How to follow up 'Frozen'? With melancholy and a power ballad

Gabe Cohn, The New York Times

Posted at Dec 01 2019 07:58 AM

There's a story that the married duo behind the catchy numbers from the movie musical “Frozen” tell about being disparaged. It goes like this:

The songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, were in a Disney store in Los Angeles. It was relatively soon after the unleashing of “Let It Go” — the be-yourself anthem that took over kindergarten classrooms and karaoke bars alike — and during a period when the “Frozen” songs had reached peak omnipresence. The two were standing in front of a cashier, trying to get a discount. The “Frozen” soundtrack chirped along in the background.

“We said, ‘We don’t work for the company, we’re songwriters,’” Lopez recalled recently. “‘And by the way, we’re the writers of these “Frozen” songs.’ And she just looked at us and said, ‘Why?’”

It was a jaded, belittling “why.”

“Being the writers of ‘Frozen’ has led to some wonderful, wonderful gifts,” Anderson-Lopez explained. “And it has also led to moments of humility.”

Call it a price of success: You don’t create a defining earworm for a generation of children and parents without anybody crying “overplayed!” The original “Frozen,” about the queen of a fantasyland (Elsa, voiced by Idina Menzel) absconding and her sister (Anna, voiced by Kristen Bell) journeying to find her, made over $1 billion at the global box office after its 2013 release. The plot prioritized female self-reliance over romance; it was credited as a leap forward for Disney princess stories. The movie bagged two Oscars (one for original song) and two Grammys.

So when the directors of the first movie, Jennifer Lee (who was also the screenwriter) and Chris Buck, came to Lopez and Anderson-Lopez in 2015 and asked whether they would collaborate on a “Frozen” sequel, the songwriters weren’t sure that they wanted to jump back in.

“No one wants to just try to replicate their success,” Lopez said. “That would be a recipe for disaster.”

But the pair connected with a new theme Lee and Buck had in mind.

“They pitched us sort of a thematic ballpark that they wanted to begin with, which was the idea of change and the difficulty of keeping things together as the world changes around you,” Lopez said. “That struck a chord with us immediately.” (In an early song, “Some Things Never Change,” a character sings the line “Like an old stone wall that’ll never fall, some things are always true.” Onscreen, part of an old stone wall crumbles.)

“We have girls growing older,” Anderson-Lopez added, referring to the duo’s two daughters. “So this is about maturity — it is about finding your path and your purpose and how you can stay attached to your family while also finding your own path.”

In an interview on the movie’s release day, the pair described the background of a handful of songs.

‘Into the Unknown’

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The catchiest sequence of notes in “Frozen 2” may be the one based on a Latin hymn about Judgment Day. “Into the Unknown” is built around a duet between Menzel’s Elsa and a “secret siren.” The siren’s call, a distinctive sequence of four notes, is based on the Dies Irae, a Latin hymn best known for being used in the Catholic Mass for the dead. In the past, the hymn has been incorporated into a Brahms piano composition, “The Shining,” “Sweeney Todd” and a laundry list of other works, usually to stoke foreboding. Now it’s likely to be joyfully belted from the back of minivans: It has been turned into a musical motif in “Frozen 2,” delivered in high-pitched, mysterious fashion in “Into the Unknown” by the Norwegian singer Aurora. “The type of singing is inspired by kulning, which is a shepherdess’ call from Scandinavia,” Lopez said.

‘Lost in the Woods’

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“The most important thing with ‘Lost in the Woods,’” Anderson-Lopez said, “is ‘you feel what you feel and your feelings are real.’” She was referring to a line near the beginning of the song, an ’80s-infused, cheesy-serious ballad of love and longing sung by Jonathan Groff’s character, an introverted ice peddler named Kristoff. “We both have strong references to when we were in our own high school trials and tribulations,” Anderson-Lopez said of herself and Lopez. “Your 13-year-old boyfriend breaks up with you, you’re listening to Bryan Adams singing like, ‘Baby, you’re all that I want.’” The duo’s goal with the song, Anderson-Lopez said, was “to show this buttoned-up mountain man really, truly feeling big, huge emotions.” Why an ’80s ballad? “So that we could have fun but also land a certain sincerity,” she said.

‘The Next Right Thing’

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While singalong-friendly tunes like “Into the Unknown” and “Lost in the Woods” have gotten the most attention, “The Next Right Thing” is probably the most surprising song in the movie — it’s a dark and pensive meditation on grief. (Sample lyrics: “You are lost, hope is gone/But you must go on.”) The song, sung by Bell’s Anna, was born of tragedy. “During the press junkets for ‘Frozen’ one, Chris Buck lost his son,” Anderson-Lopez said. “We were there as he just took a step and another step and showed up for work and showed up for the awards and made it through, one breath at a time, the unimaginable.” She said that another colleague, Andrew Page, a central figure in music production for both the original “Frozen” and “Frozen 2,” also lost a daughter. “So two of our key collaborators at the Disney Company had both experienced the worst nightmare you can imagine,” Anderson-Lopez said. When she sat down to write the lyrics for “The Next Right Thing,” she explained, “I really just thought about them, and wrote it for them.”

‘Show Yourself’

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The inevitable question — whether “Frozen 2” would try to follow up “Let It Go” directly — dangled over the lead-up to the movie’s release. Thematically, this song may share the most DNA with that anthem: “Show Yourself” also sends an unmistakable message of self-acceptance (it’s in the title). Anderson-Lopez said that, at an early screening, the couple’s 14-year-old daughter was sobbing after the song. “‘It feels like you’re telling me I can follow my gut and find my own path,’” Anderson-Lopez remembered her saying. “That’s the success of this movie for me,” Anderson-Lopez added. “If she can’t hear it from her mom in daily life, she can hear it from her mom through a Disney movie she wrote.”