Robert Lopez, Tony Award-winning musician and lyricist
I had the honor of speaking with Robert Lopez, an award winning musician and lyricist. Robert shared a Tony Award and Grammy nomination for Avenue Q, which is now the 20th longest running Broadway musical ever. The Book Of Mormon, his musical collaboration with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, opened on Broadway in 2011. With wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, he wrote Finding Nemo: The Musical (at Disney World since 2006), the Broadway-bound original musical Up Here (La Jolla Playhouse, 2011), and songs for Winnie the Pooh (Disney Feature Animation, 2011). He shared two Emmy awards for his music for The Wonder Pets and an Emmy nomination for the Scrubs musical episode. He is a member of the BMI Workshop, the Dramatists Guild, WGA, and AEA. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native New Yorker.
1. What advice would you give to graduating students? It's really such a tough time for them. I read about what the market is like and it's way beyond anything that I or my friends had to face when we graduated fifteen years ago. So I don't presume to be able to give any good advice about it, but the stuff that I had to go through was sort of similar in that there was a lot of paying your dues when you graduate. But that gets better over time. If you stick with it and just continue to do what you love, you find your way to a life that is rewarding. I hope that's true for everyone in this generation. I just feel bad about how they're having to graduate in this economy.
2. If you could go back in time and speak to your college self, what would you say? I would just say to try and enjoy things a little bit more. When I was that age, I was very worried and uptight about money and about career and I think there was a side of myself that felt that, because I was anxious and neurotic, that that's what made me sharp and with it and gave me my edge. But as a grown up, I've kind of learned that you have your edge and your creativity despite that. That's actually something that gets in the way of your happiness and creativity. Creativity comes from a good place, not from your negative self.
3. What was your biggest mistake in your career? I haven't made a lot of big ones, luckily. The things that I have done that haven't been as successful have been things that have been largely out of the public view, which is great. It's terrible, when you're a theater writer, to have a big flop publicly. It's not only years of your life down the drain, but then, also, a lot of people lose money on it, and your name is in the paper as the cause. So I thank my lucky starts that that hasn't happened to me yet, although I'm sure one day it will. But the things that I have gotten involved with that haven't gone forward have usually been the things that I have just taken for money. After Avenue Q, a couple of movies and a TV show that kind of went nowhere so there were three or four projects right after Avenue Q that just didn't go anywhere. Luckily no one ever had to see them because when you're not doing it for love, you're probably not doing a great job.
4. Where did you get your first job in the theater, and what was your big break? Well my first writing job was with a company called TheatreworksUSA. Jeff Marx and I had had a showcase in the BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc] workshop, where we met, actually. BMI is sort of a class for young musical writers. We had a workshop there and a scout from TheatreworksUSA, which is a company that puts out theater for young audiences with all original material written by up and coming writers, saw it and gave us a meeting. After auditioning,they gave us a lot of work some of which got produced. It was really important for us to learn how that works. If you're a theater writer, the more you can get actually produced with a director, actors, and sets and lights and all that stuff the better because that's stuff that you don't learn in BMI or by doing concerts of your own work. I wouldn't say that was my big break, but it was enough money to move out of my parent's place and have a little bit of an annuity every year so that I could also be writing Avenue Q. The big break was Avenue Q. It was an idea that we were lucky to get and follow through on, and, almost right away, it got picked up by producers, Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, and Robyn Goodman. They were the ones that shepherded it through its development.
5. What are three habits that contributed to your success? I don't know if I have good habits, but I'm very devoted to writing. I'm very compulsive about having a project, at least one, and trying to follow the business as much as I can. I keep on top of all the entertainment business news. I was getting known for being really good at writing Sondheim-esque stuff and even Sondheim himself, when I was in high school, said, "You know you sound a lot like me. You might want to concentrate on developing your own voice." I realized that Sondheim is Sondheim, and we don't need another one. He is absolutely a genius, and what we really need and what I wanted to be was me, but I just didn't know who that was yet. What I began to find that I liked writing from the heart, but I liked using the music in a way that was surprising and subversive. And I really liked humor. So I ended up writing in a style that was very different from Sondheim, but, to me, just as rewarding and even more rewarding than what I had written when I was younger. I continue to feel around and try to figure out new ways to use music that aren't expected..What Sondheim is doing is taking music and using it in a way that surprises you and freshens the drama. It's about using these songs in a way to create new dramatic and comic moments that have never happened onstage before. Every time I see a film or TV show, I think about how that composer made those choices and how that director envisioned music and how that could work onstage or in a film and how you could support that even further by putting lyrics to it.
7. What are you working on now? The fun thing after you've had a success like Book of Mormon is that, for a little while, you get a lot of these offers and you try and take as much as you can. So one of the things that happened was I got an opportunity to write a song for The Simpsons, so I just did that, and I did a South Park episode. I just had that movie come out, Winnie the Pooh, and that was great and an amazing experience because I have been a Disney fanatic for quite a while. Now it looks like we might get a chance to write another one with feature animation, more of a mainstream Disney princess movie. We're also working on a live-action movie comedy, which is still in the beginning stages. I also have a show that I've been working on for quite a while that's getting into the stages of the final workshops and, hopefully, the first trial productions within a season or two. It's called Up Here, and I am very excited about it. It's a really high concept show about a guy's consciousness. It's about this introverted guy and an extroverted girl, and they're having a relationship, and the girl really can't see into the guy's brain, but the audience can. There's this big chorus that kind of symbolizes his consciousness. It's been a passion project for a long time.