By Ellis Nassour
Disney’s 2013 Oscar-winning animated worldwide phenomenon Frozen, with colossal grosses in excess of $1.3-trillion, is now a Broadway live-action musical by the film’s Oscar-winning husband and wife composers Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Coco). He’s also the Tony-winning co-writer of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q. Loosely-inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, Frozen: the Broadway Musical is the story of fearless Princess Anna who sets off with a rugged mountain man in search of her sister Elsa, now Queen, whose curse of cryokinesis has inadvertently trapped their kingdom in eternal winter.
For theater audiences, original writer Jennifer Lee created a more nuanced, sometimes darker, script; and the Lopezes wrote over a dozen new tunes to supplement the film’s immensely popular power ballads, “Let It Go” and “For the First Time Forever.”
The stage adaptation has shattered the ice ceiling at the St. James Theatre, with week after week record-breaking grosses approaching $3 million—far exceeding previous record holder, The Producers. Incidentally, the figures don’t include a virtual department store of souvenir merchandise on sale.
Following a weekend of laying down tracks for the show’s cast album, the men of Frozen—Jelani Alladin, in his Broadway debut, who portrays Kristoff; John Riddle, the dashing Prince Hans; and Greg Hildreth, the human alter ego of Olaf the snowman—sat down to discuss their roles.
A MUTUAL ADMIRATION
Though it immediately becomes apparent there’s a mutual admiration between female leads, Caissie Levy as Ice Queen Elsa, and Patti Murin, Princess Anna, the trio of men quickly address the media fascination surrounding Elsa’s salute to female-empowerment by wearing pants (glamorous ones, of course) as she turns her world into an icy tundra. “Oh, and it’s not just onstage,” laughs Riddle. “She proudly wears the pants off stage, but in a good way. Caissie’s the essence of female empowerment. She’s an incredible team leader, and we happily quick-step behind her.”
It starts at the top, observes Hildreth, who’s the elder of this trio, the seasoned pro of three successful Broadway musicals. “It’s nice and rare being in a hit, but what makes coming to work such a joy is having Caissie and Patti as team captains.”
“I’m the new kid on the block,” Alladin notes. “I’ve worked Off- Broadway and regionally, so I didn’t know anyone. As luck would have it, when I auditioned I was paired with Caissie. She was amazingly generous, and when she sang it was like time stopped. She’s always reaching out, cheering us on.”
A PURE JOY
“Patti and I have known each other forever,” states Riddle. “She’s long been my spark of creation. Seeing her bring Anna to life has been a joy. The warmth you see onstage is real. She’s gives so much to the company. When you’re part of something that’s surely going to be around for a while, it’s wonderful to be working in that sort of atmosphere,” he relates. “The company looks out for each other. Even when one person is out, you feel the loss of them. The nature of the show is all about caring—how Anna goes in search of Elsa, so to not have a company like this would be a disservice to the piece.”
Remember that bit about mutual admiration. Well, it goes for the ladies as well. “John,” boasts Levy, “is special onstage and off. He’s a triple threat, with everything you’d want in a leading man: charisma, an absolutely stunning singing voice—and he can act. Best of all, he’s a team player. His star will continue to rise for years to come.”
“The first time I heard John’s absolutely glorious voice, I was blown away,” recalls Murin. “As brilliant as he is as an actor, the support and love he offers when we’re onstage is unmatched. He will, literally and figuratively, never let me fall, which says so much about him as a person.” She went on to say, “I’m lucky I get to watch him every single day. His performance is one of the most complicated and masterful. I’m in awe how, in the first act, he goes about smoothly, craftily planting the seeds for the stunning events at end of the show.”
Riddle points out that it’s fun being a villain. His biggest challenge is making audiences forget the film. “My job as Hans is to trick audiences into believing I’m really Prince Charming. Then, in the big reveal, when my true motives come out, to shock them. I love it when they gasp!” That’s when he knows he’s done his job.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
The trio points out that with the deeper character development and new songs, the stage adaptation has gone beyond a kid-friendly animated film. “The show’s been flipped,” Greg says, “so there’s something for everyone.”
“When audiences enter,” adds Riddle, “there’s a certain expectation. You want to honor what’s become iconic; however, as an actor, you want to say I dare you to rethink what this is and how deep it goes.” In the area of rethinking, audiences might be surprised at Disney and award winning director Michael Grandage’s big leap casting an African American as mountain man Kristoff. “I was as surprised as anyone,” states Alladin. “When you go into auditions, you investigate the roles to see what might fit. After so much work Off Broadway and regionally, I was hoping to get anything. This is much more than a dream fulfilled, another thing I can check off on my bucket list. I’m grateful to Disney and Michael for the opportunity to have kids of color see a black man in the role.”
Murin admires Alladin’s energy and enthusiasm. “Jelani faces every challenge with determination and verve. His heart’s bigger than anyone could ever know. We rely on each other a lot, and I know from looking in his eyes that he has my back at all times.”
“This is Jelani’s first Broadway show and it certainly won’t be his last,” predicts Levy. “His Kristoff is strong and tender at the same time. Best of all, offstage, he’s everyone’s biggest cheerleader. And when he dances, he moves unlike anyone else! You can’t take your eyes off him.”
Olaf the snowman, whom moviegoers fell madly in love with, possesses unique traits. He’s always seeking warmth and fearlessly loves fireplaces. “It’s been a two-year master class in puppetry,” explains Hildreth, who acts, sings, and dances while tethered to and manipulating Olaf. He laughs, “It’s a new talent for my resume. My job is to make him front and center and sort of disappear.”
Levy and Murin adore Hildreth’s ability to make them laugh and his personal warmth. “Greg’s heart of gold shines through every performance,” says Levy. “He can do it all, one reason he’s so spectacular as Olaf.” Murin’s the one who has the most fun with Greg as Olaf. “As soon as he enters, audiences’ faces light up. They feel what I feel. His task isn’t easy, but watching him is a master class in making something incredibly difficult look easy.”
The men speak for all with high praise for the man driving them through the icy slopes. “Michael’s allowed us to see how far we can go,” notes Hildreth. “He’s incredible to work with because he was an actor.” Riddle agrees, “Michael understands our frustrations and those moments when we’re searching to understand something. Best of all, he knows how to talk to an actor. From the beginning, he said, ‘This is yours. Do with it what you will.’ That’s the biggest gift an actor can have. You see how far you can go, and then, sometimes, you get reined in!”