Composer and lyricist Robert Lopez is the man behind “Avenue Q” and “The Book Of Mormon,” two of the biggest Broadway shows of the decade. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
Robert Lopez knew early: He was seven when he wrote his first song and 15 when he sent a tape to Steven Sondheim and got a letter back.
"It's like getting a letter from God or from Santa Claus. That kind of thing can inspire belief in yourself for a lifetime. You can tell yourself, Steve thinks I can do it if I try. I'm going to try and not give myself other options," says Lopez.
Having won Tony Awards for his first two Broadway shows, Lopez can call him “Steve.”
Lopez is known to most of the theater community as Bobby. He's the man behind the music of two of Broadway's biggest hits of the past decade: “Avenue Q” and “The Book Of Mormon.”
On both shows, Lopez has worked with collaborators.
"When you are in a room with someone having fun, not only are you free to express yourself and the words make the page before you give up, but you have that someone else to say ‘don't give up,’" says Lopez.
Lopez collaborated with Jeff Marx on “Avenue Q” and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone on “The Book Of Mormon.”
He’s also worked with his wife Kristen on a number of projects, including the recent film “Winnie the Pooh.”
“The Book Of Mormon” has created a tremendous buzz and unabashed enthusiasm at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, but that atmosphere is a world away from Lopez's daily reality.
He works in a small studio in Brooklyn near the apartment he shares with his wife and two daughters.
"My life is here and I’m in this normal routine working on stuff. I just don’t think I’ll ever feel quite the same as with ‘Avenue Q.’ You go from being nobody with no money or anything and wondering whether you’ll get to live the life you want to live to suddenly living it,” says Lopez.
“The Book Of Mormon” is the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda. The show was born out of Stone and Parker coming to see “Avenue Q,” then meeting with Lopez and Marx.
In 2004, when Lopez discussed it on NY1's "On Stage," it was just an idea.
"They said ‘what do you want to work on next?’ We said we always had this idea for a musical based on this particular religious text," Lopez said back in ‘04.
Lopez found that Parker and Stone had the same idea.
"The reason why we both wanted to do Mormonism from the beginning is that we all felt that way about religion. There is something supremely, ridiculously fake about it, but it helps people live their lives better, and there is something emotionally true about it. God does exist inside us and quite demonstrably by the actions we take, for good. But you don't think God talked to this guy and had him bury some plates in the ground, that's ridiculous. But if believing in a goofy story helps a bunch of people lead lives in a meaningful way, then it is true, and that's where we started from," says Lopez.
“Turn It Off” is a song about suppressing homosexual feelings. “The Book Of Mormon” doesn't just push the envelope, it shreds it, albeit in a standard musical format.
Lopez rejects the idea that the show is offensive. He says what might be objectionable on paper fits when the show hits the stage, like one song in which Africans have a profane message for God.
"When it comes apropos of nothing, it is a little bit of a slap in the face to some people out there. I’m not sure that's right. As soon as we got it to Broadway, people were standing up in the middle of the song clapping. In the middle," says Lopez.
Lopez grew up primarily in the Village, went to Hunter College High School, then off to Yale where he sang in an a cappella group called the Spizzwinks.
"We did crazy things like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales set to the tune of Billy Joel’s ‘The Longest Time,’” says Lopez.
After college, he pursued his musical theater dream, living at home for four years.
He wasn't unemployed. Lopez had a small music copying company called God Exists Copyists.
“I would answer the phone, ‘God exists,’” says Lopez.
Lopez joined the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where he met his wife Kristen and future “Avenue Q” collaborator Jeff Marx.
The story behind “Avenue Q,” a musical about entering adulthood that uses puppets, is included in the 2005 documentary "Show Business: The Road To Broadway."
As Lopez workshopped “Avenue Q,” he got an early lesson in trying not to offend his parents, especially his father, who is Filipino.
"I remember when I told my dad the idea for the 'Everyone's A Little Bit Racist' song, he got very, very serious and very, very ‘that's not something you should be putting out there, Bobby,’ because people have been racist to him," says Lopez. "It was this moment of oh boy, am I really disappointing my dad? And then cut to a few years later, I’m watching him laugh his head off. "
“Avenue Q” was a huge success. Lopez won a Tony and the show won a Tony for best musical.
In 2009, Lopez brought his young daughter to the show before it closed on Broadway just in case it was his last Broadway show.
"I sat with her in the back of the theater on the aisle. I would whisk her out of the theater when I knew something bad was coming, whisk her back in, and I knew exactly when to bring her in and out. Act One, I brought her in and out five times. Act Two, just sat there and watched I, and I realized, this is what's wrong with act two of this show, a five-year-old can see this show” says Lopez.
With “The Book Of Mormon,” Lopez is now two-for-two on Broadway.
In a sense, his success came full circle when he and his wife Kristen were asked to write a song for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday.
"It felt like this is the moment I've been waiting for my whole life, and then we sat down to work on it. So, it became an albatross around our necks for months," says Lopez.
Some of the song’s lyrics?
"I don't think that I’ve written, something Sondheim wished he'd written, maybe this song's got a shot, but probably not," Lopez says.
As it turns out, it probably did.