Frozen the Musical in Denver 8/19/17: Analysis and Comparison to 8/17/17

FrozenPgm&Stage8:19:17

 

It was great to see Frozen a second time time on Saturday night, the production’s third performance. The show had already made changes since Thursday night. Most noticeably, the lighting has been upgraded, which makes everything look more polished, and helps the ice effects. I still feel like they come up short in several places, but the stronger lighting added depth and sparkle that wasn’t there on Thursday. The improved lighting makes the whole production feel much more like it’s ready for Broadway instead of  community theatre.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

I don’t have any issue with the show up through the end of Love Is An Open Door. Up until then the changes from the movie make sense and don’t undermine the story. If it had continued that way, I would have written the kind of short, happy review I wrote for Hedwig in December. That’s what I expected and wanted to write. I’d rather be writing about The Defenders right now.

The entire show is enjoyable to watch if you just let it wash over you without paying attention to the message it’s sending. I can’t help but notice themes, symbols, metaphors, relationships, etc. and think about them. Those nuances deepen and enrich the story. They also allow you to see the rape culture aspects more quickly.

The cast was even better Saturday than Thursday, most likely because they didn’t have opening night jitters anymore. Everything just seemed to flow more smoothly. There were small changes in blocking and choreography. Thursday night there had been a 5 or 10 minute hold during the bedroom scene where young Anna gets hurt, because the sets and effects weren’t working properly. All of that went smoothly on Saturday.

I haven’t gushed over the orchestra enough yet. They are amazing. So tight. Out here where we mostly get touring shows, whose musicians are good, but who have to adjust to a new situation every week, it’s easy to forget just how good the NYC Broadway musicians are.

I think some of Pabbie’s narration was cut. Sometimes, instead of talking, he lurked in the background of scenes and only spoke occasionally. I appreciated that he did less mansplaining, but the creepy lurking was weird. His role will probably continue to evolve.

The Hygge burlesque chorus line didn’t feel as long on Saturday. The audience was still all WTF? I saw people near me shrugging in confusion and face palming over the bizarreness of it.

Hygge is clearly the new message of the show. We cheer most loudly for Anna finding love with Kristoff and a new family with Kristoff, Olaf, Sven, and Oaken. The true love between the sisters hardly matters. It’s morphed into Hygge, warm, cosy love and loyalty between friends and family. And what kind of monster would I be if I complained about them trying to make the show more inclusive? After all, only half of the population can relate to a bond of sisterhood. It’s not like brotherhood is a major artistic theme in our culture, right? Oh, wait.

Hygge is much less dangerous than the idea of two sisters being loyal to each other above all else. I encourage you all to go watch the Netflix series The Ascent of Woman. Divide and conquer has historically been a very effective means of keeping women in their place, and it’s still being subtly used today. If women are fighting with each other, and choosing men over each other, they won’t band together to try to alter their oppressive living conditions. (Yes, we are talking about a queen and a princess onstage. But the girls and women watching are currently having their rights threatened in a variety of ways simply because they are female. We have a president who thinks sexual assault is normal, acceptable behavior. What happens on a public stage matters. It’s what becomes our idea of normal, acceptable behavior.)

I realized over the weekend what should have occurred to me immediately: The reason for Elsa having a new dress is obvious. All of the little girls already have Elsa’s classic ice dress. Disney needs to put her in a new dress so that they can sell it in the Times Square Disney Store and in the mini Disney Store that will no doubt be part of the remodeled St James Theatre, and then throughout the known universe.

Disney would say that her white dress was an attempt to update her look, but there are many modern styles that aren’t associated with women’s powerlessness. I’d like to see the dress evolve even further away from looking so obviously like a little girl style.

I wonder if they’ll sell Anna’s climbing leathers, too. Ha.

I could tell this time that Marshmallow is meant to be replaced by a blizzard when Elsa throws Anna and Kristoff out of the ice castle.

I also realized that Pabbie told Elsa’s parents that fear would be her enemy and death its consequence. Her parents interpret the fear as people fearing her, but that’s not what Pabbie says. Elsa carries that interpretation into adulthood like a prophecy.

Kristoff and Anna meet in the forest instead of at Oaken’s, as Kristoff is falling asleep for the night, and Anna is becoming dangerously cold from chasing Elsa out of the castle in her thin party dress. The first part of the scene consists of Kristoff belittling Anna for leaving the castle without a coat and giving her his extra leather climbing outfit and climbing gear to wear. He manhandles her a lot without telling her he’s about to touch her first, never mind anything like getting consent from the princess. The most egregious part is when he walks over to this young woman that he met just a few minutes prior (and is alone in the wilderness with), and unceremoniously pulls her dress off of her in one piece, leaving her standing in her underwear, then dramatically throws the dress offstage so that the offensive, inappropriate garment can be replaced by the clothing that he owns and has chosen for her. It’s all played for laughs, of course. Then Anna fumbles around dressing herself, also played for laughs. It’s not rapey at all. It’s only what a kidnapper would do. But we’re distracted by the jokes, so we don’t pay attention to the visuals.

When they are ready to start their search, Kristoff attaches a climbing lead (?) between the two of them, then pulls Anna in the direction he wants her to go like she’s a dog. Also played for laughs. He doesn’t tell her the direction they’re going in. They don’t walk together, side by side or single file. He drags her like a dog who isn’t following his commands. Still not rapey or like he’s kidnapping her.

During this time, he’s been telling her that she’s ridiculous for getting engaged to someone she just met, which is of course reasonable and straight from the movie. Kristoff is the Only Sane Man, as always, and that’s been extended in the stage show. He’s a great character, one of my favorites, and I hate that they’ve made him a vehicle for dumbing down Anna’s character. In the movie they argued on equal footing. Even though she wasn’t used to the wilderness, she was quick thinking, clever, and resourceful, so she kept up with Kristoff. In the musical, she’s physically clumsy and bumbling. In the movie, she saves his life multiple times, by herself, using her own ideas.

As they sing the duet What Do You Know About Love, they are climbing the mountain to Elsa’s ice castle. When they reach a foot bridge, Kristoff missteps and falls through, barely catching himself. Anna tries to pull him up, but slips, flips, and ends up hanging upside down off the side of the bridge. In the process, she’s stabilized the rope enough for Kristoff to climb up and save himself. He gives her credit for the save and they agree that they can trust each other after the mutual near death experience and saves. But Anna was once again a clown who was only accidentally competent. Kristoff, who could have saved himself without her, then had to pull her back up onto the bridge.

But it’s funny. And exciting. And visually appealing. And in the middle of a great song. The bit works. On its own, it wouldn’t matter. It matters because all of these little moments add up. All of the moments when Kristoff moves Anna’s body around without asking for consent. All of the times that he has to make the decisions for her. All of the times when she is distracted from her goal like a child, and he needs to remind her that she is trying to save her sister.

At the end of the show, the audience cheers much more loudly for the kiss than for Anna saving Elsa, because that’s where the emphasis of the show has been, and that’s what Anna herself has told us is her dream when she sings True Love. To find true love with that special male someone.

During Hygge, the ensemble plays Oaken’s large extended family, who pour out of the sauna, naked except for the bath towels they’re wrapped in. The song becomes a raucous love fest-dance party. At one point, Anna slips away and takes off her clothes (off stage), returning wrapped in a towel like the ensemble. She jumps into the dance, blending in with Oaken’s family. They are ready to adopt her before long. She is blissful at being accepted into a large, loud, happy family. Olaf joins in the dance as much as a newborn snowman can participate in a line dance that he doesn’t know. Kristoff, the Only Sane Man, stands off to the side, watching, growing increasingly frustrated. He eventually speaks up, reminding Anna, who’s become lost in the fun, that they have a mission. Oaken acts as Fairy Godmother and hands out something each person needs to them. Anna gets her warm woolen princess dress and cloak from the movie. It’s staged as a princess entrance, like they expected applause, but only a couple of people clapped the first night, and no one did the 2nd night.

In the movie, the trading post scene is a chance for Anna to show her ability to negotiate, to read people, to plan, to be resourceful, to be the leader, and to be stubborn when necessary, as she needs to barter with Oaken, who is a shrewd business man, and win over Kristoff, who is stubborn and independent. All of that has been taken from her character and given to Kristoff. He is the one who argues about prices when Oaken initially tries to charge them too much early in the scene. He is the one who keeps the goal in mind and makes sure they make steady progress toward it. Anna and Olaf are children together, running from one attractive sight to another. Around Kristoff, Anna inexplicably morphs into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Elsa’s first new solo song, Dangerous to Dream, is equivalent to I’m Not That Girl, from Wicked. It’s sung by Elsa during the coronation and coronation ball. Anna is even raised up on the shoulders of the ensemble of townspeople during the dancing and paraded around, just in case we missed the point that she’s the pop-u-lar girl. Elsa must keep herself separate forever, because she’s a monster and a freak.

The song accurately portrays Elsa’s state of mind before and during the coronation and the ball as they were in the movie, and if the story stopped there I wouldn’t complain about the song. But when you put it together with the rest of the show (at least when I saw it), some of the lyrics sound pretty oppressive (these are partial lyrics):

From Dangerous to Dream:

(Singing to Anna, Anna unaware)

And I’ll never see that sunny day
When this trial is finally through
And it can just be me and you
We can’t dwell on what we’ve lost
And how secrecy and silence
Comes at such a cost

And I wish I could tell the truth
Show you who’s behind the door
I wish you knew what all this pantomime
And pageantry was for
I have to be so cautious
And you’re so extreme
We’re different, you and I
And it’s dangerous to dream

It’s dangerous to wish I could make choices of my own
Dangerous to even have that thought
I’m dangerous just standing here
For everyone to see
If I let go of the rules
Who knows how dangerous I’ll be

Elsa figures out that love thaws during the finale, because of something Olaf says, just like in the movie, but she never learns to use the creative, icy side of her power. She sings Monster and decides that she’ll keep holding in her power because it’s too risky, negating Let It Go. Similar to Elphaba singing Defying Gravity, but then telling Glinda that she’s limited and asking Glinda to take over her work, Elsa sings about breaking free but then decides that she can’t handle all of that magic, power, and wildness. At the end of Monster she surrenders to Hans and begs him not to take her back to Arendelle. She wants to exile herself, or even die, rather than go back to her home.

While Hans’ and Weselton’s men try to capture Elsa, she raises spikes of ice (around the same height as herself?) from the floor of the stage between herself and the soldiers, while singing Monster. There is no Marshmallow to act as her front line of defense, so the spikes are her only protection. The song is about her despair over her situation, as she considers suicide or exile rather than allowing her magic to harm her people any further.

In the movie, Elsa is actively protecting herself in this scene, very clearly acting in self defense. Hans, the villain in the story, uses the word “monster” to describe her actions. It preys on her insecurities, as he knew it would, and snaps her out of using her powers long enough for him to distract and capture her.

In the musical, Elsa is already overwhelmed by her insecurities, and doesn’t fight at all. She uses the ice spikes as a shield, and eventually drops them and surrenders. Here are some of the lyrics of Monster to illustrate the change in her character and state of mind:

From Monster:

You try to be good, but you fail, you fail

Fear will be your enemy and death it’s consequence

That’s what they both said to me and it’s starting to make sense

All this fear and all this pain began because of me

The thing I have to be, a monster

Were they right? Has the dark in me finally come to light?

Am I a monster full of rage? Was I a monster from the start?  

No where to go but on a rampage. Or am I just a monster in a cage?

What’ll I do? No time for crying now

I started this storm, gotta stop it somehow

Do I keep on running? How far do I have to go?

And would that push the storm away or only make it grow?

I’m making my world colder. How long can it survive?

Is everyone in danger, as long as I’m alive?

Was I a monster from the start? How did I end up with this frozen heart?

…Do I kill the monster? Father, you know what’s best for me. If I die, will they be free?

Mother, what if after I’m gone, the cold gets colder and the storm rages on?

No, I have to stay alive to fix what I’ve done.

Save the world from myself and bring back the sun

…I cannot be the monster. I will not be the monster. Not tonight!

[Drops her ice spikes and throws her body to the ground in surrender.*]

Anna sings her new solo song, True Love, after Hans locks her in the cold room to die from a frozen heart. It’s her moment of being brought down to reality, fully understanding that youthful dreams, determination, and exuberance won’t be enough. It’s similar in theme to Thank Goodness from Wicked, but Anna is a much more innocent character than Glinda, and in a more more dangerous, powerless situation.

But while Glinda soldiers on and makes the best of things, and movie Anna never stops calling for help as she gets weaker and weaker, musical Anna doesn’t try calling for help. Instead, she gives up. She blames herself, but also feels like she’s been a pawn in someone else’s plan. All she cares about is that her search for true romantic love has failed. She dared to dream, and the dreams have failed her. Elsa’s fears about the dangers of dreaming have come true. Dangerous to Dream and True Love are very much paired songs, with very much the same themes and vocabulary.

From True Love:

…I know this solitude

I know this kind of cold

But I had faith in what the stories told

Of true love

How I’d find true love

And here I am in this room again

Just as lost and small

A lonely girl with a desperate heart

This room I am after all

There’s no escaping

And now the dream is gone

Because I spent a lifetime counting on

True love

True love

I was looking for a fairytale

[Missed this line]

Turns out you can’t find love

If you don’t know what it is

And now it’s clear

I’ll never leave this room

It ends where it began

with no one but myself to blame

I played my part

In the plan

Dreaming got me here

And yet the dream won’t die

I can’t wish it away

No matter how I try

True love

True love

True love

The song’s melody is gorgeous and Patti Murin’s voice is transcendent when she sings it. The same goes for Caissie Levy on her songs. The Lopez’s created great melodies for all of the new songs, but the lyrics are very straightforward and on the nose. There are no clever rhymes or metaphors, none of the polish their previous work would lead you to expect.

I thought maybe I had exaggerated some of the issues with the finale when I wrote about Thursday night’s performance, but, in fact, it was worse than I remembered. Anna and Kristoff stand together and the kiss gets the biggest cheer. Anna and Elsa barely speak when Anna thaws, then Anna races off to Kristoff. Then Elsa stands completely alone. Elsa is at a distance from the townspeople and asks them if they’re okay, to which they respond yes and bow to her. That’s her only interaction with the town in the finale. Anna eventually comes back to Elsa, and they say awkward Hi’s to each other, like they’ve forgotten each other in the last 5 minutes, then have an awkward conversation. The closing song is a reprise/medley of True Love and Love Is an Open Door. WTF??? I know the lyrics to the chorus of Love Is an Open Door work, but is it really appropriate to use a song about her murderous, con man ex fiancé? I love that song, it’s one of my favorites from Frozen, but not in this spot.

It should have been one of Anna and Elsa’s songs, with a new verse written for the finale. Hans got new verses written for both reprises of Hans of the Southern Isles, so did Kristoff for his What Do You Know About Love reprises, so that shouldn’t have been too much to expect for the main characters during the grand finale. Maybe For the First Time in Forever could have become Now We Have Forever. Or the melody of Do You Want to Build a Snowman? could be used with new lyrics.

I want to make it clear that I’m not complaining that the show changed the movie because I wanted it to be an exact replica of the movie. I like it better when musicals make changes from their source material, so that there’s something new and interesting about the story. What I don’t like is the direction they went in with these changes. Anna IS a hilarious character, but she should also be Kristoff’s equal, and her loyalty and love for Elsa shouldn’t be in doubt. Elsa IS ruled by her fear for much of the story, but her journey is to overcome her fear and learn how to master the use of her powers. Her journey is the central driver of the plot. In the show I saw, these elements, which for me are essential, have been taken away.

In other words, they made the women weak, and that’s not a story I’m interested in.

 

*I’ve seen this moment interpreted as Elsa being drained from using her powers and collapsing because she’s too weak to stand. Everyone I was with interpreted it as surrender, but it could be that she’s drained. That trope is so common as to be cliche. It would be even worse for her to be that weak, since it takes away the choice that she made to surrender, and makes her a victim. Either way, she comes off as weak, rather than the strong fighter who had to be captured while unconscious in the movie.

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4 thoughts on “Frozen the Musical in Denver 8/19/17: Analysis and Comparison to 8/17/17

  1. Hello! A friend sent your review to me. Full disclosure: I’m involved with the show, as I’m their Associate Music Director/Conductor. This was incredibly interesting and inciteful to read, with many valid points made. Of course, one of my favorite remarks was “I haven’t gushed over the orchestra enough yet.” There are 4 of us here from NYC, with the rest of the entire orchestra being Denver locals. They are fantastic and deserve HUGE credit & kudos during this process! They not only sound wonderful, but are the nicest people to work with. We are LITERALLY in rehearsal every day making changes, and then instituting them for the evening performances (for instance, the Anna/Kristoff dress removal moment before “What Do You Know About Love?” changed for Tuesday night’s performance), so everyone (orchestra included) is always on their toes. Obviously the purpose of an out-of-town tryout is to gage nightly reaction to the show, see what works, what doesn’t, make daily changes etc. As one of the conductors for Aladdin the Musical on Broadway, I watched the entire show transform from the Toronto out-of-town tryout to its opening night form on Broadway. I have no doubt the process will be the same for Frozen. Everyone involved is invested & wants it to be the best show it can be, of course, and values our audience’s input. I really hope that you will be able to come see us again towards the end of our run here in Denver, and then again in NYC!

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  2. Thank you for the comment! It’s nice to know that the musicians are Denver locals. Maybe I’ll hear some of them again later in the year at Christmas Carol. They are fabulous.

    I imagine I’ll see Frozen in its finished form eventually, but I don’t have any particular plans right now. I’m sure it will be a very different show by opening night on Broadway. The unique experience that you get with each performance is part of what I love about live theatre.

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