FROZEN The Musical: The Countdown to Broadway

 

NEW YORK — The puzzles the Tony Award-winning British director Michael Grandage has to sort out in his latest project are not the kind they train you for in a high-toned London drama school.

For example: dealing with a character with a carrot nose who’s prone to melting.

But when the project is “Frozen,” a stage version of the 2013 animated Disney film that made $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office, you sure as heck better have beloved figures such as Olaf the Snowman down, er, cold. So, in a ritual developed over the 17 months that Grandage and his team have been working on the musical — whose cost he hasn’t even wanted the entertainment company to tell him — much back-to-the-drawing-board discussion revolved around giving flesh to the movie’s whimsical creatures. As well as a thousand other design and dramaturgical elements to satisfy the legions of fans who Disney hopes will storm the ramparts of Broadway’s St. James Theatre, where performances began Thursday.

 

Olaf the Snowman, Sven the Reindeer, all those mystical trolls who live deep in the Scandinavian woods of Elsa and Anna’s meteorologically challenged kingdom of Arendelle: It was the task of Grandage — a man wholly new to the Disney empire and who had never directed an original musical — to take the ingredients of a mega-triumph and, well, merely whip up another one.

No pressure! 

Grandage recalls the importance that executives such as Thomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical Productions president and producer, placed on getting “Frozen” right: “ ‘It’s a big property for us,’ they said, ‘And we’d like it to not depart too much from what’s out there. But it’s over to you, how to reimagine it.’”

Which brings us back to Olaf, voiced in the movie by “The Book of Mormon” veteran Josh Gad and depicted by Disney’s animators as three independently mobile balls of heartwarmingly mischievous snow. “That’s your first question when you do a stage version,” Grandage says, taking a break from rehearsals to talk on a recent weekend morning. “Do you do Olaf as a man in a costume like in Times Square?” he asks, laughing. “Or do you do a puppet?”

The answer, as often evolves in the best of Disney’s stage adaptations of its animated movie musicals, is a hybrid product of adult perspiration and child-friendly inspiration. The fusion of man (actor Greg Hildreth) and puppet arrived at, Grandage says, “invites you, the audience, to see Olaf through a person, because you’ve got the face of a real actor doing proper acting, and this puppet that sits in front of him. So you’ve a duality of both an iconic picture of an Olaf, with a human face operating and living through him.” 

Disney likes to hire directors who don’t just reorchestrate, but also can cogitate freshly about what on the surface might merely seem easily digested fairy tales rendered immaculately on celluloid. This has not always translated into success on Broadway: Think of opera director Francesca Zambello’s overproduced “The Little Mermaid” or design auteur Bob Crowley’s turgid “Tarzan.” When it does work, though, as in Julie Taymor’s visually ravishing “The Lion King,” the enchanting results fulfill the artistic mission the company has striven to uphold as it continues the tradition of big-time transferences from screen to stage it commenced with “Beauty and the Beast” in 1994.

For Grandage, the challenge has not only been to accept the magnitude of expectation fans of the movie would bring into the theater — “You realized you were taking on something that has seeped so deeply into the consciousness of people globally” — but also to bring to the fore an emotionality better suited to characters in three dimensions.

 “It’s a show that’s very much about a family in trauma,” says Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who with her husband, Robert Lopez, wrote the score for the film and added more than a dozen other songs for the Broadway version, which of course retains the Oscar-winning “Let It Go.” That was sung on screen by Idina Menzel as the tormented Elsa, the young queen cursed with an ice-making power that bedevils her subjects and sends her into self-imposed exile.

by Washington Post

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