Michael Grandage wasn’t hired to put the movie Frozen onstage. Yes, he’s directing a musical theatre adaptation of the Disney animated film, but he’s pushing himself to create a distinct—and sometimes radically different—production.
“I look at the film as the greatest piece of source material you could ever have, because it clearly works” he says, just weeks before performances begin February 22 at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. “But I’ve been invited, along with the designers and actors and everybody else involved, to develop it into something else.”
Fans of the original Frozen will still recognize the story, of course: Elsa, a princess with potentially dangerous magical powers, still tries to flee from her kingdom before she hurts herself and the people she loves, and her sister Anna, along with a gang of goofy sidekicks, still tries to bring her back into the fold. Plus, Elsa still sings “Let It Go,” that inescapable, Oscar-winning power ballad.
Now, however, we go deeper into the story and the minds of both sisters, here played by Caissie Levy (Elsa) and Patti Murin (Anna). Thanks to new songs by composing team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who also wrote the tunes for the movie), we get a richer sense of Elsa’s isolation and Anna’s hunger for a meaningful life.
“Anna’s connected to the fairy tale element of the story, and you’ve got Elsa connected to something mythic,” Grandage says. “I wanted to explore that. With this piece of theatre, we can add songs and scenes and take these two huge strands to a much greater place. You can create tension for an audience that knows the story of the film, where you help them believe that we in the theatre may provide a different outcome.”
He’s seen this happen before. Take his Broadway production of Frost/Nixon, which charts the weeks when former president Richard Nixon publicly admitted to committing illegal acts while he was in office. Grandage noticed the audience became wrapped up in the immediate action of the play, not the well-known history. “They thought, in that theatre, it might turn out differently for Nixon,” he says.
The freedom to startle—to seduce an audience that already knows a story—is why Grandage tackles well-known projects like Frozen in the first place. Later this year, in fact, he’ll even revisit his own past success when he stages a West End revival of Red, the play about painter Mark Rothko that won him a 2010 Tony Award for Best Director.
Even though he’s re-teaming with original star Alfred Molina, he refuses to simply rehash what worked before. “We’ll have a lot to learn from the past,” he says. “But you have to think of the play like it’s a new piece again. You’re not ‘recreating’; you’re ‘re-exploring.’ It’s a very important distinction.”
That applies to Frozen, too. “You shouldn’t look over your shoulder and work out what happened last time,” Grandage says. “You ask the questions that you would ask if this were a script that was coming in with no history attached to it whatsoever.”