Broadway Stars Voice Disney’s Animated Holiday Feature Frozen
By: Ellis Nassour
Frozen [Walt Disney Studios], which just opened as the big animated holiday film, is a movie that almost didn’t happen – in spite of years of trying to get an animated film done on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. But it’s finally here, four years in the making — and worth the wait. Critics are calling it the best Disney animated film and musical in years.
The voice casting boasts one of the largest ensembles of Broadway names singing/speaking for the animated characters – princesses, a prince, a snowman, trolls, and several villains.
In major voice roles in the 3-D musical comedy-adventure, which also has a film noir thriller aspect, are Kristen Bell, yes, Miss Veronica Mars [who knew she had such a fantastic voice and was such a cut-up?], whose last Broadway/Off Broadway roles were 11 years ago; Tony-nominee Santino Fontana of Cinderella ; Tony-nominee Josh Gad of The Book of Mormon; Tony-nominee Jonathan Groff of Spring Awakening and Glee fame; and Tony winner Idina Menzel of Wicked fame.
Two-time Tony, Grammy, and Emmy-winning composer Robert Lopez [Avenue Q, Book of Mormon] composed songs working with wife, lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez, supplanting Disney’s famed prodigious songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman. Their eight tunes [out of 25 written!] include showstoppers: Menzel and Bell’s duet "For the First Time in Forever," Bell and Fontana’s "Love is an Open Door," and Menzel’s "Let It Go." The film’s lush score is by Christophe Beck.
Ole Hans probably never knew his Snow Queen would be of interest to Disney, and being very factual, co-writer and co-director, Jennifer Lee admits, "It was a starting point to a story distinctly our own." She and writing/directing partner Chris Buck describe Frozen, as "a story of royal sisters’ epic journey to their bond of sisterhood and finding the true meaning of love."
The story is set amid the fjords of Norway, though the country has another name [but there’s no mistaking Norway’s beauty, mountains, and waterfalls thanks to the magnificent 3-D depth] and revolves around young fearless Princess Anna (Bell), so optimistic about love she agrees to marry dashing Prince Hans (Fontana) the first day they meet; and older sister Queen Elsa (Menzel), who discovers she has torrential powers to set off "eternal winters."
To escape her destructive powers, she goes into exile, which leads to Anna teaming up with young, naïve mountain man Kristoff (Goff) and his best friend, a rambunctious reindeer named Sven, for an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, to rescue Elsa from herself. Along the way, they meet a giddy, adorable snowman from the girls’childhood, Olaf (Gad), who’s equipped with enough one-liners to make a stand-up jealous [he all but steals the movie!]; and a monstrous ogre of a snowman named Marshmallow.
Love makes it through that open door, blossoming against seemingly insurmountable obstacles and
not exactly as planned. In one case, cupid almost has to deck the couple with brain-awakening snowballs.
Bell said that "A part like this makes you feel you’re a part of something special – forever to be inducted into the archive of Disney’s Hall of Fame! I loved animation since I was a tot. I always dreamed of voicing a Disney character."
"Elsa was a fascinating character to voice," says Menzel. "She’s the Snow Queen, perceived to be a villain, but that’s far from who she is. She lives in fear that she’s a monster and banishes herself [leaving her kingdom open to all sorts of political intrigue]. I loved the fact that Anna and Elsa weren’t your standard princesses. They’re a modern take."
Co-directors/co-writers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck agree that when Menzel and Bell auditioned, they hit pay dirt. "We felt as if we were talking to Elsa and Anna!" says Buck. Adds Lee, "A vital component of the film is the chemistry playing sisters. It’s bountiful."
Bell points out, "It was important to make Anna real. I didn’t want to play a princess with good posture, but someone who was weird, awkward, goofy, who puts her foot in her mouth. She has flaws, but is human. You have the heroine, and then the sidekick who usually has the jokes. However, they allowed me a ton of jokes. Anna’s animated, no pun intended!"
She has high praise for Menzel. "Idina blows your mind every time she opens her mouth. With ‘Let It Go,’ she has the power ballad of the century. To meet her and to discover, up close and personal, what’s inside her and to experience that voice was fascinating."
For Anna’s love interest, Prince Hans, Lee and Buck looked no further than to Prince Topher of Broadway’s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Cinderella, Fontana. "It was great that Disney drew from Broadway," he observes. " Although Aladdin was one of my favorite films growing up, my dream was to be an actor in a rep company. Ironically, when I did a school musical, a friend joked that with a voice like mine, one day I could be signing in one. Who knew? And now I even have my own character doll!"
He wasn’t sure how his scenes with Bell would gel. "We worked without benefit of seeing the characters onscreen as we sang. We didn’t have a script, only our pages, sheet music, a pianist, and the music track. Kristen and I didn’t even know how our duet fit into the story. That makes the finished product so much more amazing."
How did he like his animated self? "That was bizarre, and cool. It was surreal hearing my voice coming out of this somebody with red hair and clearly not of my Italian heritage. I have no complaints. I’ve been memorialized forever. Disney’ll bring back the film every five years!"
For Kristoff, Lee and Buck knew they found their Norwegian mountain man in the very unassuming Goff [Spring Awakening on Broadway; TV’s Glee]. Lee says, "Everyone fell for Jonathan immediately. He’s easy going and brought a huge likability factor to the character, who’s rough around the edges."
"He’s raised by trolls," Goff explains. "He’s a wilderness man, has no social graces, and isn’t great with people. Since childhood his best friend is Sven, a reindeer he converses with. So, he’s a bit psychotic. He’s charming but doesn’t realize it. Sadly, it takes Anna almost the whole movie to discover my, I mean, Kristoff’s innate charm and mad crush."
Gad explained he had an absolute blast playing Olaf. "He a snowman, but he talks, sings, dances. He doesn’t have a heart, but he has the biggest heart in the world. He does have a fatal flaw! He dreams of escaping winter, being on a beach in the sun and sand. He’s even drawn to fireplaces. He’s got one of the film’s memorable lines, [spoken to Anna] :‘Some people are worth melting for.’"
Other Broadway names appearing are full-throated Maia Nkenge Wilson [Book of Mormon, Color Purple] as a maddingly outgoing troll; Alan Tudyk [Spamalot, Prelude to a Kiss] as the duplicitous weasel Duke of Weselton; and Ciarán Hinds [recent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival, Closer] as mystical troll Pabbie. Additional vocals were done by Tony nominee Annaleigh Ashford [Kinky Boots].