez's longest relationship is with Disney, as he and Marx wrote for Disney Channel series, including The Book of Pooh; then Disney theme park music with his wife, with whom he penned a musical adaptation of Finding Nemo for Disney's Animal Kingdom; and then Frozen. "Disney's a company that when they knock, you're happy to answer," Lopez says.

Then there are his South Park "heroes." Along with being a superfan of the caustic Comedy Central cartoon series, Lopez acknowledges Stone and Parker's Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) was an inspiration for Avenue Q. "That movie was the first musical where from beginning to end, it's nothing but comedy songs, and not a spoof on a musical. It thinks like a parody but has characters you could care about. We couldn't have done Q without their influence."

Lopez just happened to be roaming the John Golden Theater one night during Avenue Q's Broadway run when Parker and Stone came calling. "They were checking out our puppets while finishing their own puppet movie, Team America," says Lopez. "We went out for drinks after the show, and they asked what my dream project was."

Who could guess that each had the same dream - to tell a story of the Book of Mormon, the sacred text of Latter Day Saints?

Lopez had never read the Book of Mormon, first published by Joseph Smith "but knew it was bound to be interesting and weird," he says with a laugh. He was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker and knew nothing of Mormon culture. Stone and Parker? They met at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Mormons were plentiful. "Trey even dated a Mormon girl in high school as he's from that area," Lopez says. "Those guys lived it."

After agreeing to do something with producer Scott Rudin, another EGOT, the creative trio made field trips to Salt Lake City to find their footing. "We discussed what a Mormon musical might be rather than a period piece and couldn't nail anything down, so we wound up doing a story about two Mormon missionaries going to Uganda," Lopez says.

The missionary trip is the basis for their absurd but poignant satire on organized religion's need to evangelize.

Lopez says he discovered Mormonism is "a real culture of openness, wholesomeness, and naivete, even old-timey, which is probably why it's OK for people to break out in song. Also, when we researched our character of a gay Mormon [Elder McKinley], I wasn't certain we'd find any, yet ran into them as waiters at nearly every restaurant we hit in Salt Lake."

Lopez, a religious guy who accompanies his family to church on weekends, remarks that Stone's well-known comment - that the musical is "an atheist's love letter to religion" - is a paradox that's at the heart of The Book of Mormon. "We were trying to take on a complex subject in a complex way that didn't satirize yet peered into the paradox: people believing in amazing, unbelievable things."

When I joke that The Book of Mormon's rude sacrilegious manner was often like "Springtime for Hitler" times 10 (from Mel Brooks' The Producers), Lopez laughs.

"Oh, yeah, when we were doing some of the numbers and they were getting raunchier and more irreligious, we thought people would be walking out of the theater," he says. "We never imagined they would get it in such a mainstream way."


The Book of Mormon

Tuesday through Sept. 14 at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St.

Tickets: $67-$162. Information: 800-447-7400 or www.telecharge.com

comments powered by Disqus