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“I Can’t Be What You Expect of Me”: Power, Palatability, and Shame in Frozen: The Broadway Musical

Department of Music, The University of Nottingham, NG7 2RD Nottingham, UK
Original submission received: 19 December 2019 / Revised: 24 February 2020 / Accepted: 13 March 2020 / Published: 20 March 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Broadway Then and Now: Musicals in the 21st Century)


This article combines critical, cultural, and musical analysis to situate Frozen: The Broadway Musical as a distinct work within Disney’s wider franchise. In this article, I consider the evolution of Elsa’s character on stage and the role of additional songs in the Frozen score. In so doing, I demonstrate how the stage adaptation distances itself from the feminist potential in the original animation. Using the lenses of palatability and gendered shame, I argue that Frozen: The Broadway Musical forces patriarchal modes of behaviour onto its heroines.

1. Introduction

In March 2014, Disney’s animated hit Frozen sold over three million copies in the US on the first day of its DVD and Blu-ray release, having previously broken records as the fastest-selling digital release of all time (Graser 2014). In the film, Elsa and Anna, the orphaned princesses of Arendelle, fight to overcome childhood tragedy, find emotional freedom, (in Elsa’s case) control of world altering powers, and bring about peace and happiness for themselves and their kingdom. Frozen’s innovative princess-coming-of-age story and its hugely popular soundtrack of songs has captured audiences around the world, and the recent success of its sequel, Frozen 2, has shown the longevity of this popularity. When Frozen: The Broadway Musical opened in New York’s St James’ Theatre, it seemed initially likely to emulate the films’ dual success. The first week’s ticket sales broke the St James’ box office records with the musical taking over USD 2 million across its opening eight shows (Berger 2018).
However, the assumption that the commercial impetus of the animation and the popularity of the soundtrack would provide Frozen with a huge theatre audience has been challenged by relatively lacklustre sales and ticket brokers reporting a lack of interest in their discounted stock (Oleksinski 2018). Although reuniting songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez with Frozen screenplay writer Jennifer Lee, the creative team for Frozen’s stage adaptation underwent some significant changes. For example, both the original director Alex Timbers (Peter and the Starcatcher [2012]; Moulin Rouge: The Musical [2018]; Beetlejuice [2019]) and choreographer Peter Darling (Billy Elliot [2005]; Matilda [2010]) left during the musical’s development process in 2016. Timbers was eventually replaced by the British theatre impresario Michael Grandage (Grand Hotel [2004]; Guys and Dolls [2005, West End]; Evita [2012]) and Peter Darling by Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Mille [2002]; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying [2011], Evita [2012]), both of whom have considerable experience working on plays that include song and movement as well as varied musical theatre credits. The transition of key personnel has led to some misgivings about shared visions and creative process (Cox 2016). Reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Variety offered thoroughly mixed accounts of the success of the adaptation in tryout and on Broadway, each highlighting the lack of an impactful antagonist and the limitations of emphasising Elsa’s existential struggle (Green 2017; Green 2018; Mead 2018; Stasio 2018).
Lee’s book generally follows the plot of the film as all Disney screen-to-stage transfers have done. Where Julie Taymor’s landmark reinvention of The Lion King (1997) continues to make considerable profits for Disney, Grandage’s interpretation of Frozen adheres more closely to details of staging and cinematography from the original animated source. The musical begins with an ethereal rearrangement of “Vuelie”, which accompanies Elsa’s coronation in the animation. “Vuelie” segues to young Elsa and Anna singing a verse “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, transforming Anna’s solo number into part of the sisters’ musical relationship. This prefaces the new “Let the Sun Shine On”, (new songs are highlighted in bold) an establishing number, which explains Elsa’s powers and the tensions within the royal family. In another new song, the young Anna and Elsa perform “A Little Bit Of You” as they build their snowman Olaf together, framing the accident in which Elsa strikes Anna with her power. The musical returns to the film’s narrative as the sisters are separated from one another and their parents are tragically killed (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”).
When Elsa comes of age, we see the preparations for her coronation (“For the First Time in Forever”), and Anna stumbles across the handsome if implausible “Hans of the Southern Isles”. The coronation (“Queen Anointed”) is framed by Elsa’s internal struggle (“Dangerous to Dream”) as she grapples with relief that she has survived the ceremony and is happy to see Anna again, but is also struggling to repress her powers. Having learned that Anna proposes to marry Prince Hans who she has just met, Elsa loses control, reveals her icy magic to the court, and flees. As Anna pursues, she encounters a travelling ice trader Kristoff, and they sing the new companion duet “What Do You Know About Love?”, following Anna and Hans’ love-at-first-sight/meet-cute number “Love Is An Open Door” during the coronation. “What Do You Know About Love” incorporates quotations of “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People” and introduces Kristoff as Anna’s alternative beau.
The second act, which follows the revelation that Olaf has become sentient (“In Summer”) and the climatic “Let It Go”, opens with a new ensemble number, the truly strange and pantomime-esque “Hygge”, before returning to the exiled Elsa. She has built herself a beautiful ice palace and is disappointed and frightened to see that Anna has come to find her: “For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)”. The sisters fight, and Elsa strikes Anna with her power, leading Anna to flee. Kristoff takes the ailing Anna to his family (the “Hidden”), and they misread the chemistry between the two (“Fixer Upper”), while revealing that Anna requires true love’s kiss to thaw the ice taking hold of her heart. Meanwhile Hans and the nefarious Duke of Wesleton have launched an expedition to find Elsa, leading to her anguished solo “Monster”. Elsa grapples with how to release Arendelle from the ice storm as she hears the soldiers approach to arrest her. As in the animation, Hans reveals (on his return) that he has only pursued Anna to seize the throne from Elsa and that he is going to lock her up so that she dies. This leads to her defeated solo “True Love” as she contemplates all the choices that have led her to be in this situation. The musical ends with a confrontation between Elsa and Hans, and Anna physically prevents Elsa’s execution and murder. The moment Hans lowers his blade coincides exactly with the moment that Anna turns to ice. However, her act of heroism (a gesture of true love) unthaws her. As peace and happiness is restored, Elsa, Anna, and the ensemble sing a reworked reprise of “Let It Go”: “We’re never going back/The past is in the past” (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2018).
The social impact of Frozen has been linked to the “flawlessly feminist” (Joyce 2013) representation of female protagonists who maintain their agency and do not depend on male saviours to protect them from the world’s dangers. The original film provides two princesses who are not defined by their relationships to the men in their lives, undermining centuries of rescue narratives in folklore and fairy tales. Indeed, George Rodosthenous’ introduction to The Disney Musical on Stage and Screen: Critical Approaches from “Snow White” to “Frozen” (2017) begins with a testimonial about US marines singing along to footage of “Let It Go” while on base, indicating the animation’s cross-generational and multi-experiential impact. Later in the same chapter, Rodosthenous (2017, p. 6) also acknowledges the introduction of “the first same-sex family in a Disney musical”, subtly aligning Frozen with new audiences and improved representation. His inferences are subsequently illustrated by Sarah Whitfield (2017), whose chapter in The Disney Musical on Stage and Screen: Critical Approaches from “Snow White” to “Frozen” situates the animation in the context of Disney’s other princess storylines. Whitfield also highlights (drawing on previous scholarship by Stacy Wolf) how the animation has exploited details of the Broadway musical to facilitate a positive representation of its princesses. By contrast, this article explores the tension between new music in Frozen: The Broadway Musical and the ongoing success of Elsa’s torch song “Let It Go”. In so doing, I examine how Frozen: The Broadway Musical amplifies an uncomfortable representation of female power that is defined by the need to achieve wider social acceptance.
In order to achieve this, I align Frozen: The Broadway Musical’s dissonant representations of self-acceptance and belonging with the concept of “unpalatable-palatable” feminism (Casey and Watson 2017, p. 5) in the wider film franchise. Intersecting with some postfeminist discourses, which argue that the label “feminist” is inherently disruptive to contemporary attitudes to equality (Macaluso 2016, p. 73), Casey’s concept (“unpalatable-palatable”) recognises layers in acceptable female identities and opinions and articulates “the need to appeal to mainstream audiences while agitating for feminist change” (Casey and Watson 2017). Originally used to describe celebrity feminism in the mainstream media, this type of palatability acknowledges the tension between subversive feminist action and a platform exclusively available to women with race, class, and other associated social privileges (ibid., pp. 5–6). This aligns with Stacy Wolf’s description (used by Whitfield) that Broadway musicals frequently endeavour “to promote conservative values and to provide empowering representations of women, sometimes simultaneously” (Wolf 2010, p. viii; Whitfield 2017, p. 222). In this reading of Frozen, I highlight how the stage musical deepens the film’s status as “a problematic feminist text” (Whitfield 2017, p. 233) by situating Anna and Elsa’s previous palatability in newly restrictive social and personal contexts.

2. “Let It Go”: Situating the Female Power Ballad on Stage

While the entire Frozen soundtrack has achieved notable acclaim, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s torch song “Let It Go” has become a focus point for the reception of the film. The song reached #5 in the Billboard Hot 100, and the songwriters received awards including Best Original Song at the 2014 Oscars and the Grammy for Best Song Written For Visual Media in 2015. The popularity of “Let It Go” also transcends Idina Menzel’s original recording for the film. Demi Lovato’s official cover has been certified twice platinum in the US, and the accompanying music video has been viewed over 580 million times to date, according to the visible statistics on the artist’s YouTube page. Comparative hits such as “Come What May” from Moulin Rouge (2001) or “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman (2017) have yet to reach even half the same viewing figures on a single dedicated source.
As the unique selling point of the Frozen franchise has been the prominence of two princesses who save each other without the help of princes, “Let It Go” has both a superficial and multifaceted impact on notions of power and belonging. However, this moment is centred entirely on Elsa. Indeed, New York Times reviewer Jesse Green suggested that the tryout production of Frozen might be much improved if they allowed Anna her own reprise of “Let It Go” instead of the original song “True Love” before she freezes (Green 2017). Green’s suggestion might have provided a cyclical form to Frozen and helped address the imbalance of music provided by the original animation. On stage, “Let It Go” appears over halfway through the show as the climatic spectacle before the interval. While this seems dramaturgically sound and mirrors the placement of similarly anthemic “Defying Gravity” in Wicked (2003), this placement of “Let It Go” skews the musical and dramatic balance of Frozen’s storyline. In the animation, Elsa’s moment of revelation comes only a third of the way through the film, leaving time for the surrounding sub-narratives to unfold. In the stage adaptation, “Let It Go” is framed by Anna’s pursuit of Elsa, Hans’ sudden leap to power, and the Duke of Wesleton’s devious plan to scupper Elsa’s return. The liberation is foreshadowed by problems to come.
Before the familiar opening to the song, the audience sees Elsa appear into a low-lit blue stage with expansive flats decorating the wings and the back of the stage, providing an abstract if bleak snowscape. The colour of her coronation costume, a close replica of the film’s predominantly teal dress with a purple cape, appears almost black in this lighting by contrast with the continued sense of deep colours on screen. Here, the stagecraft establishes a neutral canvas to contrast with Elsa’s “magic” as and when she finds it. This change of state from subdued tones to near darkness reflects a noticeable alteration to the pacing of the song. By the second verse, animated Elsa creates an ever-extending staircase and runs freely across impassable leaps between ravines. However, stage Elsa has only just begun to “produce” intricate spirals of shimmer on the projection screen behind her. These effects are noticeably “flat”, produced in 2D, and are in particularly stark contrast to the detailed animation of Elsa’s magic in the film. By the time we arrive at the bridge of “Let It Go” (“My power flurries through the air into the ground”) (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2013), Elsa has “lifted” the projection screen to reveal a short staircase and icicle-like beaded drops that sparkle and catch the illuminations when she sends currents of light across the stage. Elsa’s physical transformation, revealing her ice-themed sequin gown and signature blonde plait, coincides with the same musical hit point: the top of the final chorus of the song. However, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez add an extra flourish to the song’s final phrase with Elsa belting out “The cold never bothered me anyway” rather than speak-singing the line as a close. In the film, Elsa addresses this final line to the screen in a closing vamp, twirling her cape, and slamming the doors of her self-made palace behind. On stage, the entire last chorus is performed directly to the audience. Broadway’s Elsa speaks to us as much as to herself.
The similarities and differences in the staging and musical landing points are significant to “Let It Go”. Our familiarity with Menzel’s inflections and the digital choreography of the animation are part of its identity. Indeed, many of Elsa’s mannerisms were drawn from watching Menzel sing “Let It Go” and the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever” (Solomon 2013). Therefore, like many of the song sequences in the Beauty and the Beast stage adaptation (1994), it is clear that this song was left relatively untouched in comparison to many of Frozen’s other hits that required restaging. However, the representation of Elsa’s icy power is inevitably restricted by the real-life parameters of a theatre, and the staging makes relatively limited use of special effects. Ryan Bunch (2017) outlines a thread of “escape narratives” for protagonists of films made during the Disney Renaissance including The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Mulan (1998). However, none of these film’s heroes are in direct possession and control of magic. Perhaps the defining feature of the original animation of “Let It Go” is that Elsa creates a utopia for herself, harnessing the power she fears in order to create a new and beautiful safe space bespoke to her needs and dreams. World building is part of her creative agency, which sends a powerful message to those that look up to her. In both the animation and stage versions, Elsa sheds the inhibiting trappings of a space that does not recognise her power as good. (Her coronation outfit is literally ripped away on stage to reveal her mesmerising ice gown underneath.) While it is possible that the power ballad-style arrangement of the song, which Caissie Levy performs with exceptional force and presence, counteracts some of the limitations of staging “Let It Go”, we still lack the depth and reach of Elsa’s creativity. On stage, the song frees Elsa from the oppression of the palace but does not show the scale of her self-actualisation as is achieved on screen.

3. Power, Shame, and Sisterhood

The layers of music in the stage adaptation cause conflict with the message of empowerment that exists in “Let It Go” as a standalone song. As such, Elsa’s psychological release is made more temporary by the need to introduce extra songs to the second half of the score. Where radical feminists including Cellestine Ware (1970) and bell hooks (2014) aim to challenge “the prevailing notion of power as domination” (hooks 2014, p. 84), the messaging of the songs featured in Frozen: The Broadway Musical perpetuates the need for Elsa to conform to the domineering normativity she exists outside of. As such, the concept that Elsa’s magical abilities require a cure or to be supressed is established in the dialogue with the King and Queen of Arendelle early in both versions of Frozen. On stage, Elsa’s release from this pressure in “Let It Go” is briefly foreshadowed but quashed in “Dangerous to Dream” when she survives the coronation without incident before losing her temper. However, the imagery layered in her final solo number “Monster” gives Broadway’s Elsa a troubled psychological profile. In “Monster”, Elsa verbalises thoughts including “Fear will be your enemy/And death its consequence”, “If I die, will they be free?”, and “before I fade to white”, anticipating the resolution of Frozen’s eternal winter with her death (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2018). “Monster” is also punctuated by menacing interjections of “End this winter/Bring back summer” (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2018) by the male chorus in a gesture not dissimilar to “Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer” in Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (1986) or “March of the Witch Hunters” from Wicked. In this way, ending “winter” is clearly analogous to executing Elsa, and this is especially potent for audience members familiar with the direction of the story after the new song. In this moment, Elsa is portrayed as the anti-hero who has caused disaster, hidden from its consequences, and potentially murdered her sister, and this is communicated in a moment of emotional and dramaturgical crisis. Musically Frozen: The Broadway Musical reinforces the implication that Elsa is deviant from the majority and will be unable to find peace or accept her power without causing harmful disruption to the people she loves.
The conflict in Elsa’s musical self-conceptualisation is highlighted by Times reviewer Jesse Green (2017), who commented in his out-of-town review that the songs for Elsa’s stage incarnation frame her character in bleakness:
[…] Her new numbers, in addition to the big old one, become a string of super-intense monologues, as if she were Hamlet or Sweeney Todd. She is always having dark epiphanies, but her epiphanies are mostly the same: There is something wrong with me.
This emphasis on “wrongness” or deviance infects the score in two ways. Firstly, the additional songs “Dangerous to Dream” and “Monster” provide Elsa with emotive but volatile moments of introspection that lead her to question her identity and, later, her right to live. Secondly, they alter her musical relationship with Anna. “True Love”, Anna’s plaintive ballad before the final confrontation scene at the end of the stage musical, replicates the self-doubt threaded through Elsa’s songs. Anna’s pathos in this song centres on the notion that she has only acted in the interests of securing Hans and has therefore brought deserved death on herself. However, we as viewers see a wider narrative of emotional isolation linked to her lack of connection with Elsa as well as her determination to save her sister whatever the cost. In the final lines of “True Love”, Anna bastardises the melody and lyric “Couldn’t keep it in/Heaven knows I tried” from “Let It Go” as “I can’t wish [the dream] away/No matter how I try” (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2018). Where the stage “Let It Go” lends Elsa emotional liberation during the interval, we listen to Anna plaintively reflect that her emotional impulses are ultimately the cause of her own downfall: an internalised form of “slut-shaming”. Subsequently, musical quotations from “Let It Go” and “Monster” in the production sequence that contains the confrontation between Elsa and Hans and the interruption by Anna reinforce the dramaturgical construction that Anna’s death will liberate her from the trauma of emotional abandonment by Elsa, while Elsa’s death will free her (and the kingdom) from the affliction of her magic.
The underlying tension between Anna’s needs and Elsa’s freedom is made most evident when, in Act Two of the stage musical, Anna (Elsa’s only perceived ally in Frozen) makes the journey to find Elsa, leading to the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever” as in the animation. However, the musical segue between the dialogue and the opening of “For the First Time” includes an original lead-in. In a sparse arrangement of the melody from the extended chorus at the end of Lovato’s “Let It Go”, Elsa sings “Standing frozen in this life I’ve chosen/Please don’t find me./The past is all behind me. […] Let Me Go” (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2018), allowing Anna to respond with the familiar “Please don’t shut me out again” as anticipated from the film. Here, the music reframes the distance Elsa has previously celebrated as a means of ostracising her sister and creating potentially fatal isolation for them both. This exemplifies an underlying textual darkness in Frozen on stage that is negated by the depiction of physical distance on screen. This example also demonstrates that Elsa can only conceptualise her social and psychological freedom away from the fairy-tale utopia of Arendelle that Anna is fighting to preserve. Elsa’s magic and her use of it is irreconcilable with the existing social structures of Frozen, and this tension is increased by Anna’s need for sisterhood. This moment subtly highlights the weaponisation of family responsibility that has been used to moderate female behaviour and defines a palatable representation of female power. Elsa can only be queen if she relinquishes or hides her magic. Meanwhile, she must also operate as a dutiful daughter and sister.
The dramaturgical significance of this meeting between Elsa and Anna clearly spoke to Frozen’s songwriters, who created three contrasting moments for this spot across the development of the screen and stage score. Preserved in the Deluxe Soundtrack recording, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez also drafted a “more confrontational” duet for the animation called “Life’s Too Short” (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2013). In this unused song, Anna suggests that Elsa return to Arendelle with her, while wearing her gloves to inhibit her magic. In this way, she and Elsa can save their nation and become best friends again in the process. Elsa responds that Anna is just like the others, determined to keep her in a cage. Both this version of “Life’s Too Short” and its unused reprise, written to accompany Elsa’s imprisonment near the end of the film, are framed by quotations of “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?” the chirpy but plaintive “book” song, which outlines Anna’s isolation when Elsa is locked away. Musically, therefore, the sisters’ destructive tendencies are linked to the toxicity of their relationship and their own emotional challenges rather than their social isolation and detachment from dominant views of sisterhood and duty. More recently, the songwriters created a third musical setting of this moment, a new song called “I Can’t Lose You”, which has been introduced to the North American tour. Not unlike the repurposing of Beyoncé’s “Listen” in the West End revival of Dreamgirls (2016), which provided a reconciliation duet for singing rivals Deena and Effie, “I Can’t Lose You” allows Anna and Elsa to grapple with their feelings towards each other (Lee 2019). Ashley Lee’s commentary in the Los Angeles Times suggests that “the moving duet manages to reveal each sister’s intense and prolonged yearning to be with the other, while illustrating how complicated friendships between adults—tender from bruises and broken hearts—can be.” It is unclear whether this song (currently unrecorded) will be added to the Broadway production or will be retained when Frozen opens in London on 30 October 2020. Anderson-Lopez claims that “I Can’t Lose You” is the song they had hoped to write for the animation but “never found” during the original development period (ibid.).
The Frozen franchise undoubtedly aligns its heroines with a palatable version of “girl power” in that Anna and Elsa provide seemingly agentic heroes for audiences to assimilate with: the sisters are in power, they are independent from men, and they save one another. However, on stage, Anna and Elsa’s individual struggles are coded in misogynist perceptions of female deviance and fragility. For example, the satire of the love-at-first sight trope, prevalent in Disney’s princess musicals, is made at the expenses of Anna’s emotional and social agency. While “Love Is An Open Door” and “What Do You Know About Love?” centre Anna in partnership with Hans or Kristoff, “True Love” (her last solo number in the show) shames her for an excessive, unfiltered enthusiasm for romance even though her relationship with Hans (and, also, with Kristoff) is not a defining feature of the adventure’s storyline. As a result, Anna is never able to share in Elsa’s passing state of self-acceptance in “Let It Go” that is passively reinforced by Elsa’s transformed appearance and costuming for the rest of the film(s)/show. Yet, Broadway’s Elsa is never allowed any lasting nuance of self-concept when it comes to her powers. As shown in the musical examples above, Elsa’s emotional liberation in “Let It Go”, which allows her to find new creative agency, is presented in opposition to her obligations to her sister. The fleetingness of “Let It Go” and the position of “Monster” as the Frozen’s eleven o’clock number reinforce a negative perception of Elsa’s magic as dangerous and disruptive to the social infrastructure of her kingdom. As such, the textual layers that present the previously goofy, susceptible Anna of the animation as stupid rather than naïve reframe her as an unlikely and possibly, accidental, saviour for her sister. By contrast, Hans and the Duke of Wesleton design and plan their approach to capture Elsa—they are methodical and deliberate. As a result, the sisters’ impulsivity (to fall in love, to flee, to follow, etc.) is shown as the catalyst for the musical’s negative storylines and is tied to their specific, musicalized shame about being emotionally needy and unable to control their impulses.

4. “Agitating for Feminist Change”: Intersectionality and Palatability in Frozen on Broadway

While this article self-consciously advocates “Let It Go” as a vital moment of embodied power in the complicated dramaturgy of Frozen: The Broadway Musical, there is an undeniable tension between the representation of Elsa’s empowerment and the use of shame to overmaster both heroines in the show’s additional songs. Where we can situate Elsa’s mid-narrative actions as a form of feminist self-determination that “demonstrates women’s need for expanded agency” (Meyers 2002, p. 5), neither she nor Anna is allowed to push the boundaries of accepted womanhood (polite, family-orientated, graceful, reconciliatory, etc.) too far. Anna may comedically fall over her feet to facilitate the meet-cute with Hans, her goofiness celebrated through the lyrics in “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever” at the beginning of the musical, but she will repeatedly call herself stupid and deluded as she is unable to grapple with her sister and “dies” from the ice strike to her heart. Hans then describes her as “so desperate for love” that she is an easy target and “dumb” in her pursuit of Elsa (Buck and Lee 2014), and the new song “True Love” musicalizes this, showing passive acceptance of her supposed defects, a recognised marker of internalized misogyny. Most significantly, Elsa is only permitted to detach herself from her toxic and damaging childhood environment temporarily. Frozen depends on the truth that she has to return to her queendom and be happy in her return. Therefore, Elsa’s disinclination to be crowned is presented entirely through the lens that she cannot control (yet) her powers. However, “Let It Go” reveals that Elsa embraces the freedom from all the restrictions her previous life has given her. She is immediately ready to abdicate her royal duties and damn the consequences. Where this (temporarily) disrupts previous Cinderella narratives that deify a royal life, it is easy to overlook the fact that Elsa only returns to Arendelle because she is captured and brought back through force. After Anna heroically prevents her execution and Elsa uncovers a means of controlling her power, she returns to the throne using her magic to restore Arendelle to its fairy-tale utopic state. However, the terms of her liberation set out in “Let It Go” are principally undermined.
Looking outside of the text itself, the representation of Anna and Elsa in a story partially shaped by female creators seems significant. In her chapter on the film, Whitfield (2017, p. 221) outlines the presence of women in the film’s creative team, highlighting Jennifer Lee as “the first woman director at Disney animation”. (Lee wrote the animation’s screenplay, is a credited co-author for the story, and was a co-recipient of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.) Where the original Broadway production has introduced substantial limitations to the characters of Elsa and Anna on stage, it has retained a relatively progressive gender balance within the hierarchy of its creative team. With the book by Lee, the score co-authored by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, lighting by Natasha Katz, and make-up design by Anne Ford-Coates, some of the most significant roles on Frozen: The Broadway Musical’s production team are also held by women at a time where it is still possible to find all-male creative teams on the international musical stage. While this does not represent gender parity, Frozen also joins a selection of stage musicals, including Chicago (1975), Wicked, and Mean Girls (2017), which are dominated by female vocalists, contrasting revival hits such as The Book of Mormon (2011), Disney’s Aladdin (2011), teen favourite Dear Evan Hansen (2015), and the mega-musical Hamilton (2015), which generally foreground male voices. However, where Whitfield (2017, p. 225) highlights the innovation of Elsa and Anna duetting together while being in one another’s physical presence (a first in the Disney animated universe and in their stage adaptations), this is less phenomenal on stage where examples range from “I Will Never Leave You” in Sideshow (1997), “For Good” in Wicked, and “The Schuyler Sisters” in Hamilton (2015) or, in a queer context, “Take Me For What I Am” in RENT (1996), “What About Love” in The Color Purple (2005), or “You Happened” in The Prom (2016). Unfortunately, the additional music in Frozen: The Broadway Musical reinforces distance between Anna and Elsa, despite a glimpse of happiness in “A Little Bit of You” in its opening moments. Marketing for the initial Broadway opening also includes a video releasse of “Monster” (still available from Disney Music’s YouTube channel with over 4.7 million views), as a sequel anthem to “Let It Go”, prioritising Elsa’s turmoil in the language of the adaptation once again.
The details of the music video for “Monster” are significant, with Caissie Levy (Elsa), chorus members, and orchestra clad in all modern black outfits performing in a nearly bare set in a vast hall. Levy, the centre of the performance, is surrounded by naked strip lights reminiscent of the “frozen fractals” in “Let It Go”. The direction is modern, nodding to traditions of the rock musical and yet clearly evoking the pop music language of a Kelly Clarkson video, aligning Frozen with shows including Wicked and Mean Girls that prioritise a teenage audience. As a marketing tool, the official video for “Monster” removes “the dress”, Elsa’s plaited hair, and the evocative scenery into a pop-Emo sphere. Yet, the details of the lyrics about the storm, the cold, the winter situate the song within the Frozen landscape. In her reading of the reception of the animation, Whitfield (2017, p. 224) highlights areas of internet culture that have encouraged people of colour to reimagine animated Frozen with their own identities represented and argues that the film was marketed in “gender neutral” terms that did not centre on Anna and Elsa. However, the stage musical exists in a tense environment where the production is framed by the recent success of the animation, the role of the digital age in maintaining the work’s popularity (e.g., the popular use of GIFs, memes, and Frozen pastiches on apps such as TikTok), and the practical reconciliation of what can and cannot be achieved on stage. I have described the limitations of realising “Let It Go” in this way but have not addressed the potential shortcoming of both the film and the stage adaptation that relies on potential “hope of more” to cover its other representational shortcomings. Where I have discussed Frozen in the context of palatability (e.g., Elsa is allowed to enjoy her magic up a mountain all alone but must be brought home to achieve the narrative’s resolution), this has been couched in accepting a limited view of what feminism stands for and aims to achieve. As noted above, Whitfield (2017, p. 223) highlights online spaces for people of colour to situate themselves within Frozen. She also notes a possible queer reading of Elsa in the context of singleness, a lack of interest in romance, and the themes in “Let It Go”. Both these receptions of the film highlight a limitation of the film’s feminist potential. It is exclusively white, and any queer subtext in Elsa’s characterisation is unequal to overt queer representation.
When “intersectionality” was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, she aimed to address the exclusion and marginalisation of “Black women within not only antidiscrimination law but also in feminist and antiracist theory and politics” (Carbado et al. 2013, p. 303). The evolution of intersectional theory has, to some extent, co-opted Crenshaw’s initial theorisation of forms of identity, their relative values to social power, and the relationships between marginalisation and privilege. Where Frozen facilitates some improved gender representation, it does this almost entirely in the space of white women despite some attempt to change the racial representation of the work. In addition to casting a multiracial ensemble, both the Denver tryout and the original Broadway cast featured black American actors, Okieriete Onaodowan and Jelani Alladin, respectively, as Anna’s companion and reluctant love interest, Kristoff. In a further colour-blind casting decision, the original Broadway production also introduced black American actor James Brown III as Anna and Elsa’s father King Agnarr. While Alladin’s casting was trailed as “non-traditional” by an ABC News segment promoting the original Broadway production (ABC News 2018), it is important to recognise the disposability of King Agnarr who dies early in the musical and the lack of textual impact Kristoff has on the dramaturgy of Frozen. Feminism in Frozen is so distinctively tied to the disruptive appearance of Anna and Elsa in the lineage of Disney’s princess movies that, to some, an intersectional reading of the stage musical’s cast and creative team seems divergent from its status as a refreshing and vital piece of children’s entertainment. Yet, Frozen’s international success is partly connected to its marketability, including its branding and merchandising possibilities. The same ABC News featurette (ibid.) mentioned above includes the expression “Disney princesses in pants” three times, highlighting this superficial contemporisation as a crucial hit point in the show’s marketing. The comment references Elsa’s magical transformation from repressed, dutiful queen to liberated ice-bender who changes from a Cinderella-like ball gown at the end of Act One (Duffy 2019) to a corset and breaches in Act Two, and ABC’s featurette uses these “trousers” as a sign of progressivity in the same minute as highlighting the casting of Alladin as “non-traditional”. Here, Alladin is othered from his co-stars; his identity is disruptive in the context of Frozen’s racial environment. His casting becomes a performative and political detail that has the potential to objectify Alladin as a racialized other in the context of hegemonic whiteness.
This potential is made more complicated by the introduction of black women to the replacement casts of the Frozen stage musical. In April 2018, chorus member and understudy Aisha Jackson replaced Patti Murin as Anna, taking on the role a number of times when Murin was unable to appear (Poulisse 2019), and black Latina actress Ciara Renée is scheduled to replace Caissie Levy as Elsa in February 2020. While both Jackson and Renée bring welcome change to the Broadway cast, neither actress was centred in the original publicity drive and, therefore, its wider digital footprint. For example, the materials for Frozen’s West End transfer all feature Levy and Murin. While Grandage is quoted as saying “we want the companies of Frozen to always be diverse and represent the world we live in” (Jones 2019), these women are invisible in the world of Frozen, first dominated by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell and now by Levy and Murin. While the inclusion of Alladin (now replaced by Noah Ricketts), Jackson, and Renée are minor steps forward, progress will only be achieved when the stage production disrupts the race representation of the animation by casting an actor of colour as Elsa or Anna in an original cast line-up with a major cast recording and promotional drive. Alladin’s performance in the original Broadway cast certainly disrupts the white hegemony of the Frozen franchise, but Kristoff is ultimately a secondary lead who is frequently omitted from the visual materials associated with the stage and screen media for the show (unlike the film). Indeed, Kristoff’s puppet sidekick, Sven the Reindeer, has similar narrative impact to Kristoff, and they are both frequently immaterial to the textual layers of the show. When it has taken nearly sixteen years for Brittney Johnson to become the first black woman to play Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked on Broadway (Rogo 2019), we must interrogate the roles made available to actors of colour and especially dark-skinned black actors. Elsa, like Glinda before her, has the potential to embody the exclusionary promotion of white womanhood on stage. There are aesthetic and social similarities between these wealthy, socially commanding women, whose blondness can be aligned with whiteness. If we are to elevate Frozen as different to the previous Disney princess vehicle in any way, we have to recognise that the tokenistic representation of black or nebulously “ethnic” communities is not even passingly intersectional.
These issues of representation and casting are brought into sharp focus when examining the rebranding of the chorus, once Norwegian villagers, as the “Hidden Folk” in the transition between the tryouts and Broadway. The animated trolls have been reimagined as hill dwellers with moss-inspired costumes and long green dreadlocks. When Pabbie, the leader of the Hidden Folk, opens the Broadway musical each night, he wears a troll headdress that is a clear reference to the costume for Mufasa in the stage version of The Lion King. As he removes his cloak, he reveals that the male Hidden Folk will perform bare-chested while the women are modestly wrapped in green bodysuits. The apparent othering that takes place in this depiction is significant, especially given there is obvious signposting to Taymor’s lion masks, worn only by black actors, and the use of dreadlocks, a black hairstyle, as part of all the chorus costumes. In this context, Alladin’s casting as Kristoff ceases to be “non-traditional”: he is aligned with blackness visually and socially. Meanwhile, he, the only “commoner” (read: working class and black) of Frozen’s protagonists, is also problematically aligned with an appropriative, “racialized” tribe that is literally positioned as outside from Arendelle.
As such, Frozen’s feminism is almost entirely communicated through the lens of whiteness, and this is made more problematic on stage where the trolls are reimagined as a racialized tribal community. This gives a textual context for racial marginalisation and defeats the objective of improved representation alongside Frozen’s seemingly disruptive gender roles. Kristoff is the only character that has been consistently played by a black actor in Frozen: The Broadway Musical, and the details of a major production (e.g., costumes, make-up, and lighting) are seldom altered once the production has been set. Therefore, Kristoff’s blackness has been aligned with otherness as illustrated by the “non-traditional” casting comment. Where Anna and Elsa’s fragility is centred in gendered shortcomings (too emotional; too witchlike; too romantic), the politics of the stage musical first reinforce gender conforming behaviour in its heroines and then amplify a regressive class and racial ideology as well. By contrast, The Princess and the Frog (2009) protagonist Tiana reckons with class and social stigma as part of her journey to achieve her dream. Her relative struggles are shown in subtle comparison to the privileges of her wealthy white friend Charlotte and her love interest, Prince Naveen. Similarly, Disney’s television remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997) starring Brandy, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Houston, Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, and Paolo Montalban shows the possibilities of colour-blind casting within all layers of the princess narrative. Frozen’s replacement casts show that there is an intention to explore similarly colour-blind race representation in the stage adaptation, but this is insufficient when the show’s original marketing, the original cast album, and other audio-visual media will transcend subsequent cast identities. Where Frozen requires its heroines to conform to other normative or hegemonic behaviours associated with princesses, women of colour and especially black women continue to be excluded from these discourses. Important analyses of gender representation and its relationship to Frozen as a feminist work must acknowledge the shortcomings of the characters and the storyline. Yet, we have not yet explored the significance of Elsa’s blondeness, the role of her hair in her transformation (both on screen and stage), and the context in which the creators of the stage musical are working to celebrate and amplify aspects of this reception to the film in the complementary stage version. It is insufficient to reimagine Kristoff when the details of the story hang on Anna and Elsa’s actions, and it is hugely problematic to reimagine in the social environment of the show to contextualise the appearance of black actors in an originally “white” narrative.

5. Conclusions

The introduction of Frozen 2 has some significance for readings of the stage musical. As the animated sequel reunites the same producer Peter Del Vecho, directors Beck and Lee, songwriters Anderson-Lopez and Lopez, and composer Christopher Beck and the core roster of stars, including Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell as Elsa and Anna, details of the later film attempt to address some of the intertextual shortcomings of the original film and, perhaps more strikingly, the stage adaptation. For example, Elsa is ostensibly liberated from the limitations of the palace and its social confines, leaving Anna to assume the throne. In fact, it is only through knowledge of this sequel that some of the dramaturgical choices in Frozen on Broadway (e.g., Elsa’s proto-suicidal feelings) are perhaps contextualised. For example, Elsa’s tendency to put herself at risk has new narrative meaning as she has self-protective powers. Frozen 2 also turns on the fact that Elsa has poor self-conception and, therefore, cannot quantify and respect her powers and their limitations or believe in her right to belong or to flourish as she is. In the original animation, we see her attempt to find out who she is and how she can be free of the restrictions that make her vulnerable and dangerous. This is made clearer through the addition of “Monster” in the stage adaptation. When liberated from the bondage of royal life at the end of Frozen 2, Elsa comes into herself and finds her confidence. The sequel grapples with Elsa as an outsider in more sophisticated terms than either the original animation or screen adaptation are able to achieve.
While it feels appealing to situate Frozen as an inspirational new take on the Disney princess trope where women are powerful and save each other, it is patriarchal hegemony that shames Anna for being inspired by love, making her subject to numerous jokes about desperate and misguided gendered behaviour, and requires Elsa to limit herself or even contemplate death by suicide to “protect” the infrastructure of their world. All versions of Frozen advocate self-sacrifice in recognition of “wrongness” and continue to challenge how we determine female emancipation. Where the franchise targets palatability within the layers of “Let It Go” in Frozen and the last section of “Show Yourself” in Frozen 2, the story generally trades on our fascination with the workings of royalty and the problems faced by the extremely privileged. Where Jesse Green described Frozen on Broadway as “like The Crown but colder”, he touches on the parallel escapism that Netflix’s serial drama about the British royal family and the Disney princess trope provide (Green 2018). The tensions in Frozen juxtapose death and world annihilation with utopian domesticity. Neither Anna nor Elsa can be “free” without holding onto their duty to protect and nurture. Yet, in Frozen 2, the world they inhabit can resolve land rights abuses and repatriation in a sweeping gesture. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Elsa’s emotional perception of her circumstances have real-world consequences that she can only address by accepting who she is, and yet, the additional music in the Frozen stage musical situates the solution in her destruction. Even in the rousing final chorus of “Monster”, Elsa’s rejuvenation is expressed through the notion that she may yet be the villain and have to die in order to save the world. While presented in mixed terms, animated Elsa is shown to have agency and to recognise her worth in her post-“Let It Go” transformation. She is able to use her creations to protect herself and make a tangible army of malevolent snowmen to fight for her. On stage, the only solution, reinforced by the lyrics of “Monster”, is for Elsa to sacrifice herself rather than to harness her power.
Frozen: The Broadway Musical is forced to address certain practical limitations, including a lack of music in the “third act” of the animation, challenging scenery and representing live magic. However, the manifestation of this production’s solutions shape Elsa’s personal transformation with self-doubt and self-hate. We never believe, even acknowledging her iconic power ballad “Let It Go”, that Elsa does not feel guilt and sadness about her distance from Anna, but we do believe that she has done the best for the people around her and herself. In the stage adaptation, it is necessary to extend her process of guilt throughout the second act; a detail that is central to Elsa’s next “Let It Go” moment in Frozen 2: “Into the Unknown”. In this song, Elsa continue to grapple with her power and sense of identity when she is haunted by the call from a mysterious disembodied voice. The sonic environment of the film, using surround sound and acousmatic effects to create “physical” distance, tells the audience that this is not a voice “inside” Elsa but something external calling to her. When Elsa sings “I can hear you/But I won’t”, she continues to employ her resistive techniques (“conceal, don’t feel”) to ignore the call because “everyone she’s ever loved” is in Arendelle and she is afraid of the risk and potential loss of running away a second time (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2019).
In these ways, Frozen: The Broadway Musical demands that its heroines negotiate a new social freedom never allowed to their Disney predecessors without exploring any radical or disruptive behaviour for more than a fleeting moment. The imagery used in “Monster”, reminiscent of a witch hunt, highlights how Anna and Elsa are cajoled by the patriarchal influences in the story to question their self-conceptions and feel shame. In addressing a lack of set changes and physical distance or time passing, the stage musical amplifies the sections of the story that show that men plot to depose Elsa, hunt her down, and destroy the sisters’ lives. Yet, the stage adaptation does not introduce a villainous song of treachery such as “Fie On Goodness” in Camelot (1960). Instead, the songwriters musicalize the emotional trauma the sisters feel without providing any substantial release in the closing number. The return to “Let It Go” in the finale is logical and musically sound, with Anna suggesting that Elsa is finally free and Elsa, in turn, acknowledging Anna’s role in her escape: “the magic one is you” (Anderson-Lopez and Lopez 2018). Yet, the finale is centred on the coming together of the ensemble and Arendelle’s renewed future as a community. This utopic transformation from cold to warm aligns with the subthemes of Frozen, expanded on stage, that explore the struggle to find yourself and accept the people you love for who they are. However, in so doing, Frozen: The Broadway Musical also reinforces notions of white hegemony, crowding out equitable representation onstage, while telling little girls that it is only permissible to be different if you can do it in a way that will not disrupt the social codes around you.


This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Robbins, H. “I Can’t Be What You Expect of Me”: Power, Palatability, and Shame in Frozen: The Broadway Musical. Arts 2020, 9, 39.

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