'Frozen' Comes to Broadway with a Tighter Focus and a Timely Message

Courtesy of Andrew Eccles
Caissie Levy as Elsa in 'Frozen'

The cast and creative team behind the Disney musical discuss changes made ahead of the March 22 New York opening and why this story is ripe for theatrical treatment.

When you think about a Disney musical onstage, you probably think of laughter and joy. However, Frozen, which is currently in previews at Broadway's St. James Theatre and officially opens March 22, goes much darker and deeper into the story of two sisters torn apart by fear.

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez — who won an Academy Award for the source movie's breakout power anthem "Let It Go" and just landed their second Oscar for "Remember Me" from Coco — wanted to delve into the characters' backstories and the fractures in their relationship.

"The only reason to expand this piece into a full-length Broadway musical was to dive much deeper into the idea of a family that can get frozen into dysfunction because of fear and shame," said Anderson-Lopez, adding that the emotional experience onstage can be cathartic.

"We're all so digitized. We're all tweeting and keeping it to 240 characters and our emotions stay so small," she added. "To come to the theater and sit and have this analog experience with other people, allowing your emotions to really get as big as the emotions onstage is something that we kind of need, and it can be really healing."

When the musical premiered last summer at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the critical response was mixed. One of the most consistent notes was that the production relied too heavily on the darkness and didn't bring enough happiness to the forefront.

In her review of the tryout run for The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Wilker wrote, "To clearly separate the Broadway production from those truncated family attractions, the creative team aims, inevitably, for less froth and more artistic seriousness. But sometimes froth — and vibrant colors and brighter lighting — are all just fine, particularly when princesses, fun sidekicks and a fanciful Scandinavian kingdom are involved. A little less gravitas would seem in order as Disney continues to tweak the show in the run-up to New York."

Director Michael Grandage was happy to have a critical perspective on the production in Colorado, and to incorporate that feedback as he prepared the show for Broadway. "When certain things get said multiple times — whether it's by audience, a critic, or by ourselves — then it's worth listening to that voice," said Grandage.

About 30 percent of the show is different from Denver, Grandage explained, including a new opening number, new second act opener and a new finale. In Denver, the show opened among the mythic area of "hidden folk," the indigenous people of Arendelle, but Grandage figured out that the beginning needed to be lighter and happier.

"We need to start in a much more joyous place, where the whole of the world is in a celebratory place," said the British director, a 2010 Tony winner for Red. "Because then when darkness does come into the story it shifts the whole perspective. Whereas if you start with darkness and then bring darkness in, it's darkness on darkness."

Likening Frozen to Shakespeare's pastoral comedies like Twelfth Night and As You Like It, Grandage said he looked to the Bard in crafting the production: "[Shakespeare] remains a person who was able to get through to massive audiences with mass appeal and that's what I knew this piece had to do."

For composing team the Lopezes, the story is deeply personal. Anderson-Lopez likened herself to Anna, while her husband is "more of an Elsa" because "he strives for perfection a lot."

"Bobby and I are only able to write songs that resonate in our own experiences," said Anderson-Lopez. "Sometimes we do get locked behind our closed doors in our own way. And even though we work together and write together and raise children, we can even find ourselves frozen in a rut where we're not talking. It's important to stop and say, what's going on? Open the door. Even if you don't want to."

There are approximately 12 new songs for Broadway (the film only had seven-and-a-half), and Anderson-Lopez says the musical "almost feels sung-through in some ways." Each character has new numbers — particularly Prince Hans and Kristoff, both of whom sang minimally in the film.

"In these animated movies, you stop at the end of act two in the three-act structure," she said. "The songs stop because that's when action has to take over and you don't want to stop and have emotional moments. For the theater, we sing those big emotional moments."

One of those "big emotional moments" from the film and the stage is the worldwide phenomenon "Let It Go," which children and adults alike have practically memorized when they come into the theater. Caissie Levy, who plays Elsa, makes sure to approach the song from the story perspective.

"'Let It Go' is a responsibility and one that I take on very happily," said Levy. "I think it's a song that people are so connected to, and so all I'm trying to do every night is make sure it stays in the world of the story, that it doesn't get bigger than the show. To keep it within Elsa's story."

After the Denver production, the creative team incorporated more moments onstage for Levy and Patti Murin, who plays Elsa's sister Anna. "They really wanted to reinforce that connection these two women have and the love that they've had for each other since they were girls," said Murin. "The longing they were feeling being separated. So we got a couple tiny little tweaks but man they mean a lot."

While Murin and Levy have never worked together before Frozen, they immediately got along and felt like sisters, which has added to their onstage relationship. "Opening a show on Broadway is always an intense experience and to know that I get to look across the stage and see my friend goes a long way," Levy said.

With the opening night just a few weeks away, the arrival of Frozen on Broadway could not be more timely. This female-forward story of two women finding their way back to each other and themselves will officially open right at the end of Women's History Month in the era of Time's Up and #MeToo.  

"The time is right for these emotions and these larger-than-life women to take us on a journey," Anderson-Lopez said. Grandage agrees that the current intensified focus on women's roles and representation really lends itself to this story, but the conversation and cause is timeless.

"It's affected everything we're doing, but in a way, it hasn't changed the story because the story is affecting the debate and that's what's so brilliant," he said. "All that's happened is we now have a piece that speaks absolutely to the month and the year we're performing it in. I don't think it will be something that will date because of that. I think it will be a debate now forever."