If you’ve had children growing up in your home in the last six years, you’re probably familiar with “Let It Go.” Even if you didn’t, you still probably know that song. An anthem of self-love and a dawning realization of identity, the tune was written as a showstopper for Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) in the first act of Frozen. In fact, it was so powerful that when songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez turned it in to directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, the melody reconfigured the whole film, transforming Elsa from villain to misunderstood heroine. She also became a symbol of empowerment for millions.
How do you follow that up? It’s a question the Lopezes did not take lightly going into Frozen 2, a sequel six years in the making. And now that it’s in theaters, audiences are getting to hear two Elsa solos that showcase Menzel’s Tony-winning voice. Both are decidedly more complex and sophisticated in their use of melody than “Let It Go,” but the anthem between the two is “Into the Unknown:” an aural call to adventure culminating in a crescendo only the most skilled singer can reach—not that countless children will stop from screaming it.
Fellow Disney and Tony winning alum, Lin-Manuel Miranda, described the song on Twitter by writing, “The climb into the octave and a half [at the end]… I needed to get on my local escalator to hit it.” You can hear it for yourself by clicking here.
But how pressured did the filmmakers, including both Lopezes and Menzel herself, feel about the challenge of making “Into the Unknown” the next “Let It Go?” Our correspondent Don Kaye was there when they considered this at a press conference.
“I never feel that way, so I don’t know,” Menzel said. “They’ve gotten to know us as people and as singers, and that makes our lives easier. Kristen and Bobby can write such memorable, impactful melodies, but [they] also tell a story and involve your character through all of that, which is quite a gift.”
She did add though that the songs in Frozen 2, like “Let It Go” before them, pushed her to vocal extremes. “The only thing that I do is that I warm up a lot because I know that they’re going to push me to hit the tops of my range. And on a good day I’m like, ‘Let’s go for some of these high notes.’ And then, when I’m out in the middle of Amsterdam on a tour and I have a cold, I have to take it down a key because they’re really challenging songs.”
Anderson-Lopez, meanwhile, had nothing but complimentary things to say about writing “Into the Unknown,” as well as all as all of Elsa’s songs for Menzel.
“With Idina, if you’re given a Stradivarius, you write to a Stradivarius,” said Anderson-Lopez. “I danced around to Rent in my apartment and even auditioned for Maureen [Menzel’s breakout Rent role] a couple of times when I was a mediocre actress. So I knew Idina’s voice. When you hear it, it feels like a warm hug. She has this warmth and this vulnerability down low. And then, as you bring her higher and higher, she gets stronger and stronger, and more powerful. She just reaches into your soul when she’s singing these big, giant songs. I really truly think that we are the lucky ones to get to write for her.”
Yet the goal itself was never to quite replicate “Let It Go.” In fact, most of the music in Frozen 2 is intentionally of a different, more dramatic tenor.
Buck explained that they looked at the sequel as a slightly moodier act of a Broadway show.
“The one thing we did differently this time is you look at Frozen 2 as a sort of Act Two of a stage musical. So where Act One is usually the setup of characters and the characters’ wants, this time in Act Two you can go a little deeper, you can go more emotional with some of the songs. And of course there are a lot of fun songs in there too, but [the process] can differentiate between the sort of songs from Frozen 1 and the songs from Frozen 2, and sort of give it its own feel.”
This sentiment echoes what the directors also separately told Entertainment Weekly.
“We could go deeper, we could go richer, we could go more emotional with the songs,” Buck said. “That was a big win, and we freed ourselves up where we’re not starting over with these characters. But we did not try to get another ‘Let It Go.’ We realized that that was lightning in a bottle. It’s a fantastic song, but we wanted this movie to find its own songs and find its own voice.”
This approach led the filmmakers to view Elsa as much “a character of myth” as she is of Disney princess iconography. And this in turn informed the new songs in the movie.
“When we pitched it to Bobby and Kristen, Bobby in particular was like, ‘Oh my God, now I know how Elsa sings and what her type of song is.”
The result is “Into the Unknown,” a rip-roaring embrace of curiosity, discovery, and high notes more difficult than those achieved in “Let It Go.”. The song notably replaced a sophisticated duet between Anna and Elsa that evoked traditional Broadway melancholy and regret (you can hear a haunting demo of it here). Yet that melancholy can still be heard in Frozen 2’s second Elsa showstopper, “Show Yourself.” It’s a grandiose vocal marathon that combines Menzel’s Broadway projection with choral backup. It also thematically gets at the root of who Elsa is and where she came from, which we unpack in further spoiler detail here.
Whichever of the two songs becomes the true successor to “Let It Go” though, chances are you’ll be hearing them quite a bit between now and next year’s Oscars ceremony. And if you have children under the age of 12, probably quite a bit longer than that.
Frozen 2 is in theaters now.