In ‘Up Here,’ the Song Stuck in Your Head Might Be Your Mean Ex-Crush
The rats were not on the call sheet. They turned up anyway.
For the members of the brain trust behind the new Hulu musical series “Up Here,” this balmy September night last year was to be a precious occasion: After more than two years of cross-country video calls, the writer and executive producer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel had flown in from Los Angeles during the last full week of production, finally giving her a chance to hang out on set with her collaborators — a gang of Broadway powerhouses that included the highly decorated songwriting couple behind “Frozen,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
“She was one of our best friends in the pandemic,” Anderson-Lopez said at the time, at an outdoor shoot in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hudson Heights. “We spent six to eight hours together a day during 2021. And we just hugged in person for the first time 10 minutes ago.”
And then Sanchez-Witzel got a dose of New York City realness. As they gathered around the monitors, with the cameras rolling just a few yards away, a few enterprising rodents decided to join the fun. Snacks were stashed. Sanchez-Witzel nervously pulled up her feet. Someone joked about creating a viral video to promote the show.
It was just the latest twist in the bigger challenge faced by the illustrious team behind “Up Here,” which dropped all eight episodes of its first season on Friday: how to merge that most classically New York of art forms, the stage musical, with a much younger Hollywood one — the bingeable half-hour streaming sitcom.
Stage musicals have been adapted into movies for decades; live television adaptations have made a comeback in recent years, too. But turning one into serialized television is new. This alone would make “Up Here,” developed from an original musical by the Lopezes, stand out.
Add to that the Tony-winning creative powers of the writer Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and the director Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”), and the series also comes courtesy of Broadway’s equivalent to a Marvel superteam.
“I think they wanted to make sure someone hadn’t won a Tony in this group,” Sanchez-Witzel said. (She, Levenson and the Lopezes are all credited as developers.) She joked that over the years she had spent “thousands of dollars on StubHub” to watch her new collaborators’ shows.
Given the surrealistic premise of “Up Here,” it was perhaps always well suited for the screen — think “Herman’s Head” with music, or “Inside Out” with nagging parents, mean ex-crushes and former friends instead of lovable little gremlins. Set at the turn of the millennium, it centers on Lindsay and Miguel (played in the series by Mae Whitman and Carlos Valdes), a young couple who meet outside a bar bathroom where Lindsay’s roommate is having sex with a stranger.
If a show about the lurid dating lives of 20-something New Yorkers feels a little familiar, the twist is that the characters’ thoughts, as personified by people from their lives, constantly speak up — or, rather, sing up — to interfere.
The original musical premiered in San Diego in 2015, then was shelved while the Lopezes worked on other things. It didn’t stay on the shelf for long. Early in 2020, Kail, who since directing “Hamilton” had begun to develop a solid reputation in television (he was an executive producer and director of the acclaimed FX series “Fosse/Verdon”), was looking for a new project he could sink his teeth into. He knew the Lopezes from the theater world — in addition to their songs for the “Frozen” movies and “Coco,” Lopez had co-written “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon” — and he asked if they had anything lying around.
They were keen to take another crack at “Up Here.” Kail saw potential. He soon pulled in Levenson, his fellow developer of “Fosse/Verdon.” All agreed that “Up Here” would work best as a comedy series. There was just one problem.
“We quickly decided none of us had any experience in half-hour television,” Levenson said. So Kail contacted Sanchez-Witzel, whose credits included “The Carmichael Show” and “New Girl.” She signed on but continued to work from Los Angeles. (Kail, the Lopezes and Levenson are also executive producers.)
The team’s central task was figuring out how to translate the stage version to episodic television. The idea, as Levenson explained it, was to create a musical that spanned eight episodes but where each was also its own mini-musical. And the tunes had to be more than an accessory.
“The show needed to function like a musical, where the songs actually were necessary to the storytelling, so that if you removed them, the show wouldn’t work,” Levenson said.
The learning curve was steep for both sides.
“Danielle told us about certain structures of a 30-minute comedy,” Anderson-Lopez said. “And we talked a lot about how when we’re looking for songs in theater or animated musicals, we’re always looking for a moment when a character is having a feeling so big, they can’t speak anymore. It was really fun figuring out those spaces in a half-hour comedy.”
Eventually, the set list from the San Diego production was almost entirely put aside. The male lead’s name was also changed from Dan to Miguel.
“I felt strongly that this time around he should be not white,” said Lopez, the youngest person ever to win an EGOT — an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — and also the only person to have won each award more than once. He and Sanchez-Witzel share “a similar experience being nonwhite and feeling disconnected from both the white mainstream and from our immigrant histories,” he added. (Lopez is of Philippine descent; Sanchez-Witzel is Mexican American.) “We thought that’d be interesting to put into this character.”
To find their lead actors, the New York-based creators followed a procedure they were all familiar with. This was an advantage for Valdes.
“I got there, and with the accompanist and the music, I was like, ‘Oh, this is like a theater audition,’” said Valdes, who is best known for playing Cisco/Vibe on the CW’s “The Flash” but has extensive show-tune experience, including appearing in the Broadway hit “Once” a decade ago.
“It had been a long time since I’d been in that kind of musical theater space, but it felt so familiar,” he said, “like a homecoming.”
Landing the part was more fraught for Whitman, whose extensive television résumé (“Parenthood,” “Arrested Development”) had not prepared her for an old-school tryout. “I had to fly to New York and stand in front of a table full of people next to a piano player and have to sing,” Whitman said in a joint video call with Valdes. “It was terrifying. I can sing, but I’d never done anything like that.”
As for the actors handling Lindsay and Miguel’s inner voices, they tend to straddle both worlds. Portraying Lindsay’s parents are the writer, humorist and actor John Hodgman and the Broadway and “Brockmire” veteran Katie Finneran. Team Miguel includes Scott Porter, an original cast member of the Off Broadway hit musical “Altar Boyz” who went on to star in “Friday Night Lights.” That evening in Hudson Heights, he was rocking a goatee and suspenders that made him look like a cocky late-90s corporate bro, which is exactly what he plays.
From his experience in theater and on “Fosse/Verdon,” Kail had learned that things went smoother if you had everyone in the same building; aside from the portions shot on location, the entire production was concentrated at a compound in Long Island City, Queens, from the writing to the choreography to the costume making.
“The thing with theater is, there is a moment when you move into the theater and everybody’s under the same tent,” he said. “We wanted to try to do that here and bring everybody in.”
Except, of course, for Sanchez-Witzel, who until the final full week had to make do from Los Angeles. It was great that technology had allowed her to observe the set from 3,000 miles away, she said, but she couldn’t deny the thrill of finally watching it all in person: the strips of ratty off-white carpet evoking dirty Manhattan snow, the whispers between takes, the in-person chemistry between Whitman and Valdes.
Then there was the massive boulder in the middle of a block in Hudson Heights, where Lindsay and Miguel share an important kiss.
“To see the rock in person — it’s probably hard for you to imagine how exciting it is,” Sanchez-Witzel said, laughing. “But to me, it’s extremely exciting!”