A winter wonderland on Broadway
Musical production of Disney’s Frozen is a Norwegian-inspired delight
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Admittedly, when I first heard about the movie Frozen (2013), I was a little skeptical. A Disney cartoon set in a fictional kingdom somewhere in Norway: what in the world would they do with it? But curiosity won me over when I heard many of the settings were based on my hometown of Seattle’s beloved sister city, Bergen. I had to see the movie—and instantly became a fan.
In the film, there is music, action, and special effects, the likes of which are seldom seen. And once again, last summer, my curiosity won out when I heard that Seattle’s Taproot Theatre was putting on Frozen Jr (2019). The blockbuster Disney animation became a minimalist production with a group of amateur kid actors, and it worked like magic (www.norwegianamerican.com/features/frozen-jr-enchants-educates). I didn’t have to think twice, then, when I recently found myself in New York City, where the production of Frozen: The Broadway Musical (2018) was playing at the historic St. James Theatre: it was simply something I couldn’t miss.
Having never spent much time in New York, let alone attended the theaters there, my first experience with a Broadway production did not disappoint. My excitement mounted as my colleague, Brooklyn native Victoria Hofmo, and I approached the theater and I saw the bright blue and white marquee. But it was even more exciting once we got inside. The theater, built in 1927, with its ornate, gilded, landmarked auditorium, has been lovingly restored, and we were swept into another world.
But what unfolded on the stage was still more magical. We knew it would be special when we saw the northern lights projected onto the curtain, and when it lifted, we were taken straight back to Norway with a scene out of the fjords. The set designers had down their homework, and as we would learn, they had done it very well, from beginning to end.
Frozen takes place in the fairy tale kingdom of Arendelle, which, as mentioned, draws its inspiration from scenery in the western fjords, the city of Arendal on Norway’s southern coast, and Bergen, with its charming wooden buildings at Bryggen. On stage, this is achieved through the use of traditional set designs, projections, and other lighting tricks. With shades of blue, green, purple, and turquoise, infused with silver and white, you are drawn into a winter landscape of enchantment.
For those of you not familiar with the plot of Frozen, it is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story “The Snow Queen,” with its cold and wicked antagonist, who lives in a land of permafrost. In Frozen, an icy curse is put on Princess Elsa, so that her touch will freeze everything she comes in contact with, even a human heart. Through an accident, the entire kingdom is put into a state of perpetual winter.
But before the spell is cast, in contrast with what’s to come, there is also a beautiful summer to enjoy, most notably a midsummer dance around a maypole. The lovely setting sets the mood for the play, playing off both Swedish and English traditions, and with colorful ribbons, gorgeous swirling skirts, and lots of singing and merriment. Never mind the mixing of traditions: the singing and dancing in the production are superb, amid the greenery and summer light.
Once winter takes over, the set moves inside the castle, which reminds one of the interior of a Norwegian cabin, albeit on a large scale. The muted set colors come straight out of rosemaling, as do those of the costumes. At home, the royals roam about in quasi-bunads, lending a homey sense of familiarity. But the lighting inside their winter home is dim, as if to reflect an unnatural way of life for a people and culture that are so at home in the fresh air of the outdoors.
It is the outdoor scenes that steal the show in the end, be it at a mountain chalet or high on the mountaintop, where Princess Elsa has escaped the world. Kristoff’s loyal and larger-than-life-sized reindeer, Sven, captivates us, and then there is Olaf, the goofy, but loveable snowman, who appears as a stuffed puppet, pushed around by a shadow character that speaks and sings for him.
And in the stage play, we get to learn about the concept of hygge—Scandinavian coziness—in an altogether new way, with a sauna scene that turns into a Broadway chorus line during the delivery of the song “Hygge,” led by the rugged mountain man Oaken. Going in and out of the sauna hut, from hot to cold, the Nordic men and women appear on stage wearing only fir branches for modesty, as they embrace the joy of life in song and dance. It was an unexpected—and very fun—scene.
But in a production that incorporates over 300 fabulous costumes, there is one costume that stands out, with a song that trumps them all. That is, of course, when in the middle of a winter wonderland, Princess Elsa’s glow floats away, her cape vanishes, and her black dress transforms to shimmering silver with the sweep of a hand—as if by magic. It’s a show-stopping moment that takes your breath away along with the hit song, “Let It Go.” We’ve all had it in our heads since 2013, but that only makes hearing and experiencing it live even more thrilling.
Like all fairy tales, Frozen has a happy ending when the icy spell is broken, with hugs, kisses, and a delighted couple—and like all good fairy tales, it makes you feel happy, too. But for Norwegian Americans as well as others, I have to add that Frozen: The Broadway Musical has much more to offer, with deep layers of meaning underneath what appears at first glance as a simple, shallow tale.
When put into a larger frame of reference, there is a much deeper meaning to discover in the story. There are cultural nuances to delve into, as the play touches on the relationship between non-indigenous and indigenous peoples, turns traditional class divisions upside down, and questions the traditional role of women. While the storyline may seem superficial, a social critique is present.
One of my favorite songs in Frozen is “Vuelie,” which incorporates the joik, the traditional chanting song form of the Sámi, which sets the tone of the play. In numerous scenes, there is close interaction between the main protagonists, who are of royal blood, and the native people and their folklore. The play shows respect to the Sámi tradition throughout.
Initially, when a curse befalls Princess Elsa, the queen looks to the hidden people for help: only they possess the knowledge that can save the life of Princess Anna. The belief in trolls and huldra is rooted in Norwegian folklore, and in the play, there is some merging of these beliefs with the shamanistic culture. While the royals live behind the walls of their castle, they understand that they cannot survive without the power of those who are more closely tied to nature.
This same acknowledgement of dependence and equality also comes to light in the characters of Anna and Kristoff. As a princess, Anna has led a sheltered life, cut off from the world, which has bestowed her with an innocent outlook on life. At first, she is attracted to a much lesser royal in Prince Hans, 13th in line for the throne in his kingdom, but later, she develops a bond with Kristoff, a simple reindeer herder. His profession and relationship to the land identify him as one of the indigenous people, and the eventual mésalliance between the two is implicit.
The contrast between the two sisters Elsa and Anna is also of interest. As the elder heir to the throne, Elsa is more duty-bound and is protective of her younger sister. She isolates herself to protect Anna, who is unaware of her sister’s predicament. She disapproves of Anna’s rash decision to marry the petty royal Prince Hans, but not for conventional reasons: she wants to protect her sister. On one level, Elsa represents duty and rationality, in contrast to her sister’s free spirit and imprudence.
The contrast between Elsa and Anna is also reflected in their outer appearance. Elsa stands proud and tall, a stately figure, the stereotypical Nordic ice queen in all of her magnificent costumes. She executes her songs with power and artistic mastery, while Anna appears more girlish in her folkloristic garb. Her songs lack the force of Elsa’s, their sweetness reflects her unspoiled, naïve character.
In the end, there is one force to unite the two: the power of true love. It is only when the sisters can engage in a forbidden sisterly embrace that the ice spell is broken. The two sisters are able to stand up to the wicked forces of the patriarchy that seek to destroy them: the evil and calculating Prince Hans and his consorts. And with her sister’s blessing, Anna finds her true love in Kristoff, the Sámi shepherd, who has so selflessly guarded her. Sunshine, warmth, harmony, and love are restored to the kingdom of Arendelle.
A simple, predictable storyline? Yes, but that is, after all, the stuff that fairy tales are made of—and Frozen is no exception. But the beauty of the musical is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels. Both children and adults alike were delighted by the music and visual magic that unfolded before them. And in the end, no Norwegian heritage is required to enjoy the scenery, and it’s not necessary to have a degree in Scandinavian Studies to delve deeper into the subplots and meanings. Frozen: The Broadway Musical is simply a delight to warm your heart.
The author wishes to express many thanks to Victoria Hofmo for her company and a lively discussion, which provided many insights for this article.
To learn more about the cast and production of Frozen: The Broadway Musical, visit: www.frozenthemusical.com.
This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.