When Robert Lopez graduated from Yale College in 1997 with a degree in English, he moved back in with his parents in Greenwich Village and stayed for four years. To finance his musical-theater writing, he worked as a temp at drug maker Pfizer Inc. (PFE), among other gigs, during what he amiably calls “one big, dumb, idiotic crapshoot.”
An exuberant, often tasteless satire about missionaries in Africa, “Mormon” is a favorite to win the Tony Award on Sunday for best musical. It’s also nominated in 13 other categories, including book and score. The book, music and lyrics are by Lopez, collaborating with the “South Park” team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
It wouldn’t be Lopez’s first trip to the Tony podium. In 2004, he picked up the award for best score to “Avenue Q,” a musical comedy about college graduates, portrayed by actors and puppets, struggling to find love and purpose in the big city. The show ran six years on Broadway before moving back to off- Broadway, where it remains today.
The soft-spoken 36-year-old now belongs to an elite group of Broadway’s most commercially and critically acclaimed artists. We met over drinks last week on New York’s Upper West Side, just after he’d given the commencement address at Hunter College.
“There is a part of me that really is insane,” he told the Hunter graduates. “Insanely obsessed with musical theater ... Every shower I stand there, wasting water, coming up with jokes about Mormons, or new ways for puppets to have sex.”
Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, where Lopez interned after Yale, said, “There is an innocence to his voice and music and yet he has a wicked sense of humor. It’s a paradox that makes his music deliciously consumable and speaks to our sensibility.”
Lopez said he never learned a marketable skill, to insure extra dedication to composing. He began writing songs at seven and musical-theater songs at 11. After Yale, he enrolled in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a legendary New York talent incubator. There he began working on “Avenue Q” with Jeff Marx. BMI gave him, among other gifts, a vocabulary for how musicals are structured, Lopez said, and a way to discuss and analyze them.
‘South Park’ Connection
The collaboration with Marx ended after the show, Lopez said, declining to say why. The challenge of repeating his “Avenue Q” success, he said, was daunting. But he’d long admired Parker and Stone, whom he finally met when they saw “Avenue Q.”
The three convened roughly every six months, mostly at Parker’s home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, when Parker and Stone had a break from the series.
Josh Gad, who plays second-banana missionary Elder Cunningham, said the first number he heard was “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” The feel-good song could’ve been cut from Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s “The Lion King,” were it not for the obscene references to the deity.
“It was difficult for me to imagine that a song with such choice words about God would be a commercial success,” Gad said. “I certainly didn’t know it would be the behemoth it has become.”
No Going Back
Lopez said he enjoys writing and fine-tuning musicals more than promoting them. Visiting a finished work can also be tough.
“You know the show inside and out, you’ve laughed at all the jokes that you’re going to laugh at,” he said. “You’re listening to the audience and you start to measure the responses. You get a little bit neurotic.”
Lopez has been working with his wife, composer-lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez, on “Up Here,” a romantic musical about an introverted fellow who struggles to express himself. Replete with aerial stunts, Lopez described it as Cirque du Soleil meets “Annie Hall.” Their previous collaborations include a stage version of the 2003 animated film “Finding Nemo” at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and two daughters, ages six and two. They live in Brooklyn.
Although participating in the theater awards circuit doesn’t come naturally, he said, he’s gotten a kick out of his success.
“You have to pinch yourself,” Lopez said. “It’s exactly what I always wanted. But it’s hard to open yourself up to the joy of it when you’re a critical perfectionist. It’s hard to switch to party time.”
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