Upon receiving the call gauging her interest in directing a new adaptation of Disney’s animated megahit Frozen, director Liesl Tommy gave an enthusiastic, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Bringing the snow queen, Elsa, her pure-hearted sister, Anna, snowman Olaf and all the citizens of Arendelle to the live stage was a chilly proposition.
“I said ‘Absolutely not,’” the Tony-nominated director recalled, addressing the opening night audience at the Hyperion Theater at Disney California Adventure where Frozen – Live at the Hyperion began its open-ended run in late May. “The film is so incredibly special. It is, in my opinion, one of the most special stories to come out of the 21st century, and it’s such an important story for so many reasons.”
Persuaded to reconsider, Tommy immersed herself in Disney and theme park culture. She assembled a familiar team of technicians and designers including set designer Robert Brill, costume designer Clint Ramos and puppet designer Michael Curry. More than 100 performers were cast to fill out the four-show-per-day run. The 40-minute rendition of Frozen replaces Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular, which ran at the Hyperion for more than 13 years. A separate production from Disney Theatrical Productions, with a different creative team, is being developed as a full-length live stage version of Frozen and currently slated to premiere in Denver and open on Broadway in the spring of 2018.
Truncated though the story has become at the Hyperion, nearly every element of the tale is present. Frozen tracks the childhood accident that causes the King and Queen of Arendelle to separate their daughters Elsa and Anna, all the way through the thawing of the kingdom at the play’s conclusion. Scheming princes, faithful ice harvesters, matchmaking rock trolls and a snowman who dreams of summer have all leaped from Jennifer Lee’s 2013 animated screenplay to the 6,200 square foot Hyperion stage. Songs that were solos in the film become ensemble pieces choreographed by frequent Tommy collaborator Christopher Windom.
Using the film as a blueprint and visual guide for the live show, Tommy and her technical team have shrouded the theatre in wintery blue. An enormous high-resolution video wall and motion capture technology allows the production to recreate chases and storms. When Elsa flees Arendelle and belts out the Oscar-winning anthem “Let it Go” (Didn’t think they’d leave that one out, did you?), she is at the top of an ice staircase that juts out over the audience. And no matter what the climate may be in the Southern California theme park, Hyperion Theater Frozen audiences experience snowfall at every performance.
Those video screens effect and set pieces make the spectacle look more ornate than they actually are. Instead of constructing an entire kingdom, Tommy and Brill elected to create set pieces that could also serve as production metaphors. So they build several sets of doors, the looks of which were recreated from the film.
“It’s all through the show—opening doors and closing doors, shutting yourself [in]—and that became the metaphor, opening and closing your mind and your heart,” Tommy said. “So we just decided to make really simple, but very grand, gestures. We’re not building a castle onstage, but we have four or five enormous doors. So it was spare, but it was also rich.”
The door metaphor also helped the team solve a textual challenge. The show needed an upbeat finale, but did not have a song that suited the purpose. During an early rehearsal, Tommy and musical supervisor Jason Michael Webb decided to use “Love as an Open Door” (which is used earlier in the show) as a placeholder until a more appropriate song could be located or created. Dana Harrel, creative director was dubious, since “Love is an Open Door” was the duet sung by Anna and the villainous Prince Hans who was courting Anna solely to try to steal the throne.
“I said, ‘You can’t end a musical with Hans song,’” Harrel remembered. “And Liesl said, ‘No, if you listen to the lyrics, they fit beautifully and we’ll twist it into the idea of opening up the doors of your life for your sister. Then it becomes a different metaphor for the whole show.’ So I went into the reading and she got the actors to sing it to me, and I started crying, like horribly crying. For me, it’s really hard in the film to see a mother and father feel like they have to protect their daughters by keeping them apart.
Indeed, Disney may learn the same with their Frozen properties. After all, Tommy’s Frozen is not Alex Timbers’ Broadway-bound Frozen, but there is certainly enough fan love for both of them to thrive.