‘Frozen’ and ‘Coco’ Songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez Dishes on Her Early Career Struggles
Since her career debut, Kristen Anderson-Lopez has won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song for “Let it Go” from Frozen and “Remember Me” from Coco.
She was nominated for two Golden Globes, a Primetime Emmy, and a Tony. Her extensive list of achievements also includes a Drama Desk Award, two Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, and Annie Awards, as well as nominations for the Lucille Lortel Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award. She and her husband also wrote the music for Frozen’s sequel together.
While hard work and tenacity have helped her to achieve professional success, the Coco songwriter’s incredible modesty and selflessness trace roots to her early-life financial and career struggles.
Before her journey with Frozen, Anderson-Lopez worked several temporary jobs for years while pursuing her dream as a lyricist. There were days and months in her life when she earned just $7.50 an hour and couldn’t even afford tampons. But she coped. She also picked up some compelling money lessons on the way.
In a candid interview with CentSai, Anderson-Lopez tells her story.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s Early Life
Doria Lavagnino of CentSai: What was your relationship with money growing up?
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: That could be a whole therapy session, right?
My parents were young parents and did not have two pennies to put together. So my relationship to money — the early relationship to money — was like, we drank powdered milk and we got one Christmas present.
Then my dad slowly but surely climbed the corporate ladder in that “Mad Men” kind of way. So with each promotion came more [money].
We went from camping in a tent from a garage sale, to like, “Ooh, actual walls?”
By the time I was 9, we got to go to Puerto Rico. That was a huge deal. Vacations are funny. That is my measure of how I went from poor — poverty-level poor — to quite wealthy in the span of my childhood.
DL: What happened next?
KAL: By the time I was in high school, we moved to Charlotte [North Carolina]. My dad had worked his way up and we were upper-middle class. I went to Charlotte Country Day School and later to Williams [College]. My parents had a baby boomer relationship to money.
They weren’t handing me tons of cash, so I had to get a job at Williams to pay for pizza, and I didn’t have the best clothes. I was a Gap-level fashionista.
Anderson-Lopez’s First Job
DL: What was your first job?
KAL: My first job, when I was 15, was working at the pharmacy administration in the basement of [North] Carolina’s Medical Center. Right next to the morgue.
DL: How much did you make an hour?
KAL: $7.50? And then taxes got taken out! I’m like, “What!?”
DL: That’s a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it?
KAL: Yeah! After graduating from Williams as a theater and psychology double major, I was a waitress while waiting for my break. My plan out of Williams was not a great one. I was a horrible waitress.
KAL: Because my personal connection with the customer was more important to me than them needing ketchup. People who are great waiters and waitresses are the people who are concrete thinkers.
Customers don’t care about your life or want to become best friends. They want their iced tea. And they want it not spilled on them.
DL: Did that happen?
KAL: Yeah . . . I spilled iced tea on a whole table of Clinique people dressed in all white. I got each one of them. A whole round robin.
DL: So waitressing was not your thing. What happened next?
KAL: So I did that for a while. Since I was the class speaker at Williams, some investment bank reached out to me. I keep forgetting, I’ve totally blocked the name, but it was a really good financial consulting firm that hired artists, and they wanted me to come for an interview in New York.
So I flew to New York and the first thing I did was pick up a Backstage newspaper and saw there was an audition at the Jupiter theater I could fit in. And I went to this audition, and I got a callback exactly when my interview was for this investment bank. I blew off the financial institution to go to the callback, and I got it.
DL: That was your first big theater gig?
KAL: Yes. It was a year-long internship at the Jupiter Theatre (in Florida) doing, like, 13 musicals in the chorus and secondary parts, and they put you up in condos that were right on the beach. They fed you horrible food, and you got $50 a week. And you were basically a musical theater indentured servant for a year.
DL: Tough to live on $50 a week, even back then! And did you have any free time?
KAL: Um, no. I woke up at 7 a.m. and worked until midnight, and then I did it again. No days off. Except when you burned the theater down, which did happen. We burned the theater down during a kids’ show. And so we got a week off when they had to fix that.
DL: That was probably a well-earned break.
KAL: It was! My parents came down and stayed at the Breakers in West Palm Beach, and I was living on $50 a week and bicycling. I thought, Wow, my parents live this really wealthy life, and I — I can’t afford tampons. That was the journey I took in my 20s. I was trying to reconcile this upper-middle-class life that my parents and sisters had with my under-the-poverty line freelance life.
Struggling With a Career
DL: When did you know that musical theater was your passion?
KAL: I knew that from early on, but I struggled with musical theater being my career for my entire 20s. After a particularly difficult time, I tried to use my fallback, which was my psychology background. When I was 25, I worked for a year with schizophrenic patients.
At 28, I did PR — both jobs were full-time gigs that offered health insurance and the life all my contemporaries were living. The bulk of my 20s, I was temping.
As I got older it really became scary to suddenly be working for people younger than me. I was working for the people who had chosen that “alternate universe.” I dreaded the day that I was going to end up working for someone I’d gone to Williams with — that I’d graduated with, or graduated before them.
DL: I guess those are character-building moments?
KAL: It took a lot of personal growth. But it brings me to one of the things I wanted to share with your audience, and I shared it with my sisters when they graduated from their cushy colleges, which is: You actually have to turn your back on peers that are living a different financial life than you are. It’s painful when all your wealthier friends are getting a house in the Hamptons for the summer and you can’t.
You can’t go out for drinks at a swanky bar in the Wall Street area. You can’t all go grab pedicures. You can’t even afford the bachelor/bachelorette parties.
DL: How did you cope?
KAL: I had to close the door on that peer group. I remember a specific night where we all got together and they wanted to go out for Thai food, and I could not afford it. I had $10 in my bank account, and those $10 had to pay for my subway back and forth.
DL: This was still in your 20s?
KAL: Yes, and it was a really dark moment where I said, “Okay, I need to find my own group in New York that are also artists and who are in this financial struggle, as well.” I had to find my community of freelance artists who could spend a night hanging out drinking beer and playing theater games. It was affordable, fun, and tapped into my joy, not my bank account.
How Anderson-Lopez Found Her Niche
DL: When did you finally find your community?
KAL: I found my true community when I found the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop (BMI). It’s a mouthful. That was the moment, when I was 27, that I realized I was a writer.
DL: Not an actress?
KAL: Not an actress. I love acting, and one day I planned to do it, but the writing was the way that I was going to have the edge. It’s not enough to be a pretty good actress. You have to be an exquisitely stunning, amazing actress to get work.
My edge is as a writer— in part because I had acting skills and a voice that I was using as an instrument, which a lot of writers didn’t have.
So I found my synergy. And I met my husband — it was sort of one-stop shopping for life.
DL: When did you meet Bobby? (Robert Lopez, co-creator of Book of Mormon and Avenue Q and Frozen co-songwriter of Oscar-winning “Let It Go”)
KAL: Right after I joined that workshop in the fall of 1999.
DL: When you met Bobby, were you sure he was the one?
KAL: No. On one level, my gut had that one moment of, “Aha! This person is my person.” On another level, he was 24, living with his parents, writing a puppet musical, and had a lot of growing up to do. And I was dating someone else.
DL: You have always focused on growing your voice and body of work. How have you kept moving even when it was hard?
KAL: It’s true, and I owe my parents for not bailing me out. Both my parents felt strongly, and it must have been very hard for them, that they were not going to subsidize a mediocre acting career.
My parents’ tough financial love allowed me to go through the hard lessons that I needed to go through, and I think that’s how I found my true calling. If they had been subsidizing me, I think I probably wouldn’t have had enough hardship to pivot and find my true calling.
DL: That makes total sense — you have to be hungry.
KAL: Yeah! You have to be hungry, and you have to be resilient. It’s really key to life.
DL: Absolutely. And so, when you had those dark moments, how did you pull yourself out of them? Can you give our readers some suggestions?
KAL: Realizing nobody’s gonna save you but yourself — that’s really key. There is an aloneness in that, but there’s also a huge power in that realization. When I look back on it now, I am so proud of myself for making it through those years when I worked paycheck-to-paycheck-to-paycheck, and I developed a sense of pride about it.
Learning How to Negotiate Salary
DL: How do you find being a woman in theater? More specifically, women don’t earn as much as men, across the board. Why do you think that is, and what do you think women can do better in their day-to-day life to earn more money?
KAL: One of the things that I still struggle with is in negotiations.
Women have this need to be liked, and have self-doubt like, “Well, I don’t want to look like a bitch.”
My husband never once worried about looking like a bitch. He has rarely thought, I don’t want them to not like me. I think that’s the way we undercut ourselves during negotiations and failing to ask for what we’re worth.
DL: Absolutely. Are you better at negotiating now, or is it still tough?
KAL: It’s still a work in progress, honestly. I have an agent and a lawyer now who negotiate or fight tooth and nail in a way that I would never do. And they tend to say, “Do not talk to these people you’re friends with who you negotiate with. Do not talk to them about contract or negotiations. Let us take care of negotiating.”
You don’t ever get emotionally involved on that side because of both of us as — as artists — we have to be incredibly open to the people we’re working with. And then you — then you find yourself negotiating with them. It’s a tricky thing, so I — I compartmentalize it. I outsource.
DL: I have seen this myself in my career. I’ve seen men ready to negotiate and, more often than not, women not wanting to rock the boat.
KAL: Yeah. I am really proud of my assistant. She’s a millennial. And she came to our yearly meeting and had researched people who do what she does and how they’re being compensated.
She had really done her due diligence on salaries and had written very clearly all of her responsibilities — so clearly. And I was — I, even though I was on the other side of that negotiation — I was so proud of her for really taking the time to catalog all of her work, and also taking the time to find out, “What are other people who are doing my job getting?”
She let us know where she intended to bring more value to us in the future. She handled it really beautifully, and we share an office!
DL: As a result, was she able to get a raise?
DL: Good for her!
KAL: She — she pointed out how much we needed her, in a way that we don’t always recognize.
It’s really worth making sure that you’re in a situation where you have an annual review every year.
Especially if you’re freelancing — it’s hard to ask for that. And make sure to do your due diligence. I learned from my 20-something assistant in this case.
Relationships and Money
DL: We all learn from each other, right? One of the areas on our platform that gets a lot of traffic is “relationships and money.” Early on, when you and Bobby were working — and struggling — did you have money fights? And if so, what were they about?
KAL: As early as our first date we went dutch. And he also came from a similar background of educated but middle-class parents who didn’t have tons of slush funds, so money was always an issue in his family, as well. He was working on a puppet musical and as a freelance artist.
So, we knew, we’re both paying for our own piece of pizza. Then there was the final push for Avenue Q, where I was working as a temp and as a teacher, teaching artists in the Bronx, and he was getting to go off and live the dream every day. And there were a couple of months that I kept us afloat. And I woke up at 5 every morning to go to the Bronx.
DL: This was before Avenue Q?
KAL: This was before Avenue Q opened off-Broadway. And, actually, on the way to the off-Broadway opening — in our fancy dresses — we had to stop at my temp job to pick up my check. Otherwise, we weren’t gonna have money to make it through the weekend.
DL: I remember you mentioning that in your email to me, which is a really powerful anecdote. How many hours would you say you were working at that point?
KAL: Forty? Fifty? But the other piece that I was sacrificing was that those hours I wasn’t working on my own writing. My husband was working on his own writing. At that point. It’s just a few months, but I’m — he had moved in with me, so I was paying the rent.
During those months, I could see there was the making of some real fights in our future.
It didn’t last long, because luckily Avenue Q got a good review and then suddenly money started flowing in, and eventually, I was able to quit my jobs and focus on writing myself.
It’s funny how we carry those moments into our marriage. We’re just now investigating some of those underlying ideas. We just had a conversation about how, at that moment, when he was like, “You can quit your job.”
He thought that he was giving me a big gift, and that I would be grateful for the rest of my life. And actually, at that moment I was feeling a loss of independence.
I got a gain of being subsidized to focus on my own writing. But I also got a loss of standing on my own two feet.
Money and Career Fears
DL: Which was your identity up to that point. That must have shaken you up a bit, I would imagine.
KAL: It did. Again, we got married that year , and then we had a kid a year later. We didn’t really have a chance to kind of focus on [money in our relationship]. Only now, at this point in our lives, have we started that conversation.
DL: So the money conversation happened recently?
KAL: Really recently. We spoke about being subsidized was actually in the “con” column. That I actually didn’t ever want to be that person or obligated in that way.
DL: Were you worried you would lose your hunger?
KAL: I certainly didn’t lose my hunger as a . . . female writer in the industry — there’s so much hunger there, although he [Bobby] likes to point out that I — my true hunger happened after I had a kid. That’s when I really started —
DL: Why do you think that is?
KAL: For six months, I didn’t have to do anything but my writing, and we wasted our days. We had a certain amount of financial freedom. We stayed up late, watching Seinfeld until 3 in the morning, and we’d sleep in till 11. We’d exercise. And suddenly, it’s 5 o’clock. Dinner. Then, maybe, I’d be like, “Uuuggghh — I didn’t work today, I have to . . .” But it was once I had a child, my hours became fewer.
DL: Was your pregnancy a productive time?
KAL: Yes. That’s where I got our in with Disney — through Finding Nemo the Musical — before I was pregnant. Like, I got that job and then pulled Bobby into that job.
Teaching Money Lessons to Kids
DL: Your daughters, Katie and Annie — what money lessons are you trying to teach them?
KAL: Right now, we’re just working on teaching the value of a dollar — at least with Annie. We are also doing chores to earn: “You are a part of the household. So Katie, you have to set the table every night. And Annie, you’ll help to clear it.” With that they earn. Money.
For instance, if Katie loses a book and we have to replace it — she has a problem with losing things right now — very irresponsible with her things — and if we have to go buy something, it comes from her. Hopefully, she sees a one-to-one ratio of “your lack of responsibility . . .”
DL: “. . . is what yielded . . .”
DL: Weird question: If you were to choose someone to be on the one-dollar bill, who would it be and why?
KAL: Hillary Clinton — as our first female president!
I — I guess since she didn’t win, I think there are probably more stories out there that we don’t quite know of women who had a huge impact, like the Hidden Figures movie about NASA — these women whose math solved the ability to go to the moon. I still wonder about Hamilton’s wife. If Hamilton’s wife wrote half of those things.
DL: If you had $20 to spend it on right now, what would it be?
KAL: $20? A book. A really good book.
DL: One that comes to mind?
DL: What is your guilty pleasure? Mine’s chocolate.
KAL: My guilty pleasure? Massages. And I’m trying to work on not feeling guilty about that because at this point in our lives, investing in our hardware is a cheap part of keeping our computers running.
DL: What advice would you give to millennial women about investing in themselves?
KAL: The biggest piece of advice I give to every single person — especially those who want to be in the artistic field — pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way. By the time we graduate from high school/college, we are so full of messages that we’ve been fed about ourselves that often we’re on the wrong path.
In my case, it forced me to get out of my own way. It has all these different exercises that get your true calling to come out. The first time that I ever wrote down that I was a songwriter, I was doing an exercise that said something like, “Imagine 10 things you wish you could be if money and talent were not an issue.” And I remember writing some things and being really surprised that I wrote “a songwriter.”
Really surprised. And then a bunch of other exercises that I did sort of kept saying, like, “Ugh, I really wanna be an Indigo girl.” It forced me to start listening to my true, powerful intuition.
Additional reporting by Peiyi Mei.