Winter is setting in and the temperature is dropping in Adelaide, but from May 26, tickets to Disney’s Frozen will be the hottest thing in town. After highly successful seasons in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, Disney’s Frozen is landing at the Adelaide Festival Theatre for a limited season.
Frozen exploded onto the big screen with the release of the highly successful animated film in 2012. Frozen, based on the 1844 Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (The Snow Queen), centres around the relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna. Elsa has been instructed to hide her ice powers since she was a child, but when her abilities are accidentally made known, Elsa flees, inadvertently freezing the kingdom in an eternal winter. It is up to her sister Anna to show her that only true love will melt a frozen heart.
The musical adaptation opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre in March 2018 and features 12 new songs from the original Academy Award-winning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
Ahead of their Adelaide season, I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Jemma Rix (Elsa), Courtney Monsma (Anna) and Matt Lee (Olaf). Each has their own impressive resume: Jemma is best known for her portrayal of Elphaba in Wicked and Molly in Ghost The Musical; Courtney recently played Katherine Howard in Six; and Matt Lee was larger than life in the iconic role of Bert in Mary Poppins. However, Jemma, Courtney and Matt all had very different paths leading them into the performing arts as a career.
“My story is very unconventional. I never had a goal of becoming a musical theatre performer at all. I finished school and did a beauty therapy apprenticeship. In saying that, I have performed since I was 4 years old – any chance I had to show off, I was showing off, so it was naturally in me from a very young age, but I never thought it was going to be a career because my parents would often say, ‘How is this stable, and how will you get the work?’. I used to do amateur theatre out of my working hours and also sang in a pop band. Any opportunity to perform, I would take it, on top of working full time. After I finished my apprenticeship, I was living in the central coast of NSW, and I began thinking that I needed to get out of my town and try something different. On an absolute whim, I auditioned for Universal Studios in Japan. I got that gig and went to live over there for a year – my first professional gig as a performer. From there, it was luck and timing. I got to play Elphaba for the first time when I was 21 in a condensed version of Wicked while I was working at Universal Studios, and when I moved back home, I auditioned for and became the standby Elphaba in the Australian production. That just opened every other door for me, though there was a lot of hard work along the way as well.”
“I feel that it chose me. I know that’s a bit cliché, but ever since I was little, I have loved music and loved any form of performing. I watched my first musical when I was about 8 years old, and remember that moment so clearly. It was at that point I knew that performing in theatre was what I wanted to do and ever since then I have filled my time doing theatre in some form. It’s really nice to be able to do it as a career.”
“I had a lot of energy to expel as a child and my parents wanted to put that into something productive. They put me into athletics and they put me into dance classes. I think I was about 5 or 6 and they both landed on a Saturday morning, so I had to pick which one. So…..I picked dance. That led to acting, singing and dancing, and the rest is history really.”
In recent years, Disney has (blessedly) changed the mold of their animations, with a real shift in themes to focus on empowerment, self-discovery and friendships, instead of the traditional damsel-in-distress story. Both Jemma and Courtney have loved diving into the characters of Elsa and Anna and their brilliant character story arcs.
“It is incredibly empowering to play these strong female roles. It is rather interesting to look at those themes when I do stop and reflect. I also played the alternate Eva Paron in Evita with Tina Arena, and that’s the same thing, such a strong woman. I tend to pick these characters that are strong. But I also feel that all stories need to be heard, no matter what. The creativity base should come with the writing, then us as actors get the opportunity to put that into the story. I’ll always lean towards things I feel strongly about and like, and that sit in my good vocal range, so naturally I am drawn to these roles. It consumes me and I am passionate about that.”
“It’s very empowering, especially as a woman. We are breaking stereotypes in theatre all the time as theatre is developing. As audience members it brings in an array of audiences as well. We are getting to see awesome stories that we can all relate to and you want to be changed after seeing theatre. I think that Frozen has so much more depth than a lot of people think, especially for Disney. It really has taken a turn for the better.”
For Matt Lee, Frozen is his second Disney musical, after his sensational portrayal of Bert in Mary Poppins. Both Olaf and Bert are such well-known and loved characters, does this add extra pressure when bringing them to life? Or is he able to put his own spin on the roles in the creative process?
“I went through this with Mary Poppins, as I was compared so much to Dick van Dyke, and it’s happening with Olaf – people are coming expecting to hear Josh Gadd’s performance. So, there is a lot of pressure, especially when you’re offered the role and you look at ways to make it your own but also find ways to please the fans. It’s trying to respect the work and give people what they are coming to see, but at the same time trying to make it your own. So I’m reading a character on a page and bringing the character to life as it’s been written, rather than trying to mimic or copy someone else’s performance, because that then would make me a mimic and not an actor. That pressure comes with these iconic roles, and you just do what you do and hope that people enjoy it.”
Nearly every little girl (or grown up little girl) dreams of one day becoming a Disney Princess. For Jemma and Courtney, do they still pinch themselves that they are finally Disney Princesses?
“Oh yes! I never, ever, ever thought I’d get to be a Disney Princess. I’m quite tall, and strong-featured in the way of my looks, so I had put myself into a category where I didn’t think I could be a Disney Princess. And yes, this is another case where a strong woman can be a Disney Princess now, which is wonderful. They are writing things that are broadening the diversity of what we always perceived to be a certain way, which I feel is very important. I am so grateful I get to play Elsa in my own unique way.”
“Yes, I still do, to this day. We’ve been doing this show for a little while now, and doing these interviews especially reminds me of how honoured I am to be a part of it. Certainly, when it ends, I’ll look back at my time with the company and reflect on this amazing point in my life. You always dream of becoming a Disney Princess as a little girl, and it’s now actually a thing. I love it.”
Olaf, rather than being a person in a full suit, is a puppet, with Matt Lee fully visible as his operator. However, in a similar way to the puppets of Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu in The Lion King musical, Matt becomes a true extension of Olaf’s character.
“That was one of the things that particularly drew me to the role of Olaf. It’s a new skill set for me. I’ve been working in theatre for nearly 30 years (don’t tell anyone!) and the thought of being able to learn a new skill set at this stage of my career was absolutely amazing. I got to work with our amazing puppet team from New York. On the first day of rehearsals, I sat with Olaf’s head and looked in the mirror and tried to work out all the different facial expressions that I could make to try and tell the story. It’s so amazing, and the puppets in the show are so incredible. They are created by Michael Curry, who did all the puppets on The Lion King, so it really is amazing that I have been able to learn this new skill with Frozen.”
The score of Frozen is so well-written, with the music, in particular the new pieces written for the stage adaptation, really expanding the main characters’ story arcs. Of course, there’s Let It Go at the climax of Act 1, accompanied by every staging trick known to man to bring that iconic song to life, but it’s Elsa’s other big number, Monster, that really grounds Elsa and gives her the confidence to push through and fight for what she knows is right.
“100%; it’s one of the best parts of the musical.” Jemma commented.
“They have had more time to go deeper into the characters and that really is wonderful as an actor to jump into. Monster in particular is a very powerful song for me. In Let It Go, Elsa is releasing her fear, her need to be perfect, and her worries about what other people say, but at the end of the day, she’s still hiding and she’s still isolating from people. It’s not whole. So, I think what happens, when Elsa gets to Monster, she says in the beginning verse, “I can’t hide this time like I hid before”. It’s so empowering how she comes up with the plan to do what she can, to do the right thing, and then sees what happens. It’s part of what the journey is for a human – you think you’ve arrived but you then get another whack when you realise you have more learning to do. I think that’s what Monster is showing – she hasn’t completely let go yet.”
Matt also commented on the score. “That’s the great thing about the show. It’s been fleshed out to delve deeper into the characters and tell more of their stories. It’s not literally the film slapped onto the stage, it’s been extended. The new songs in the show are really allowing the characters to be more well rounded and tell more of their story. I think the new songs fit into the show seamlessly. It’s really beautiful to listen to every night. I get to sit in the wings and hear all this amazing music. It’s just amazing.”
Disney’s Frozen opens at the Festival Theatre on May 26. Tickets can be purchased through https://www.frozenthemusical.com.au/ .
Interview by Ben Stefanoff
Photo Credit: Lisa Tomasetti