How Picnic-Table Belting Led to an Iconic Disney Hit: Writers Bobby Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez on the 'Let It Go' Chorus

Idina Menzel
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Idina Menzel

Married songwriting duo Robert (Bobby) Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez both have formidable Broadway credits to their names -- Bobby wrote music and lyrics for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and Kristen was a co-author of the recent acapella musical In Transit. But their collaboration on the music for Disney’s Frozen has reached another kind of stage altogether, largely on the strength of the soundtrack’s Idina Menzel-sung lead single, “Let It Go” (No. 30 on Billboard’s list of the greatest choruses of the 21st century).

When released in 2014, the epic anthem spent 33 weeks on the Hot 100 (peaking at No. 5 for five weeks), spent a whopping 71 weeks on the Streaming Songs chart (peaking at No. 2) and achieved considerable radio success as well, spending 22 and 12 weeks respectively on the Adult Contemporary and Adult Pop Songs airplay charts. “Let It Go” has sold 4.2 million digital downloads and earned 492 million on-demand streams in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen Music, and the Frozen soundtrack became 2014’s year-end No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. 

As for Menzel -- well, “Let It Go” may not quiet her audience’s requests for the Wicked showstopper “Defying Gravity,” but it’s certainly matches that roof-raiser’s colossal vocal power.

On the eve of plenty more future Frozen music --  Disney’s musical adaptation of the film will begin out of town tryouts at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts August 17; the show is set to open on Broadway in spring of 2018; and Frozen 2 was just confirmed for November 2019 release --  Lopez and Anderson-Lopez chatted about how they wrote a chorus memorized by kids and grown-ups alike the world over.

Take me inside you writing process. At what point did the chorus come to you, and was it an easy find creatively?

Kristen:  We had known for months that Elsa was not going to sing like other princesses - that was her sister's territory. And prior to writing  “Let It Go,” we had written a song for Elsa called "Cool With Me" that had a Sara Bareilles, anti-love-song vibe (I'm a huge Sara fan!). That was when Elsa was the villain of the movie, with spiky blue hair and a team of angry snow monsters.  

After that screening, we did a major overhaul of the characters and story and ended up with an outline that included a moment we called "Elsa's Bad-Ass Song," where she transformed into the Snow Queen. At this point, Elsa was still hovering in villain territory. In a later meeting with the creative team, we all agreed the hook "Let it go" seemed right for a song about leaving it all behind, while also letting your secret powers out.

Bobby and I took a walk in Prospect Park and put ourselves in Elsa's shoes — that's when we realized the song had to be about what it would feel like to carry that secret and shame and finally feel free of that weight. At one point, I jumped up on a picnic table on a hill and started singing "Let it go," pretending to let my repressed imaginary snow powers out.  We spent some hours scribbling stream-of-conscious Elsa thoughts and a few more hours noodling and putting those lyrics to melody.  And I belted out the demo 24 hours later.  I worried a bit about the neighbors - especially when I screeched out those last "storm rage OOOOONNNNN!!!" notes.

Will one of you typically sing the song as you’re writing? What’s the usual order of writing operations with you two as a team?

Kristen:  It always starts with lots and lots of talking.  It's important to get our initial expectations and instincts out so we can get on the same page.  Often we approach things from very different angles, and it's the fusion of those, or finding a third approach, that can lead to something new or layered.  

But every song is different. Sometimes Bobby is excited about a groove or musical feel and he'll start exploring at the piano. Sometimes I run with a thought and bring him a whole verse or chorus to set. Once we have a component — verse, chorus or hook — we sing it again and again and try to drive it forward, or figure out what the other components want to be. My favorite songs are the ones where we both get to sing in harmony; that way we don't fight over who gets to sing the solo.  

This is a chorus that has certainly taken a place among the great Disney soundtrack songs that cross over into the pop sphere. Did you take any particular past great Disney songs as inspiration, in terms of the feeling you wanted “Let It Go” to have?

Bobby: We love the great Disney songs – they have always inspired us in our work and in our lives! But for “Let It Go,” we looked elsewhere – to powerful female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos, Aimee Mann, Sara Bareilles, Adele. Idina herself was an inspiration too -- her voice is so iconic, and we were trying to write for it. She captures both the fragile vulnerability and the surging raw power that we wanted the song to have. We really wrote it for her.

When you completed the chorus did you have an immediate sense of what an earworm it was? Are there technical musical reasons that might explain that?

Bobby: We knew it was fun to sing and play. We kept wanting to play it over and over – and that’s not always the case while writing a song! As far as the chords go, it’s a very standard pop progression, except for “let the storm rage on.” We like to think the reason it stands out from other songs that share the same chords is the way we modulate into it from the verse in F minor to the pre-chorus in E-flat major to the chorus, which is in A-flat major. 

We deny that A-flat major chord for a very long time, and when it arrives on the downbeat of the chorus, it’s so welcome. It helps tell Elsa’s story of a lifetime of self-denial, leading to this one moment of truth as she finds herself.

What’s your own favorite chorus of the 21st century?

Bobby: I guess I’ve gotta say [Taylor Swift's] “Blank Space”! Wait no -- [Beyonce's] “Single Ladies.”

Kristen: Gotta say one of my absolute favorites is "Happy" by Pharrell.

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