Streaming March 24, Hulu’s “Up Here” joins the musical comedy pantheon of “Smash,” “Schmigadoon” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” with Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes as the romantic leads. The series is based on a play of the same name from songwriting duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, which opened at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015.
Set in New York City in 1999, the show follows Lindsay and Miguel as they fall in love and discover their inner critic is their biggest obstacle to finding happiness. Robert (“Wandavision,” “Frozen”) and Kristen (“Frozen,” “Frozen II”), also executive producers, weave a tapestry of 21 new and original ’90s-esque songs as the couple navigate fear, fantasies and chaotic inner voices that second-guess their instinct for love.
Here, the Lopezes talk about the show’s 17-year journey from stage to screen and how their own courtship in the ’90s inspired them.
“Up Here” began as a stage show. What was it like taking that foundation and turning it into an eight-part series?
Robert: The idea has always been the same, which is to go inside the mind of someone and musicalize their unexpressed emotions — those doubts, fears and the huge surges of love all those feelings provide. In the stage version, we never went into the leading lady’s mind, but we didn’t know how to write it. So, we put it on the shelf while we did “Frozen 2,” “WandaVision” and “Frozen” on Broadway, and (“Hamilton” director) Tommy Kail called us and said, “What are you thinking about, do you have anything for us?”
We had just seen “Fosse/Verdon,” which he did with Steven Levenson, and that gave us the idea that this could be a streaming series, and you could very easily slip between the guy’s point of view and the girl’s point of view, and it rolled from there.
Kristen: That show captured, with ease, what was going on in the heads of either Fosse or Verdon and how it transitioned to musical theater numbers. And there are so many reasons that this works better on television than on stage. On stage, giant set pieces need to roll in and costume and light changes have to happen. The beauty of television is a simple edit can get you right inside a huge emotion at the same speed our emotions change, and you don’t have to deal with stagehands clearing the set.
Can you share the casting process of Mae and Carlos, because who knew Mae could sing like that?
Kristen: We didn’t. She came in and sang “What If?” and “Please Like Me.” We were like, “She’s got chops. This is Lindsay.” She knows the arc that we’re exploring, which is people-pleasing and how it can sometimes be hard to be authentic if you’re very good at living up to the expectations of others. As a child actor, she has spent her whole life having to live up to what adults and other people in her life tell her to do. So, we had fun exploring the depths of the journey and adventure that Lindsay is on.
Carlos came in after we cast Mae. I remember being in this dark room and Carlos was reading with Mae, and you could feel the electricity. We had them do a scene that takes place in the woods where they’re in a fight and I felt like we were watching fantastic actors in an amazing play.
How did you navigate threading the story throughout a TV series, rather than just one show?
Robert: It boiled down to structure, because it’s a little different when writing a full-length piece versus eight mini pieces. We wanted to make each episode its own musical with a beginning, middle and end, but we also wanted to tell a full story with all eight episodes.
Kristen: This was my first time being in a comedy writers’ room. It was like group therapy because we were all talking about the voices in our heads, sharing these incredible stories and dreaming up song moments with the comedy team. I would click off Zoom, and we’d start writing. Four hours later, we’d come back and play it for them. It felt like a wonderful collaboration and freedom without pressure to have fun and be in dialogue and not worry too much about who’s doing what.
In Episode 4, Miguel sings “I’m Not Alone” on the toilet. What went into writing that song?
Robert: The hook was a part of the stage show — just the phrase. The verse was new. It encapsulated what we thought was the funny thing about the show and the sincerity of someone’s big feelings, unvarnished and unexpressed, but just inside their heads.
The last episode, “Y2K,” has you rooting for them throughout, and ends with a big finale Broadway-type number. What went into writing “Can I Ever Know You?”
Robert: We never knew whether we would have a main title theme. We had the stub of the song “Can I Ever Know You?” We had the idea for how to end the whole thing, this main title theme that the audience by now knows, but only a short version. They start singing the finale and it’s the main title, but it keeps going, it’s longer and there’s more of it, and it becomes a full song and a closing number. Wouldn’t this be cool for a show that is a blend of Broadway and television to have this climax that is a trope from Broadway — the finale — and a trope from television — the main title theme — all wrapped into one?
What was the idea behind “Tiger Shark” in episode two?
Kristen: “Tiger Shark” emerged from talking about toxic masculinity. I was riffing on it and came up with tiger or shark or tiger shark. But more importantly, Steven Levenson, who is probably the world’s best musical book writer, also knows how to set up songs so well and how to build a story so that songs emerge. He had already identified that this moment, where Miguel — who’s a giant romantic at heart — decides to slam those doors after this giant heartbreak, was a great way to truly introduce him.
What is it like writing music for the 1999 era, as musicals — and the world — have since evolved?
Kristen: This show is not our story, but we did start dating in the fall of 1999. It was a great opportunity
to take what we know about courtship. We don’t know about swiping left or swiping right or ghosting people on text. What we do know is how hard it is to meet up with someone you just met if you didn’t get their phone number. We know about talking on a landline and then the father picking up and being like, “Is that your dad?” It was fun to put in these very specific things from our lives.
Listen to a 3-song sampler below.