Trudging up a snowy mountaintop never looked so chill.
As fans of the Disney film “Frozen” can attest, Queen Elsa of the mythical land of Arendelle makes it to the icy peak without much fuss, dressed in a long gown and cape that, presumably, wick away moisture, because they should be sopping wet. They’re not, as she sings: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free.”
“In the movie all her capes trail behind her for acres and she never trips,” says Christopher Oram, the Tony Award-winning set and costume designer for “Frozen: The Disney Musical,” arguably the most hotly anticipated show of the year, which opens at the St. James Theatre on Thursday, March 22. Oram’s stage Elsa wears three capes in the show. “And what’s the first rule of long capes?” he asks.
Umm . . . is there a rule?
“Don’t walk backward,” he says, smiling.
But Caissie Levy (playing Elsa) must run backward and finesse choreography while Patti Murin, as Elsa’s spunky princess sister, Anna, runs, leaps, turns cartwheels and hangs upside down — in a ballgown.
The costumes, all designed and rigged to allow the actors such freedom, offer a glimpse at just how complicated it can be to transform a popular animated film to the stage.
“We have to operate in the real world, with gravity, physics and mic packs,” says Oram, who, along with Tony-winning director Michael Grandage, has the unenviable task of making this version look as magical as the film to all those 8-year-olds in the audience in their princess dresses and glittery sneakers. And to their parents, who paid for the tickets.
Based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale about a magical queen with an icy spin on the Midas touch — everything she touches freezes — the 2013 film captivated a generation, earning nearly $1.3 billion at the box office worldwide to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Now Broadway is welcoming Arendelle’s royal sisters (Levy and Murin), plus dashing Prince Hans (John Riddle), earnest ice climber Kristoff (Jelani Alladin) and Olaf, the oddball snowman (Greg Hildreth).
With audience expectations running high, Grandage (who replaced director Alex Timbers after Disney fired him in 2016) has tried to approach “Frozen” as he would the revival of a famous play, ignoring past accolades and pretending the script is brand-new. “Then you don’t waste time looking over your shoulder,” he says.
Grandage and Oram — life partners and theater colleagues known for Shakespeare and intimate dramas — aren’t the most obvious choices for a big-budget Disney musical.
“Before we accepted it . . . I asked, ‘How much freedom do we have?’ ” Grandage says. A lot, Disney execs assured them, as long as the look and storyline didn’t change so much that fans wouldn’t recognize it.
In terms of costumes, that meant accepting some inviolable rules, says Oram, walking through the “Frozen” costume shop, a hangar-like room within the vast Disney-owned New Amsterdam Theatre, home to the musical “Aladdin.”
One basic rule: The costumes needed to stick to key looks seen in the film.
Surrounded by hangers, racks and bolts of fabric, Oram gestures to what seem to be oversize key rings laden with fabric swatches. Each ring bears samples of the specific materials needed to make a single costume. That’s clearly the makings of an Elsa dress, he says, pointing to a ring with strips of icy blues and teal, just like Elsa’s shades seen in the film (and on all those Disney dolls).
Later, in a dressing room at the St. James Theatre, Oram shows off the finished product — a glittery blue gown and matching ice cape with swathes of beads, all sewn by hand.
It’s an example of the main challenge here, mimicking animated looks — which ignore laws of gravity — while adhering to real-life requirements. That means cutting a cape to make it look longer and fuller than it really is, so Elsa doesn’t trip, or designing that cartwheel-capable ballgown.
“We have a big, open-door policy,” says wardrobe supervisor Jessica Dermody, walking past a room below stage level with four massive washing machines. “Sometimes you hear actors saying, ‘I can’t breathe in this,’ and we’re like, ‘That’s why we’re here.’ ” She and a team of seamstresses are constantly mending and tweaking costumes, as they’ll do throughout the run of the show.
Then there are other challenges, like helping those in a sauna scene — a comic production number created for the show — appear, well, not so naked. (This is Disney, after all.) The actors don flesh-toned bodysuits, along with hats, scarves, gloves, leg warmers and towels. “They’re quite literally as un-nude as they could possibly be,” says Oram, laughing.
NEXT STOP, NORWAY
Despite the challenges, Oram enjoyed the research required to create these varied looks. Deep dives into the culture of Norway, the ostensible locale of this story, revealed colorful folk costumes (called bunad) and cultures (like the Sami people of upper Scandinavia, Finland and Russia), all of which inspired embroidery patterns, quirky pompommed hats and other details.
It’s the kind of thing they couldn’t do in the film, Oram says, because such minutiae are too difficult to draw, frame after frame.
You may not notice, say, the embroidered heart on Anna’s bodice (symbolic of her search for true love), but it contributes to the show’s overall look — rich, textured, colorful and carefully engineered to engage audiences. That’s vital, Oram and Grandage say, given their particular audiences, peppered with those girls in princess dresses.
“It’s completely thrilling when they’re dancing in their seats and singing along,” Oram says. “This is probably their first live show. So it’s important to them — and to me, because if they enjoy it, then maybe they’ll come back to see theater again.”
NERVOUS? JUST LET IT GO
Husband-and-wife songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote seven songs for the original “Frozen” film, and 12 new numbers for Broadway. But none is as eagerly anticipated as that song.
Originally recorded by Syosset native Idina Menzel, the Oscar-winning ballad — and karaoke staple — “Let It Go” is seared into the brains of “Frozen” fans, something Caissie Levy, who must belt it out onstage, knows all too well.
“She said to me once, ‘Isn’t it enough just to sing the song?’ ” director Michael Grandage recalls. “And I said, ‘No, we’ve got to do some other things as well.’ ”
Those other things include her quick change into a complicated costume, then hitting her mark onstage, positioning her body in just the right way at a key point in the song, all in preparation for a rather fun moment of stage magic — no spoilers — that serves as the climax to Act 1.
“It’s satisfying,” says set and costume designer Christopher Oram, “but scary.”
“Terrifying,” wardrobe supervisor Jessica Dermody jumps in. “We’ve all done everything we can do, but when she’s out there on her own you just have to hope it all works.”
Levy, at a press preview last month, seemed unflappable.
“When you have a song so famous, and so loved . . . there can be that pressure, of course, to live up to whatever people are expecting,” she said. “If I really attach myself to those lyrics, then I’m doing my job, and that’s at the end of the day what I’m up there to do.”
— Joseph V. Amodio