LOS ANGELES – When the pandemic shut down New York theaters, Tony-winning director Thomas Kail called a number of friends and asked, “Do you have anything you want to do for TV?”
Interestingly, “Frozen’s” Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez had a musical they thought could work in a streaming format.
Other friends joined the cause: “Dear Evan Hansen’s” Steven Levenson signed on to write the script. “Moulin Rouge’s” Sonya Tayeh agreed to choreograph.
“We developed the whole series on Zoom,” says Levenson. Six to eight hours a day, he and fellow writer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel hammered out scripts.
“We met 18 months later in person for the first time,” says Levenson. “It was such a strange experience to make this musical.”
The result: “Up Here,” which tracks a relationship in the late 1990s. “It is so strange how much of this series was conceived on screens and not actually together,” Levenson says.
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The interesting rub: social media wasn’t around to complicate the coupling. “Things were just different then,” Sanchez-Witzel says. “You really had to make an effort to meet people, to get to know people. We weren’t just texting each other.”
The concept, Lopez says, involved getting into someone’s head. “There are a lot of songs and emotion and yearning going on in everyone’s head that you never get to see…what about a show like that?”
Anderson-Lopez says it’s about finding your soulmate.
The musical pairs two seemingly disparate people in New York. She’s an aspiring writer; he’s a mid-level executive.
Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes play the couple. Neither had starred in a musical.
“Being a child actor, going in front of a camera is no big deal,” Whitman says. “But there’s something about singing that is so terrifying because it’s like the direct window to my soul.”
“What was challenging for me was rendering that emotional life for (his character) and just laying that bare in front of the camera,” says Valdes. “I had to trust the music. I had to trust all the other components.”
Luckily, the produced team created what they called “Up Here University,” where the actors could practice dancing on one floor, singing on another. “We basically recorded an album and rehearsed every single dance number every day for a month before we even started filming,” says Whitman. “There was this bonding experience that happened before we even began filming.”
Adds Kail: “That’s where the intersection of ideas also happens. I’m a big believer in trying to build ensembles as quickly as you can. And when you have Mae and Carlos leading the group, you’re already in excellent hands.”
Those connected with the series realized it was impossible to remove the songs from an episode. “The episode wouldn’t work,” Levenson says. “And so that was always our goal – to building something where the songs would be integral to the story. Instead of eight episodes of television we decided this was eight mini-musicals that would add up to one series-long musical.”
Without cellphones to affect the relationship, Whitman found she had to notice her surroundings and “gather information from what’s in front of you. It was like a dream for me.”
Valdes, who starred on “The Flash,” had done musical theater but hadn’t starred in one on camera. “It felt like this perfect little confluence of influences in my life, so it kind of elevated the auditioning experience.”
When he realized what “Up Here” could be, “I felt there was a sort of rightness about it. It was very easy to let go of any of those voices of insecurity or doubt that sort of constantly intermingle in my head.”
Anderson-Lopez says Valdes understood what the creative team was trying to do. “He has an amazing musicality. But he also really understood the humor of big feelings.”
Lopez says the “Up Here” experience could lead to more TV musicals. “There’s never been a generation of musical theater songwriters that have loved TV as much as this generation,” he explains. “That’s the thing we grew up watching and we’re still watching. We feel very lucky to be a part of it.”
“Up Here” begins March 24 on Hulu.