Great songwriting duos – think Lennon/McCartney, Goffin/King, Bacharach/David, or Leiber/Stoller – are extremely rare. Anyone who’s tried to write a song with another person can attest that chemistry is one thing you can’t force – you just hope to be fortunate enough to find it. But for musical theater writing team Samsel/Anderson, the magic was palpable from the moment Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson met at a BMI workshop.
The New York-based writers have been collaborating for seven years, penning original works together and working with bestselling author Jodi Picoult on the 2017 premiere of Between the Lines, a musical adaptation of the bestselling book Picoult wrote with her daughter, Samantha van Leer. Last year, Kate and Elyssa tackled their first animation project, contributing four songs to Disney featurette Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a 21-minute film featuring original Frozen cast members that debuted with Pixar’s Coco in movie theatres during the 2017 holiday season.
Throughout their creative partnership, Elyssa and Kate have written several original projects infused with their own brand of quirky humor and melodic prowess. And, like any great duo, they bring distinct skills to the table – Kate’s background involves creative writing, music and improv, and Elyssa is classically trained on violin and piano – and they look at every writing session as an opportunity to challenge and entertain the other person, truly bringing out the best in each other.
You two met at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in 2010. Did the two of you have an instant creative connection when you were paired as writing partners?
Kate: We like to call it “love at first write.” [Laughs.] We were paired together randomly for our first assignment, and first of all, we both wore the same outfit that day — we were both wearing red shirts and black skirts, which was weird — and then we realized that we lived five blocks away from each other. The whole thing felt super serendipitous, and when we sat down to write together, we had this connection that felt so comfortable. We both went through the rest of the year writing with other people, wondering if that first feeling was something we should follow. We just knew that there was something there.
Elyssa: We got very lucky. I had other collaborators in the past; I had written two musicals with different people, and like Kate said, when we sat down on that first day to write together, there was such a spark, and it was honestly unlike anything I had ever come across before.
Kate: I had’t done a whole lot of collaborating at that point. I really liked to write parody and write lyrics, but I hadn’t collaborated with a true composer yet. I do remember telling my older sister [Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who co-wrote songs for Disney animated hit Frozen with her husband Bobby Lopez], who had done the workshop prior to me, that we had written this song. And we’d had so much fun writing together, and that it was just easy — we were laughing the whole time, and it flowed. And she said, ‘Oh, you found your writing partner!’
Tell us a little about your songwriting process – Kate, it sounds like you focus more on the lyrics, and Elyssa, you focus on the music?
Elyssa: We really try to do everything together as much as possible, but we do each have our focus. We learned from the BMI workshop to come up with a hook and generally start with some melodic strain first, and that has really been our way of working for the past seven years. It was an invaluable lesson that we learned with Pat Cook and Rick Freyer [of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop].
Kate: We took that as scripture and went with it. You discover, I think, when you’re writing, there’s a weird symbiosis to all of it — as you’re writing music, you just hear words. I don’t even have to think of them, because when I hear the melody, I just hear the words, almost out of thin air. And vice versa; sometimes we’ll come up with a hook that we really like lyrically, and it just sings — it’s a certain melody when we say it out loud. It sort of behooves us to collaborate and be in the same room as much as we possibly can because it helps the writing process.
How did you get involved in the musical Between the Lines, based on a Jodi Picoult novel, which opened last fall?
Kate: Yes, it just had a premiere in Kansas City, Missouri, this past September! Elyssa and I both left our day jobs and decided we were going to be writers, and we’d been doing that for about two-and-a-half years, and we were trying to write as much as possible and get as much out there as we possibly could. It led us to our first real job, which was Between the Lines. That happened because the author Jodi Picoult — she had written the book with her daughter — she’d been wanting to turn this book into a musical.
She talked with a few people about how to go about doing it, one of whom was Bobby Lopez, and he said talk to Pat Cook. Independently of each other, they had both said that what she was describing sounded perfect for a team called Samsel/Anderson, and she said that she didn’t need to hear that a third time to know that was probably the right path to go down. She explored our website, and then she wrote us an email that changed our lives.
It was this day when we were both feeling frustrated, and we’d hit a point where everything we’d been counting on hadn’t happened, and we were feeling like we were going to have to start over from scratch. Suddenly we got this email from bestselling author Jodi Picoult; it was paragraphs long — she said she’d listened to everything on our website and she was really excited about the prospect of working with us, and would we be interested in reading her book, and of course we responded, ‘Yes, oh my gosh!’ She sent us a book, we read it, and then we met up for this three-hour dinner that was so much fun. From there, we were hired officially as the writing team, and we feel so lucky — it’s been a dream come true. We’ve been working for the last four years, and hopefully we’re looking at a New York production in the next two years or so.
You’ve written musicals containing songs for your own original stories and for other people’s stories, like with Between the Lines. Is there a difference in how you approach the songwriting process when it involves someone else’s work?
Elyssa: We’re lucky in the case with Jodi and her daughter, they are extraordinarily hands-on, so we’d been really lucky to work with them the entire way, and always receive notes and feedback from them, and make sure that their vision is being brought to life. When it’s original material, we get to be a little wackier, which is one of our favorite things to do.
So that’s how you end up with a musical about girls who believe that they’re Disney princesses ….
Elyssa: Yes, exactly (laughs). We’ve always had an obsession with Disney and princesses and it actually worked out in our favor because we had all this material from the show you just referenced, the original musical we were working on called Camp Wish-No-More, we had the entire thing written, and demo after demo of songs that fit into this fairytale world. We were so lucky we had years of work on that, because when Jodi came knocking, the content was similar to what she was looking for. And when Disney approached us later on, we had all of that to show to them as well.
Is that how you got involved with the Olaf’s Frozen Adventure project?
Kate: That was part of it, and also having the production of Between the Lines in motion. We had something to stand on at that point, so Disney was able to see what we’d been up to, and that’s how we got very lucky to be considered for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
Were you big Disney fans growing up? What is it like working with such an iconic brand?
Kate: Oh, yeah! I think all kids who grew up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s grew up with those movies and with Alan Menken [BMI film scorer on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin] songs. It was the soundtrack to my childhood, but I don’t think I ever in a million years dreamed that I could be writing songs for Disney. It just blows my mind to be even uttered in the same sentence as Disney — it was an absolute dream come true.
Kate, you have a degree in Music and Creative Writing, and you also perform improv and sketch comedy. Are those skills that you incorporate into your songwriting?
Kate: Oh, definitely. What’s so fun about our collaboration is that Elyssa and I are best friends, and whenever we are in the same room we just want to make each other laugh, which I understand is how Trey Parker and Matt Stone [South Park, The Book of Mormon] work — they’re this amazing sounding board for each other. So often when we’re writing, we’re just improvising back and forth and trying to joke around and have reactions from each other. With improv, I’ve learned so much about comedy and the structure of it and how comedy builds, and we’ve been able to incorporate a lot of that into our work the last couple of years. That’s been a really invaluable skill set to gain. Elyssa won’t admit it, but she’s such a comedian — she’s one of the funnier people I know, and we just have an amazing time together.
Elyssa: We definitely belly laugh more than is probably healthy. (Laughs.)
Kate: We always say that we would probably get a lot more done a lot faster if we didn’t start making up parody lyrics to amuse ourselves for every song that we write. But it’s part of the process at this point (laughs).
Elyssa: It is! And all that joking around is helpful for infusing our work with the positivity that we just naturally inspire in each other. I think Kate is the most genius person I’ve ever worked with, and because of that, everything she says to me just makes me want to write a better melody, or make a better song. I think being that inspired by someone always comes through in the work.
Elyssa, you were classically trained on violin and piano at a young age – what did you think you’d be doing when you grew up?
Elyssa: I wanted to be a concert violinist, but at some point I fell in love with musical theater— I think it was in high school. It was like this dawn of realization that all of the classical music I had been immersed in my whole life was just waiting for lyrics, waiting to be a musical, waiting to be a story. So all of the training just was practice for learning how music can make you feel and how it can transfer what you’re feeling to another person. It’s like handing them an invisible gift; it’s like a different language. Fusing the two together was when my path became clear to me.
Kate, your sister Kristen is also a songwriter noted for her work on Frozen with her husband Bobby Lopez. Did she give you any advice as you were starting out in the business?
Kate: She met her husband in the BMI workshop — it was a one-stop shop for her, she got a career and a husband! I admittedly was like, ‘Well, I wonder if my husband is there as well (laughs).’ In my case finding Elyssa was the equivalent of that because I found a best friend and a career. Kristen is still to this day our guru, our Oprah, our inspiration, and she has been there for us every step of the way to push us to go further and to persist. There were countless times where we felt if we didn’t get a job, why do we keep going, and she would just encourage us. She would say the people who succeed, it’s not just because you’re a genius or because you’re God’s gift to musical theater, it’s because you don’t give up. You don’t stop — you keep writing and writing and writing and writing, and someday someone will take a chance with you. And that’s exactly what happened for us.
Kristen was our cheerleader the entire way, and Bobby, her husband, as well. The two of them have been our mentors, and Kristen especially has pushed us. Whenever we show her something, we’re always given this push to take it even further, to up the stakes and look deeper. To dig deeper and find what feeling is driving the song and then infuse that into everything that we do. I think that’s so important, to have someone saying, ‘you can do another pass where it’s even more powerful.’
Are there any other mentors who have impacted your career?
Kate: Pat Cook and Rick Freyer, who run the BMI workshop, they’ve been wonderful as well. And Jodi Picoult — she has become another mother to us. And talk about powerful women! Between her and Kristen, it’s just impossible to not believe in ourselves. They are two forces to be reckoned with in the best way possible, and they’ve both done incredibly well in their careers. They don’t ever give in, and they don’t give up. They’re such inspirations.
What new projects are you working on that you’re excited about?
Elyssa: We’ve been lucky enough to get the rights to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and we are currently adapting that for the stage, which we’re really excited about. One of our main goals is to keep writing these strong female protagonists; in The Book Thief, Liesel is a girl in Germany in the second World War who learns the power of words, and that’s a message that we are really excited to get out there in the world, that words should be used for good — to bring others up, not down.
In 2014 BMI selected you as featured writers for a masterclass with Stephen Schwartz [Godspell, Pippin, Wicked]. What was that like?
Kate: It was amazing. For me, the coolest thing about that master class was that we presented a song that we had seen as the second song in Between the Lines, and Stephen Schwartz said, ‘Well, if the main character has a best friend at the beginning of the show, then why do we care about her? She’s fine. She’s going to be fine.’ We had that song as the second song in the show for so long, and finally there was a rewrite maybe a year and a half ago when we said, ‘Stephen Schwartz was right, we have to move the song!’ So now it’s the third to the last song in the show, and that’s exactly where it belongs because he was right — you can’t take your protagonist and give her a support system at the beginning of the show or else you have nowhere to go. His wisdom was invaluable and that was just such a cool opportunity.
Elyssa: Opportunities like that are so amazing, and we really love what BMI offers. I was fascinated by the concept of this free workshop! If you get in, it was like having years and years of an education — a second college — and a community of people who constantly inspire you and put you in touch with other people who are just waiting to inspire you, too.
It sounds like BMI has done a lot to foster your career throughout the years.
Elyssa: It introduced us to our heroes …
Kate: … And to each other. It was everything. When I found BMI I knew I had found my happy place. I had been in New York for a year trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I felt so lost. I was working a 9-to-5 job and I wasn’t feeling fulfilled or that I had any purpose, and BMI changed everything. It was kind of like going to grad school, but so much more than that. It really became our community.