Writing a Score From Screen to Stage

Writing a Score From Screen to Stage

The most eagerly anticipated musical of the 2017–2018 season has to be the stage adaptation of the blockbuster Disney animated film Frozen. The film, loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen, first debuted in cinemas on November 19, 2013. The story of the power of love between sisters resonated with audiences, and Frozen quickly became the most successful animated film of all time. Of particular note was the score by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, a Broadway-style collection of vibrant melodies and witty lyrics that brought this enchanting tale to life.

As the musical prepares to open on Broadway this spring at the legendary St. James Theatre, audiences are eager to find out what to expect from the film’s Oscar-winning songwriters, who’ve written roughly a dozen new songs for the Broadway musical. Here is a little glimpse into how they are helping Frozen make the leap from the screen to the stage.

“Animated movie musical scores tend to have about five to seven songs. Broadway stage musicals usually have around 20,” says Lopez. “This is due to a few factors. Disney animated features are under 85 minutes, with songs typically only in the first two acts of the story. The last act of an animated movie tends not to have any songs because the story at that point is so urgent and full of action, there isn’t time to slow the story down for a song. Stage musicals, on the other hand, tend to be longer, and songs continue to drive the storytelling throughout.”

The film-to-stage transition also must account for the difference in medium. “There’s no real way to do a close-up in a theatre,” explains Lopez. “The best equivalent in a musical is giving the character a song — it’s a way to communicate all the subtle emotions that a film can give in a few seconds of a close-up shot. Musical, emotional storytelling is the most powerful tool you have onstage. One example of this in Frozen is the coronation scene. In the film, you can see Elsa’s anxiety in her eyes and by the way her hands subtly shake as she takes the orb and scepter. You know instantly how she’s feeling. Onstage, that moment would be far less powerful because you’d miss those details. So Kristen and I wrote ’Dangerous to Dream,’ a new solo for Elsa, to communicate all those anxieties she’s feeling at that pivotal moment. And we even go deeper into what she’s thinking about her fractured relationship with Anna, and how it distracts her from the task at hand.”

Another key element in adapting Frozen for the Broadway stage is the world-class creative team that is working with the Lopezes on this new purely theatrical telling of the beloved story. That team includes their Oscar-winning collaborator from the film Jennifer Lee, who is writing the book for the musical after writing the screenplay and directing the film; renowned director Michael Grandage; and celebrated choreographer Rob Ashford. Says Anderson-Lopez of the years-long process, “Everything comes from story and character, and as we hammered away at particular beats with our team, often Bobby or I would suddenly get a flash of a hook or a specific musical feel. Then we were given eight months to turn this outline into a full two-act score to be performed for the team. From that moment on, we used intuition and adrenaline to keep moving. Often, we would go back and forth with Jennifer Lee on the phone or just through long series of ‘What is the character thinking?’ brain-drain emails to make sure we were on the same page. We performed the entire show in a workshop. At that point, we all realized we had a show, and our job as songwriters became very different. From then on, many of our tweaks and changes were made in collaboration with Michael Grandage and Rob Ashford to address specific issues or notes — i.e., we need a bigger build here, we need to add six bars for a set change. As we get deeper and deeper into production, our job is to toggle between macro and micro problem-solving. Are we engaging the audience emotionally? Would it help if we add a hint of a minor chord in that sixth measure of the opening number? Right now we are looking at a whiteboard with a list of to-dos big and small that need to be done before rehearsal in January.”

Despite the incredible teamwork, not every song was easy to conceive and write, with some requiring additional thought and creativity to bring them to fruition. “There is a big musical sequence near the end of the show called ’Colder by the Minute,’ which was definitely the most challenging — and fun — thing to figure out,” says Lopez. “We knew we’d have to solve the problem of the ending musically — there was no way to create a literal storm onstage, certainly not one as cool as the one in the film. We knew we wanted to use the chorus and orchestra to represent the storm, using driving music, jagged harmonies, and poetic images to portray the icy tempest. We also knew we needed to feature the four main characters — Hans, Anna, Kristoff, and Elsa — in what we worried would feel like a jumbled melee.”

Lopez continues: “We put all this information on a whiteboard to try to determine a structure. We realized one line from ‘Let It Go,’ ‘Let the storm rage on,’ could be a repeating motif musically for the chorus. We figured out that Anna should be singing to the tune of ’True Love’ [a new Act Two solo for her] as she tries to get to Kristoff for her kiss. We actually used an earlier, more musically complex version of ‘True Love’ that we had thrown out because it would fit better with the feeling of urgency. For Elsa, we settled on parts of ‘Let It Go’ and her new Act Two solo ‘Monster.’ And luckily, we realized that the male characters didn’t need their own separate themes; since Kristoff and Anna were trying to find each other, they could be in their own duet, and since Hans was hunting Elsa, they could be in another. Somehow, thankfully, the ball got rolling. And this huge musical sequence we’d been worrying and puzzling and procrastinating over for months got drafted in one evening of writing and recording. It was a really intense and rewarding thing to be a part of. And it’s one of our favorite parts of the show.”

The company of Disney's Frozen performing "Colder by the Minute"
The Company of Frozen. (Deen van Meer)

For Anderson-Lopez, her favorites among the new songs created specifically for the Broadway production are, perhaps not surprisingly, a near tie between two of the new solos written for the sisters at the heart of Frozen. “I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a moment in Act Two involving Elsa and a crowd of angry men that always gets my heart pumping fast — and mirrors my most paranoid idea of what it is like to be a woman in power in our patriarchal society. And Caissie Levy just delivers these vocals that make my jaw drop. But if I’m truly honest, my favorite new song is a quiet moment with Anna. Patti Murin has unlimited access to her own vulnerability and helps me see Anna’s superpower as a regular fragile human night after night.”

From inner-thought-probing new solos for the beloved Elsa and Anna to driving full-cast numbers meant to evoke the mighty power of the natural elements at the crux of Frozen, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, along with a celebrated team of the world’s finest theater-makers, are setting out to prove that in Frozen on Broadway, love is a force of nature.

Top photo: Patti Murin and Caissie Levy with Jacob Smith in Frozen (Deen van Meer).

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