In this week’s edition of “Because I’m a Lady,” we chatted with Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, the songwriters from the all-new featurette, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” They talk about their love of ‘90s Disney music, writing new songs for the world of Frozen, and their advice for fellow creatives.
Tell us a little bit about how you both got started as songwriters.
Kate: I was into theater growing up. I did a lot of musical theater, and when I went to college, I was a music major and a writing minor. And I found [that] more than I was enjoying performing, I was enjoying writing parodies of things for various groups on campus. And when I graduated, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. I floundered for a little bit until I was told to join the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop … and that was when I met Elyssa, and we were paired together for our assignment. We like to say it was “love at first write.” [laughs] And from there, I knew [songwriting] was what I wanted to do.
Elyssa: Prior to meeting Kate, I had trained classically on violin and piano my whole life, and that naturally gave way to wanting to write songs. Growing up in the ‘90s in that golden age of Disney movie musicals, I feel like that was huge influence on wanting to write songs and tell stories through music. So, when I joined the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and met Kate, it was like everything had led up to that point.
Did either of you ever envision that you’d be writing songs for Walt Disney Animation Studios?
Elyssa: In our wildest dreams! [laughs]
Kate: Envision is a good word, because we always imagined what it would be like and it was such a dream. It seemed like reaching for the stars. We wanted it so badly and when [Elyssa] and I first met, one of the first things we said to each other was “I want to work for Disney one day.” And Elyssa said the same thing … I don’t think either of us imagined it would happen this quickly.
What was it like writing the songs for “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”?
Kate: It was daunting for sure. When we finally got the job, it was the most exciting thing to ever happen to us. And once we came down off of the excitement, we realized how scary it was to have to follow in the footsteps of the songs from the original film. We knew that we wanted to be as true to the original music as possible. We approached it very reverently. We listened to the Frozen soundtrack and score over and over again until we felt like we just embodied that world and lived in it musically.
From there, we were lucky enough that [the filmmaking team] really involved us in the storytelling from the very beginning … It was so much fun, because we would all sit in a room, we would come up with the story idea, someone in the room would sit down and start drawing it out, and put it up on a board on the wall. And when you witness that for the first time, it’s just crazy. Here you are with these Disney artists, who can just draw a perfect Anna or Elsa or Olaf at the drop of a hat and what you’re saying they just immediately bring to life. That was just the most fun ever.
Elyssa: Well, anytime you get to envision what you can make Josh Gad sing as Olaf, I’d say that’s a pretty cool opportunity. [laughs] And just having the chance to imagine Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad taking their characters a step further and telling a new story, within the existing Frozen world was so exciting, that I think we just were just overwhelmed with ideas from the very beginning. And working with the filmmakers – directors Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton, producer Roy Conli, and screenwriter Jac Schaeffer was such a brand new and invigorating experience. They’re all geniuses, and they had such a clear and funny pitch for “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” from the very beginning and we learned so much from them along the way.
“Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” is all about holiday traditions. What’s one of your favorite things to do around the holidays?
Elyssa: I’ve got two repeat movies, where for some reason the music in them sounds like Christmas. It immediately recalls every childhood memory for me … and because the music is so incredible in those, it’s like the easiest way to turn on the faucet of Christmas spirit.
Kate: One thing we do consistently is that we make this huge batch of cookies. Years ago we found this recipe for these cookies and they are incredible. And the recipe makes about 200 cookies … we’d spend the whole day making them. We would fill our entire house with cookies cooling out on the tables, and then we would box them up in various little boxes and go give them to our neighbors and friends.
Beyond the songs, we heard you both influenced the addition of certain characters in “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.” Can you tell us about that?
Kate: We were writing the song, “That Time of Year” and one of the storyboard artists had drawn this little sketch of this kitten with a hat on and at the end of the hat was a jingle bell and the kitten was batting at the jingle bell and couldn’t quite reach it. And it made us laugh so hard when we saw it, that we were like, ‘well, there’s going to be kittens in this song!’ And that’s how the kittens made their way into “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.”
Elyssa: We like to call them the kittens of Arendelle.
Kate: We just decided that Arendelle needed an overpopulation of cats.
Elyssa: And Kate also does the voice of the cat lady.
Kate: And Elyssa is the voice of the kitten!
How has Disney inspired your work?
Kate: I think the question is, ‘in which ways has it not,’ because it is such a huge, huge part of why we became songwriters, of why we love music and theater in the first place. We both grew up in the ‘90s golden age [of animation]. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Beauty and the Beast. And I think about those songs from The Lion King and Pocahontas, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, it’s the soundtrack of my childhood. And I think it’s completely influenced our entire sound. It’s also [inspired] how we tell stories and how we approach stories. No one is better than Disney at taking a well-known story or tale and telling it through a different lens, which I think is really, really fascinating and super inspiring to writers.
Elyssa: And because we grew up in that ‘90s iconic era of Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, we grew up with this inherent longing to live in a Disney movie. [laughs] And that really led to us wanting to create worlds and imagine the impossible and inspire people to wish upon a star.
Which Disney character do you think you’re most like and why?
Kate: I would say I’m the most like Vanellope von Schweetz from Wreck-It Ralph. I love her so much as a character … [She’s] really wisecracking and tough. I wouldn’t say that I’m super tough, but I love that she is and I aspire to be like her. And I just think she’s so fun.
Elyssa: I have for many years been obsessed with Giselle from Enchanted. I just feel such a relationship with that character, because I feel like in my head I’m living in Andalasia [laughs]. I feel like I’m living in a Disney movie, but then I’ll walk outside and there are subway rats at my feet [laughs]. I love that she finds the balance between reality and fairy tale. Even though she spends all of her life manifesting what she thinks will be her happy ending, she winds up with an even better happy ending that merges both worlds.
What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters and musicians?
Kate: I want to give a message to any young girl who feels like they love theater and they love performing, and maybe they’ve been told that they should be an actress, [because] that’s what women do. But, maybe you find that you’re the person who is really creative and loves to make up words to the song backstage. I don’t think there’s a lot of encouragement for young women to be writers. And I wish that I had been told sooner that [songwriting] was a possibility. I was lucky enough that by the time I was in middle school, my older sister [Kristen Anderson-Lopez, half of the songwriting team for Frozen] was setting an example for me in that world. And she was the one finally saying, ‘you can do this.’
We want to be an example for young girls that this is possible as a career, and that women can absolutely tell stories and be creators. And we’re very lucky to have the example of women who have paved the way, Kristen Anderson-Lopez being one of them.
Elyssa: One thing we wish someone had told us earlier when we were kids was to work as hard as you can possibly can and never stop believing that someone will take a chance on you. When you’re following your dreams and you’re a creative personality, you don’t necessarily fit the mold. There are a lot of no’s that come your way and it’s easy to get bogged down by those. But, it takes a lot of courage to follow your instincts. I was lucky enough to learn that from my father, that you have to have the courage to fail. That’s something that we always try to adhere too. And it’s hard. I would say 99% of this business is failure and being told no. But, if you persist, and you dream it, and it’s what you really want, then it can happen.
The soundtrack for “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” is available now! “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” opens in U.S. theatres in front of Disney•Pixar’s Coco beginning November 22.