In 1976, the first movie version of Freaky Friday, starring Barbara Harris and Jodi Foster based on the book by Mary Rodgers (yes, that Mary Rodgers), hit the big screen. Nineteen years later, Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman took on the roles of the at-each-other’s throats mother and daughter who swap bodies and lives for a day; eight years after that, Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan put their stamps on the story.
Now, 15 years since that last iteration of the mother-daughter switcheroo, a new version comes to the Disney Channel in an original musical premiering August 10.
With a screenplay by Bridget Carpenter and a score by Pulitzer Prize winners Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), the movie stars Broadway powerhouse Heidi Blickenstaff and Disney Channel favorite Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Katherine and Ellie, a widow with two kids launching a catering business via her upcoming DIY wedding and a teen mourning the loss of her father and finding her place in high school by winning the annual scavenger hunt.
“It’s all such a departure,” Blickenstaff says of the story in comparison to its predecessors. “Disney chose them to write this and let this story take a deeper dive because it is about two characters who are grieving separately and sadly.
“They’re such exquisite writers,” says Blickenstaff of Kitt and Yorkey, “particularly for the human condition, but they do something very special for women. I asked Tom, ‘How are you able to write for women so well?’ And he explained that he has such strong relationships with amazing women in his life who have been incredibly compassionate and empathetic and somehow that’s rubbed off on him.” Indeed, as the first musical treatment of the story, the writers created full women for Blickenstaff and Zuehlsdorff to inhabit.
In fact, Blickenstaff originated the role in the stage adaptation from the same writing trio, initially developed for licensing purposes (meaning no Broadway end game, and certainly no aspirations for the screen, but a way to test the viability of the show as something that could be performed in regional theatres and schools).
“I fought for this project when I heard it existed,” Blickenstaff says. Between the chance to work with Kitt and Yorkey and her love of Rodgers’ books, the actor knew she had to create the role. She first did so alongside Emma Hunton, who originated Ellie onstage, but clearly feels a strong bond with her screen co-star.
“There was something about our alchemy that was very palpable,” says Blickenstaff of meeting Zuehlsdorff for the first time. “I felt very quickly this girl was gonna fold right into my armpit and be mine.”
Perhaps the reason audiences keep coming back for more Friday is that singular, distinctive dynamic between each set of actors playing the teenager and the mother who need to walk a mile in the other’s shoes—and the acting feat it requires.
To convincingly play women who have swapped bodies, Blickenstaff and Zuehlsdorff must each play two characters: their own and one another’s.
Zuehlsdorff got a head start learning her “mom’s” tics. “There’s so much material to stalk of Heidi on YouTube—so many amazing performances at 54 Below and clips from her shows,” she says. “I watched a lot of that just to make sure that even in the screen test I was showing that we could easily be mother and daughter.”
“We learned each other’s quirks. We learned what the other does when they’re stressed,” says Blickenstaff. “When Cozi’s stressed, Cozi puts her hands on her face a lot and peeks through fingers.”
“We filmed videos so we could reference,” adds Zuehlsdorff.
“Like when I pace and problem-solve, and when I talk with my hands,” Blickenstaff explains. “All the crazy neurotic things that I do as a real person, we borrowed from all of that and put that in to my Katherine and your Katherine.”
“Her Namaste is very iconic,” Zuehlsdorff interjects. “The [inhales and exhales deeply] she does that a lot.”
Beaming at each other after having seen the finished product, one thing is clear: They wouldn’t swap their experience for the world.
Freaky Friday starring Heidi Blickenstaff and Cozi Zuehlsdorff premieres August 10 at 8PM ET on Disney Channel. Check your local listings.