17 Years in the Making – Behind the Scenes of Hulu’s Musical Rom-Com “Up Here”

“There's never been a generation of musical theater songwriters that have loved TV as much as this generation loves TV,” EGOT-winner Robert Lopez said during a TCA press conference for the new musical romantic comedy series Up Here, which streams on Friday, March 24th on Hulu. Having collaborated with his wife on projects that include Frozen, Coco, and WandaVision, the duo decided to try something a little different. “TV is so great, and we just want to be a part of it.”

(Stewart Cook/Hulu)

(Stewart Cook/Hulu)

“We had this idea 17 years ago,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez revealed, who serves as songwriter and executive producer on Up Here along with her husband, whom she calls Bobby. “It had sort of been this idea, but we hadn't found the right people to bring it to life. And Bobby and I had been really thinking about, ‘Can we create a modern musical in this streaming form?’” When the pair saw FX’s Fosse/Verdon, they knew it was time to revisit the idea. “When we saw that, we kind of had it in our back pocket of, like, Steven Levenson and Tommy Kail know how to put a musical into this streaming form. If we're going to do this, we want to do it with them.”

Robert and Kristen got their wish when Hamilton director Thomas Kail found himself looking for work while Broadway was dark. And while Up Here is a TV show, he approached preparations for the series like any stage musical, with a workshop. “We got inspired by the feeling of making a musical when you have these three rooms where there's always something different going on,” Thomas explained. “Something that was really important for us was to let us all be in constant communication and to have those overlapping moments where Steven [Levenson, Showrunner] could pop down to dance, where Kristen and Bobby set up an actual studio and built a studio there. And Mae [Whitman] could be in there and Carlos [Caldes] could be downstairs. We could be going back-and-forth from those places. And that's where the intersection of ideas also happens, so there's something about that that I think felt really meaningful for us. 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.”

Mae Whitman is no stranger to TV, having appeared on screen since she was just six-years-old, but musical theater was a new avenue for the actress to explore. “It's always been this extremely vulnerable thing for me,” Mae said, having sung briefly on the show Parenthood surrounded by a tightnight cast that felt like family. But from the audition to the workshop and shooting schedule, Up Here took Mae Whitman out of her comfort zone. “Tthey were able to create a world for me where I felt safe. And that is the number one thing about this entire show, is that there was such deep trust that you could really be vulnerable and go to those terrifying places. And so for me to be able to do this, even after I auditioned, I was like, ‘Well, you know what? Even if I don't get it, at least now I know I can stand in front of a bunch of people and sing a song if I absolutely have to.’ That felt like something that broke a barrier for me, and I was grateful just for that. And then to be able to have this experience with these people, I feel like genuinely the luckiest person on the planet. I don't think I could have done it if it wasn't with this team of people.”

“The choreography, the singing, the storytelling through a song, that lives in my body,” shared Carlos Valdes, who plays Miguel and came to the series with a background in both musical theater and television. “What's really challenging for me in this process was just the honesty in rendering that emotional life for Miguel and laying that bare in front of the camera. That was really the challenge for me. And so I had to trust the music. I had to trust all of the other components. And really, I think, what I had to lend most of my labor to was just trying to lend truth to Miguel's experience, sort of figure out how to relate to him in a way that didn't feel so forced or presentational. I think that's what's really special about this show, actually, is there's this beautiful authenticity about it. And it's not afraid to get really close with these characters and what's happening inside their heads and within their emotional lives. That's really, really hard to do with a musical, I think. And so I'm really proud to have done that work.”

While the story of Up Here plays like a romantic comedy, it is unquestionably a musical. “One of our big goals from the beginning was to create a musical on TV that was like a musical onstage in that the story and the songs would be integrated and work together and function,” showrunner Steven Levenson explained. “Bobby and Kristen said this thing early on that the goal was if we removed the songs from the episode, the episode wouldn't work. And so that was always our goal, was to build something where the songs would be integral to the story. And another thing that we decided really early on, inspired by Bobby and Kristen, was this idea to imagine instead of eight episodes of television, to imagine this as eight mini musicals that would add up to one season-long musical, that in succession would add up to one series-long musical. So we really tried to give each of these episodes real integrity structurally, and so feel like we're telling a story with the music with a beginning, middle, and an end. Which is all to say we worked very closely together… What was exciting and kind of terrifying about the whole thing is that it had to happen very quickly. Usually musicals take years. And this was like we'd get on a Zoom, and by the time we're off the Zoom, we're deciding on what this episode is going to be, because once we locked into the structure, it was very difficult to then change that. We really wanted to make sure we had it right. And then they would go off to write the songs; we would go off to write the scripts; and just pray and hope that it would all work when it came together.”

“We basically recorded an album and rehearsed every single dance number every day for a month before we even started filming,” added Mae Whitman about all of the prep work before they even got on set. The music will live on its own outside of the series, but at the end of the day, what draws viewers in to any show is the story, one that Mae was enchanted by. “It's so deep and complicated and genuine without having to be saccharine or on the nose or anything like that. Everything is under the surface, but it's all there and you feel it, but it comes out so naturally.So getting to be able to record all that music and really going through the process with them about the layers that were underneath what we were singing, it was such an unbelievable experience for me.”

All eight episodes of Up Here will be available to stream on Hulu beginning Friday, March 24th.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).