Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Disney's 'Frozen' Hits Broadway - Hot Hit Or Not?

At this writing, Disney's Frozen has officially opened on Broadway and is in previews. There's no doubt it's going to make a boatload of money - at least initially. (Reports are coming in that it's already made back its production cost of $25-$30 in just two nights). But will it be a good show?

Why is it so daunting to bring Frozen to the Broadway stage?
Michael Grandage - Director of Frozen on Broadway

Frozen has the equally enviable and unenviable issue of continuing to be so ridiculously popular that it's both a guaranteed crowd draw and a great risk to make any deviation from the movie - whether that's costumes, songs, story details or structure.

But Broadway is supposed to be more than 'the movie on stage'. It's supposed to be a true, stand-alone theatrical experience.
You have to try to make something new. You have to start from scratch. The theme parks and the cruises have an obligation, in a sense, to do a beautiful book report of “What is the movie onstage? Let us bring that to life.” But our job at Disney Theatrical is to do something different. That’s not that one is not more valid than the other, but our job is to say, “How does this inspire something that’s purely theatrical? (Schumacher interviewed by Playbill, July 2017)
Everyone wants another Lion King success story, of course. What people forget about The Lion King, is that, at the time, it was Disney's most successful movie to date; bigger than The Little Mermaid, bigger the Beauty and the Beast, at that time. It was a monster hit with audiences and critics and the popular and sought-after merchandising added to the very real pressure to keep everything 'familiar'. (In the years since, Princess Culture and its associated marketing have kept the profile of the other two much higher and contributed to a greater 'long term stock' success.) To say "yes" to Julie Taymor's vision for The Lion King on Broadway was one of the riskiest moves the Disney Company, as a whole, made in a long time. The Lion King on Broadway now exists as a separate entity from the movie, and it's argued that this is part of it's continued staying power. Twenty years on, The Lion  King on Broadway remains a sell-out show. But it certainly wasn't guaranteed at the time. The Lion King was a risky experiment gone right, and duplicating that success has never happened.
               
Disney's Aladdin on Broadway, after false starts, and much criticism and worry, is finally finding its feet and is considered a (decent) hit. The Little Mermaid is considered as "not having translated to success" (to put it in company terms) and 'over-produced'. Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, which stayed closer to its source material in look and execution than Lion King but took a few risks as well, is also a "Broadway keeper" but still doesn't approach the success of The Lion King.

Fresh versus Familiar
So where will Frozen ultimately land? From all reports to date, Frozen is leaning more toward Beauty and the Beast than The Lion King, in terms of the Broadway experience, but it is still 'early days' and despite having full production tryouts, it's not unheard of for changes still to happen in the first few months.

Here's a reminder of the Disney Company's stance, when it was being developed and being handed over to a Director (twice), which, in some ways, seems to undermine the statement about Disney Theatrical above:
“ ‘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.’”
The biggest criticism of the show is that it is "obviously trying to straddle two worlds": that of including all the familiar and beloved elements audiences expect/want to see and that of trying to create a fresh take on the film and make it, its own experience. The problem seems to be that - at the moment - it isn't completely successful on either front, making the Broadway experience a bit of an inconsistent one.

As you can see from the collected images in this post, the promotional material and photos are emphasizing the familiar, that is, the movie brought to life (though clearly with better quality than either the Once Upon A Time experience or the Disney Parks and cruises Hyperion version). The attention to detail and scale of the costumes, sets and puppet construction and manipulation is excellent and very likely, exactly what the audience are handing over their big bucks to see.

There's an in-depth article from Timeout HERE that wonderfully describes in detail how the costumes were approached. We greatly appreciated this comment:
“The costumes from the film are iconic, and so I approached the reimagining of them with trepidation and respect. I was also very aware that this would likely be the first time that a generation of young fans of the film would set foot in a theater, so it was important to me that they had an experience that was both familiar and at the same time new and exciting. Certain looks translated very easily into real fabric and onto real bodies; others took more revision before they found their balance.” (set and costume designer Christopher Oram)
As well as this attention to their own research (as opposed to merely cribbing off the movie's):
“Bunad is the traditional Norwegian dress, and it’s the recurring theme of all the garments in the show. We were able to research it thoroughly through books and by visiting Norway; it’s still how they dress on festivals and occasions, and there are shops that sell contemporary versions of it and museums that have collections of antique versions of it, so you can see how it’s developed and changed.
...nothing is ultimately more useful to any design process then to experience the world in which the piece is set for real. So our trip to Norway, in the footsteps of the original filmmakers, was both a revelation and a reassurance as it confirmed both what the film and my many reference books had suggested.”
...“To experience the vast scale of the fjords, to feel the extreme cold of the mountains and to walk in the crepuscular half-light of medieval stave churches was the ultimate preparation for embarking on this journey. You get a sense of the scale of the place, the ache of the place, and the smells and the quality of light. On the bridge, Anna wears a mountain ensemble borrowed from Kristoff, based on his own Sami outfit. It’s a look new for her, created for the stage show: men’s clothes that are too big for her. When she realizes she can’t carry on in it, she changes into a skirt and cape, her iconic traveling outfit.”

Olaf and Sven 
There are some approaches, since The Lion King, that have become, well, standard, for Disney stage-adaptations, specifically, the puppet-actor-hybrid. It should come as no surprise that this is the approach for Olaf, Elsa's snowman-come-to-life (which his far preferable over the Theme Park-like full-character costume, as far as creating an emotional and comedic stage performance goes), and also for Sven the Reindeer (created by acclaimed puppet maker Michael Curry).

Reports are (so far) unanimous that both Sven is even better than the movie.

Olaf isn't getting quite as warm a reception all round, though critics agree the actor-puppeteer does a fantastic job.
(Note: there have been productions that have tried the full-body costume approach and it's come off as creepy, and there have been the Olaf-as-projection-special stage-EFX which have felt too removed, so the tried-and-true hybrid-puppet approach for Broadway was generally expected.)

Stage Not Screen
When asked, during development, about what differences the musical would explore, that couldn't be done within the constraints of a family friendly-length film, Playbill received this answer:
There’s a lot about origin. Animation is haiku. We can put up simple images on screen and you get it; you know what’s going on. And you accept a very brief statement as fact. [There’s] this notion that fairytale, if you will, sort of hangs over the film. What’s interesting about Frozen now is this idea that Anna is living in a fairytale world and Elsa is living in a mythic world. You think about it and you go, “Holy cow!” I’d like to tell you that was my original thought, but Jennifer Lee pointed that out to me at one point. She said, “One of them is in a fairytale and one of them is in a myth, and these two things have to crash together at the end.” It’s a big idea to think about.
We also ask, “What is the circumstance of Elsa’s power?” It’s another big idea to think about. Also, who are those creatures that they go see for healing? That’s the real story there: Who’s connected to all of that? How does that exist? But the biggest idea is about love and loyalty, and love versus fear. Can you let go and love? Can you exist without fear? What if your whole life were simply controlled by fear?
With all that in mind, there are some major differences between the movie and the Broadway edition, knowledge that potential audiences may be better off armed with before going, than being 'surprised' by them. (We are indicating any potential-spoiler differences clearly, in case we have readers wishing to avoid them.)
   
**STILL SPOILER FREE**
The Why and How (Director Michael Grandage's Approach)
“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.”
...And it’s a show in which frostiness itself is almost a character.  (via The Washington Post)
Enlisting his partner, theatre designer Christopher Oram, to create the sets and costumes, Grandage travelled to Norway to seek inspiration for the frost-bound kingdom. “There was a guy who showed us 100 different kinds of snow!” he said. (via Telegraph UK)
**SOME SPOILERS**
(You may wish to scroll down to where it says SPOILER FREE)
The Differences (summary)
But what are those differences?

A nod to the movie's rock-trolls
  • Caissie Levy (playing Elsa) and Patti Murin (playing Anna), the leads for the Broadway show think the appeal will be broader than the movie:

“There is something for everybody,” Levy said. “We have discovered so many more layers to examine within this story that can only happen in the theater. A lot of adult themes are explored. It’s not just for kids. ...With the addition of so much new material, we have the freedom to expand and to go deeper than you are able to in a film.” (Broadway Direct)

  • The opening is also different: 

The show is (now) set to open with a group of creatures referred to as “hidden folk,” similar to the Scandinavian folklore of “huldufólk” but with more animalistic qualities. (Playbill)

  • These “huldufólk” (basically Icelandic elves) apparently have tails too, though how they are played is unclear. (Reception has been mixed - very positive through to "creepy".) How the tattoo design for them, revealed via Director Michael Grandage's Instagram is used, is also unknown.
  • So there are now no "rock trolls", as they are replaced by the "hidden folk" or “huldufólk”.
  • The show now has twenty-one songs, more than double the film, including the original favorites, with the new ones all having been written by the original, Oscar-winning husband and wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Those songs include "Dangerous to Dream" and the just-released "Monster".
Tryouts program for Denver - Not Broadway final
  • "There’s a new duet between Anna and Kristoff called “What Do You Know About Love?,” while Anna and Elsa will both have new solo tunes, with “True Love” and “Dangerous to Dream,” respectively." (Nerdist)
  • There are also some key staging and chorus details that can be gleaned from the interview with costume designer Chris Oram as well:

“We start the show in summer, with the ensemble in their light summer gear, and end it in the depths of winter. So they have a journey that’s physicalized by what they’re wearing. In the final sequence they are choreographed to function as a blizzard; wearing layered, bunad-inspired winter outfits in shades of white (also by Jennifer Love), they become the storm that engulfs the sisters at the climax.”
  • So gone, too, is Marshmallow, the giant snow-guardian of Elsa's ice-palace, replaced, essentially, by the "Blizzard chorus'.
  • The wolves that chase Anna and Kristoff (and Sven) are also out.
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS CONTINUED**
Any Differences From The Tryouts In Denver?
In a word: "yes".
In a review of the tryout run of the show in Denver in September, Jesse Green of the New York Times wrote admiringly about some aspects but came away decidedly mixed about the story, by Jennifer Lee*. “ ‘Frozen,’ ” he observed, “is going to have to figure out how to make the dark character less of a bore and the light character more compelling.” (The Washington Post)
*Jennifer Lee who co-wrote and directed the hit animated feature, also wrote the book for the Broadway version.
Broadway audiences will see a show that’s about 30 percent different from what was seen in Denver, Grandage and the Lopezes say. “A character we created we got rid of, we changed the opening, we changed the closing, we changed four huge numbers of choreography. And the whole reason is to make it more poetic, clearer, more precise,” Grandage explains.
“We totally rewrote the finale,” says Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Everyone agreed that “Frozen’s” teary wallop of a conclusion — a surprise final twist in the plot — had to land like a haymaker. It’s a statement about looking past pain, to an understanding of what’s most important in life, and remaining open to the possibilities of reconciliation in ways that you’re not always prepared for. (The Washington Post)

What the Critics Are Saying To Date

  • Rather than repeat what's wonderfully collated elsewhere, HERE's a "round-up" of the good, the bad, the wows and the indifferent comments from critics so far, (possible spoilers if you've skipped those sections here, so be warned).
  • Folks will be glad to know the "Let It Go" sequence doesn't disappoint.
  • The sets, lighting and visual effects throughout the show seem to be getting thumbs up all around. 

**DEFINITELY SPOILERS AHEAD**
Audience Criticisms To Date
Hopefully some of these issues will be reworked or reconsidered in the near future, but for now, these are the issues getting the most negative attention:
  • There is a much-touted addition of a Danish concept (and a song all about it) called 'Hygge', (pronounced HUE-gah) which translates as "enjoying life's simple pleasures", and has a 'burlesque' (!) chorus, which some audiences are finding ingenious while others are just baffled by it. Anna joins Oaken's family in their sauna (all having towels!) and gets into the 'Hygge mood'. (Kristoff does not - he stays on task.) Hygge, acting like the 'Hakuna Matata' of this musical seems to be key to the message and themes of the Broadway show, and while it's getting critical thumbs up for the music, it's not quite working for all audiences, possibly because of the burlesque staging (towels!) and dischord (so to speak) with where the story arc is at, at the time it's sung.
  • The issues might be more explicit than audiences expect, such as Elsa's exploration of her insecurities being so deep she appears to contemplate suicide during the song 'Monster' (something which the staging and performance apparently indicate).
  • Elsa's pantsuit (below) has been advertised as making her "more powerful" - that hasn't gone over well.
  • Elsa has a new - white - dress because, er... oh right: ka-ching!
  • Anna has climbing leathers, at least for a while, but there are some concerns about consent, in how Anna is (apparently) manhandled into getting out of her party dress and into these travel clothes, then dragged around and treated like a complete klutz and only accidentally competent, all played for laughs and during a great song... hmm. There is concern emerging from audiences so far that Kristoff takes away Anna's agency in many different ways, treating Anna as little more than a spoiled girl, with her being more a match for Olaf (essentially a child) than himself.
  • It would also seem the biggest 'moment' is more about the Anna and Kristoff kiss at the end than any note belonging to the sisters, which is a shame. There is barely any interaction between Anna and Elsa, post Anna-thawing. To top off this odd emphasis, the closing song reprise/medley is a Love Is An Open Door/True Love (new song) combo. This is one spot where we would have expected a joyful variation or reprise of Do You Want To Build A Snowman. Currently, this seems to be a missed opportunity.
  • One of the subtle and odd differences is that in exploring Elsa's insecurity in more depth and in beefing up Anna's comedy in the manner they have, the women in the show now seem 'less',, in other words, weak. This might be the biggest and most worrying difference we've heard rumor of to-date - worrying also because the differences are subtly enrobed in what has been a girl-power and sisterhood 'anthem' to many, from the moment the movie hit screens. The sadly insidious and weakening differences may very well slide by unnoticed to the very people who should be planting that flag even more strongly for this 'new generation of theater-goers'.
    
**SPOILER FREE ONCE MORE**
The Official Trailer
Here's the official trailer for the Broadway Show which gives a nice and non-spoilery overview of the production in rehearsal (please note, this was made before the allegations against the President of the Disney Theatrical Productions [DTP], Thomas Schumacher, so he makes appearances throughout the video):
Would We Go To See It?
YES!

While it doesn't sound perfect (and has some issues that are quite concerning to us), it looks and sounds like an amazing, high-quality show and a different enough experience from the movie to make it, it's own thing. We hope it continues to evolve and refine itself as it begins its run, but there is a lot of beautiful work here in so many ways and on so many levels, we would support it. And then let you know what we truly thought. ;)

(Below are the first offical curtain call photos Disney has released:)
 



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