Hulu wasn’t explicitly looking to develop a musical comedy when songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, writer Steven Levenson, and director Thomas Kail presented them with Up Here. The platform hadn’t ever done a musical TV show — which, despite well-received past series like Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Schmigadoon remains a relative rarity in the current streaming world.
But, as head of scripted content at Hulu Originals Jordan Helman remembers it, it was hard to resist this “who’s-who of the heavy hitters of Broadway in the past decade.” Kail is the Tony-winning director of Hamilton (and now Sweeney Todd); Levenson the Tony-winning playwright behind Dear Evan Hansen; and Lopez and Anderson-Lopez the Academy Award-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning married duo behind the music of Frozen, Frozen 2 and Coco (Bobby, who co-created The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, is also a double EGOT winner).
Up Here is based on a musical of the same name by Anderson-Lopez and Lopez, produced in 2015 at the La Jolla Playhouse. The story of Miguel and Lindsay (portrayed by Carlos Valdes and Mae Whitman) finding themselves, and romance, in New York City in the 1990s — while battling the naysaying voices of their subconsciouses, personified onscreen — was, Helman says, an “irresistible” opportunity for Hulu to enter the musical landscape. Its audiences have responded positively to female-driven soaps and thrillers in the past, but “we had never really approached [a show] through a rom-com lens,” Helman continues. “This felt like a tailored opportunity to broaden the aperture of what we do, but still feeling deeply relevant to the viewers we have on platform.”
For Lopez and Anderson-Lopez, developing Up Here for TV was also an enticing opportunity to expand upon and rethink their original show — which dwelt on the male protagonist’s subconscious. It was freeing as well, allowing them to explore multiple genres in their songwriting. And with each episode functioning like a mini-musical — complete with elaborate singing and dance numbers — they were able to see a much larger than usual quantity of their compositions make it to the final product (those songs can also be heard on the show’s soundtrack, recently released on Hollywood Records).
“We’re from Broadway,” says Bobby. “And we wanted to bring what was great about Broadway musicals and see if we could do our version of it in a streaming series.” Below, he and Anderson-Lopez speak to Billboard about precisely how they did it.
After the production of Up Here at La Jolla, what did you hope its future would be?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: La Jolla was a huge growth experience. We’d never done book, music and lyrics all together before … while raising two children out of town … and getting infested with bird mites. [Laughs.] That’s a thing that happened! We realized that where we are in our lives, we wanted to work with book writers [going forward]. You can’t address what you need to in production, on all three fronts, overnight, every day. So, we’d started to talk to talk to book writers and had actually identified Steven Levenson as someone with their finger on the pulse of what we wanted to do.
Then life took over: Frozen Broadway, Frozen 2, Coco. There was an Excel spreadsheet somewhere that said we could do nothing else for four years. [Laughs.] So it got put away. But there was always this intention of revisiting it with Steven at some date in the future. And then that date came in 2020 when Tommy Kail called us and said, “Hey, I’d like to do something with you guys on TV” — and we’d fallen in love with Fosse/Verdon [the FX series that Kail directed]. If there’s a president and vice president of the Fosse/Verdon fan club, it’s us.
Bobby Lopez: The production in La Jolla was very different from what we ended up with on Hulu — in that it only really entered the guy’s head, and one of the takeaways was, “Gee, I wish we’d written it so you could see what she’s thinking, too.” We couldn’t imagine rewriting it for the stage in a way that would preserve any of what we had. So, we were a little frustrated.
But when the idea of television came into it — doing a half-hour comedy, where every week we had the structure to write a mini-musical in essence, and end up with 8 mini musicals adding up to a larger grand musical [over a season] — we got very excited. It just seemed like, “This is a new take on the idea, we’ll be able to tell a different story, we’ll be able to change the characters in exciting ways.”
Did you preserve anything from the original stage show?
Kristen: I’d say the thing that’s preserved is the concept and question of: Can you ever truly know someone? And what does it feel like when a relationship that you assume is, “This is my person” — they become a stranger? And how you realize you’re up against the bubble of your own consciousness.
Bobby: Some of the songs about that theme carried over. For instance, the idea of “I Can Never Know You” — that was a song in the original, and we transformed it into a different song called “Please Like Me” for the show.
Kristen: “Please Like Me” was originally kind of a “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No” charm song — an introduction to the female lead — and now it’s about the huge problem she’s battling. I think it probably always was. And we were always curious to see if you could have a song that’s so clearly, “This person needs to grow from this.” But it’s also why you identify with her, because she’s so honest about it.
Even in the expanded streaming world, musical television shows still feel pretty few and far between. Why do you think that is?
Kristen: I can tell you, after doing it for the last three years — it’s very, very difficult to do. TV is always hard to do. It’s always about getting it ready as much as you can, then you have to get lightning in a bottle on the film day, then you have to piece it together. If you add the elements of learning music and choreography, producing music, to something already time-constrained… you’ve added weights to what’s already hard.
Bobby: I think we sold this show on the first pitch, to [co-chairman of Disney Entertaiment] Dana Walden. And they were very excited — we all were — and then we realized the process of developing a TV show. A lot of the writing is done during production, whereas musical theater is very iterative as a process: You write a draft of the whole thing, you have to see it in front of an audience to know whether it’s working. And it’s the same in animation, honestly – we screen the first version of the film, and then kind of throw it all out, and at the end of many iterations we have something we know works and we produce that.
TV is much more accelerated. It took a lot of time before we were greenlit, rethinking the concept of who these characters were. It was a high degree of difficulty to not only have these singing characters, but also the concept of being inside their minds.
What are the specific challenges inherent in making an episodic musical, as opposed to one in film or onstage that’s over in about two hours?
Kristen: Every musical has an architectural scaffold to it: You have your opening, your “I want” song, your charm song, your act break, your finale, your 11:00 number. [For a show] you really want to know what the whole is before you start making the parts.
We really had to think architecturally [with this show] as we were breaking the story – toggling between what it is to break a normal streaming comedy and to break a musical. There’s a little bit of a Russian doll aspect: In order to have the whole series, we needed to have a giant overview and know where the key songs were going to be before you could ever film. And then you need to record all those songs. Everything has to be pretty solid before a single actor has ever stood on a soundstage, because the songs get pre-recorded.
Bobby: Which is the opposite of how we usually work. In theater, the cast album is the last thing. In animation, you kind of record as you go. It’s never the very first thing — like, “Hi Mae, I’m Bobby, this is Kristen! Now, if you step inside the booth, let’s record the first song.”
Kristen: I will say, I have never been part of a TV writers’ room, and I absolutely loved it. It was kind of like eight hours of group therapy every day. It’s just really creative people pretending, basically.
You get to play with musical genre so much from episode to episode. Did that feel like a freeing new direction?
Kristen: It was liberating. We could jump all over – you could have a Fiona Apple[-type] song next to a Katrina and the Waves song next to a weird eight-bit mini opera.
Bobby: The original show was vast — it was meant to be like a British mega-musical, it had a big orchestra, it wanted to sound gigantic. This version, we really went small with it, trying to think of it all as one rock band playing the music. Getting to work with the same players every day, it felt like we were making an album, rather than hiring players to be in the orchestra pit. It felt unified by its small, intimate sound.
What was the casting process like? Both Mae and Carlos are great singers, but they’re not huge, over-the-top Broadway voices.
Kristen: At its heart we wanted this to feel like an extraordinary story about ordinary people – so we didn’t want them to be larger than life. We wanted to find those people we’ve seen – or not seen – who really seem like you could see them on the street. They could [ordinarily] be the sidekick on a show, but this is a chance for the sidekicks to be the lead.
Mae brings with her such a beautiful humility; she does feel like, to me, your little sister. She’s so relatable and just lets you see all her emotions. And Carlos … we put poor Carlos through the wringer. He came in five times, because what he had to do was extraordinary. He had to be able to have these intimate scenes, but also dance up a storm and sing and really show us what’s underneath the toxic masculinity, and bare his soul. And he always rose to the occasion.
Bobby: We were 100% behind them vocally. They both have experience singing, and for what they needed to do in this, they really were rock stars. Not to mention the chemistry they have that just sparked.
Kristen: Mae likes to say she’s not a singer — but I spent years raising my kids on her Tinker Bell! She’s an amazing singer.
Bobby: One of my first gigs, I wrote a song on spec for The Jungle Book 2, and if it had gotten selected, Mae would have been the singer. I think she was 10.
Kristen: And Carlos was in Darren Criss’ band at University of Michigan. He went to this hardcore, triple-threat high school that was like the FAME high school of Atlanta — and then he got into Michigan for musical theater, which is like, where you go to become a Broadway star.
You also have big Broadway stars on the show, like Norm Lewis and Brian Stokes Mitchell — but it seems like you’re having fun casting them against type.
Bobby: There’s always a bunch of people we’re dying to work with and haven’t yet, and this was a great opportunity to. Scott Porter, we’d seen in Altar Boyz a long time ago and knew he was an amazing singer and dancer, so to get him onboard was incredible. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Norm Lewis are baritone titans of Broadway.
Kristen: To talk about Stokes for a second: To bring him in to do a hip-hop Dr. Seuss character, to show this side of him that’s so funny – we knew we needed a really charismatic, attractive silver fox. But then he just had this bead on this character that was so funny, and the ability to really commit that teeters on the absurd. And across the board, that’s what we got with all these Broadway performers. Nobody’s afraid of going toward the stylized, so everyone just committed hard to these big emotions in such wonderful, quirky ways.
Musicals, both on stage and in animated form, go through years of workshopping and development, and so much gets left on the cutting room floor. Up Here on the other hand seems to have a much higher quantity of songs – was that liberating?
Kristen: Yeah! Frozen, we wrote 26 songs and 7 got into the movie. Whereas here we wrote 25 songs and 21 are in the show. Although I will say, if you count La Jolla as part of that development process, the math falls apart there.
Bobby: Then it’s like 75 songs. [Laughs.] But yeah — we did toss a few numbers, but we didn’t have the luxury of doing a lot of cutting and rewriting. We killed ourselves making 21 brand new songs in a row, and having to mix and master and produce tracks that you love, it’s a great deal of work. Now, when we listen to the soundtrack, it does play like a cast recording – it feels like a Broadway show, and that’s what we wanted.