The Broadway-bound stage adaptation of Disney’s animated blockbuster Frozen is just weeks away from making its world premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where it is slated to run August 17–October 1, prior to a 2018 Broadway arrival at the St. James Theatre.
Co-authored and directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen was reframed as a fairytale for modern audiences to present young women with a story of empowerment, loyalty, family, and sisterhood. The film’s success was propelled by the breakout anthem “Let It Go”—a cultural phenomenon in its own right—written by husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. (The duo won an Oscar for the original power ballad, making Robert Lopez an EGOT winner.)
Frozen is arguably Disney’s biggest screen-to-stage transfer to date. Released in 2013, the film broke box office records week after week as it swiftly transformed into a global juggernaut, ranking as the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and earning Academy Awards for Best Animated Picture in addition to Best Original Song.
Within months of its cinematic release, Disney revealed that it was in the early stages of developing Frozen for Broadway, with Lee on board to write the book, and the Lopezes expanding their score from the film.
Fans and Broadway insiders have kept a watchful eye on the show’s development over the past several years, charting the entrances and exits of cast and creative team members throughout the workshop process.
Disney Theatrical Group president Thomas Schumacher, the guiding force behind nearly every one of Disney’s Broadway musical ventures, spoke with Playbill about the decision-making process that goes into adapting a high-profile work like Frozen for the stage. He also offers a glimpse inside the writing process that has led to the expansion and deepening of the now-beloved tale.
You said previously that you knew early on Frozen was meant to be stage musical.
Thomas Schumacher: I sent John Lasseter [the animated film’s executive producer] a text after an early screening of Frozen in the Disney screening room. The film was in a final rough cut, but not fully animated yet, and I said, “When are we starting?”
What were your initial instincts when you began envisioning Frozen for the stage? Do you let fan expectations play into the creative process at all, or do you start from scratch?
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? And you can look at any of the work we’ve done onstage when we’ve adapted film material, it doesn’t look like the film.
You decided to adjust course on Frozen last year, and brought in a new director, choreographer, and production designer to work alongside the film’s original writing team. How has that impacted the show’s trajectory over the past several months?
When you look at the Frozen team, it’s pretty remarkable. You have Jennifer Lee, who co-directed the movie and wrote the screenplay. She’s got a real clear idea of what this is because the film went through such an extraordinary journey. The entire story changed when they were making it. Then you have [songwriters] Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, who are just whip smart and so gifted. They also have a very strong idea of what this is. Then [director] Michael Grandage and [scenic and costume designer] Christopher Oram came to us and said, “Here’s this idea.”
We all have different entry points into the story, and everyone’s is very valid. What we can’t do is worry about the wrong stuff. We have to worry about why we tell this story. We have the chance to stand on the shoulders of the movie. But we also have to look at the movie and see what didn’t make sense. We have to ask ourselves, “What would we like to know more about? What could be different?” It all evolves.
Can you share a bit about Frozen’s evolution from screen to stage? What will the musical explore that couldn’t be done within the constraints of a 100-minute film?
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?
You’re taking Frozen to Denver for a pre-Broadway try-out in August. Do you feel a different kind of pressure with Frozen because it is such a worldwide phenomenon?
Ultimately, we have to do it in full view of an audience, and you don’t know what you have until that moment. Any number of things that in the lab everyone said, “Oh, it’s a sensation!” and then you get it in front of a real audience and you go, “Oh my god, what happened?” We don’t know. We exist in this public arena, and you can feel very exposed. Some people thrive on that and some people want to stay private for as long as possible.
Has the model of fine-tuning a new Broadway show out of town been diminished by the prevalence of social media and online chatter?
[Director] Julie Taymor spoke often about the difference between doing Spider-Man and Lion King. There were many differences in the material, but they were both met with great skepticism in the beginning. But we did Lion King totally in private. If you had come to the first preview in Minneapolis, the theatre was half-filled, we had never run through the show from beginning to end [before that]. Many things we dreamt would work didn’t work, but the essence of the show was there. So we could see it, and we knew what we were doing. And then we got that response from the audience.
Yes, you can lose control of the story with social media. But for the most part, it doesn’t nearly have as big an impact on what we do as people think.
What you have to do is watch the audience watch the show, and then sit with your collaborators and trust yourself. I find it very valuable to get the real audience’s opinion. You sit in the theatre with them and watch them, and you go, “Why did that get a reaction? Why are they making noise? Why are they quiet here?”