“Frozen” heats up Denver: Inside Disney’s multimillion-dollar quest to conquer Broadway

Patti Murin will portray Anna in Disney’s pre-Broadway musical "Frozen," coming to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on August 17. (Provided by the DCPA.)

Broadway singer and actress Patti Murin shares nearly everything about her work with her actor husband, Colin Donnell.

But not her latest project.

“I’ve been involved in this for a year and my husband doesn’t know a single thing about it,” Murin, 36, said of “Frozen: The Musical,” the stage adaptation of Disney’s 2013 hit animated movie. “It’s been such a closed process. And I mean closed. Nobody we love has been able to see it.”

Dozens of people working on the top-secret production have been camped inside the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex since May. Even before that, Disney executives had been considering “Frozen” for a stage musical, given the established pipeline for animated Disney features such as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” to become Broadway (and later, nationally touring) productions.

When “Frozen: The Musical” debuts for the public at the Buell on Aug. 17, it could mark the launch of another theatrical production worth millions, or perhaps a billion, dollars for Disney, which plans to move the show to Broadway’s St. James Theatre in February.

But first, the “Frozen” team must work out countless kinks during the seven-week “pre-Broadway engagement” in Denver, a city in which Disney has learned to rely on the quantity and quality of theater-going audiences, plus skilled crews and facilities that mirror the production’s eventual home in New York City.

“We have about 150 people in Denver working on the show,” said Jack Eldon, vice president of domestic touring for Disney Theatrical Group. “That includes performers, technical crew, the creative team and all our designers. But we also need to make sure audiences there can sustain the number of performances that we need to revise some set pieces, and tweak things like the costumes and music.”

Landing “Frozen: The Musical” is a coup for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), which hosts the region’s biggest touring theater productions. But it’s not unprecedented. In 2007, DCPA also hosted the six-week, pre-Broadway run of the stage adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, selling a record 95,000 tickets. It has also served as the launchpad for the national-touring production of “The Lion King,” which has been seen by tens of millions since that road version opened in Denver 15 years ago.

“Frozen: The Musical” is just the latest example of the DCPA’s national influence and evolution into touring-show powerhouse, DCPA president Janice Siden told The Denver Post.

“Everywhere I go, our Broadway group is the envy of theater groups around the country,” added Martin Semple, DCPA chairman, who credited DCPA Broadway executive director John Ekeberg with keeping the Disney relationship strong. “Going to the Tonys with John and meeting all these people just confirmed the respect people have for us.”

The DCPA has driven ticket sales for its 2017-18 season by dangling “Frozen” in front of its more than 28,000 subscribers. It has every reason to expect that the broad, crossover appeal of a “Frozen” tryout will help this season surpass last year’s numbers.

As the largest nonprofit theater company in the country, the DCPA sold 685,375 tickets to its touring-Broadway and in-house theater company shows in fiscal 2016, generating $150 million in economic impact and attracting roughly 1.2 million visitors to downtown Denver, according to a DCPA report.

Despite employing the original, Oscar-winning creative team from the film version of “Frozen,” and big-name Broadway veterans — including Tony winners such as director Michael Grandage (“Red”), choreographer Rob Ashford (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) and music supervisor Stephen Oremus (“Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon”) — Disney is leaving nothing to chance.

Past musical adaptations of the animated Disney films “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan” were high-profile flops, and “Frozen: The Musical” has already burned through a couple of directors, three choreographers, two set designers and a pair of Elsas, according to The New York Times.

But flesh-and-blood audiences will have the last word on this reportedly $25 million-$30 million production — not the first.

“The creators get so close to it (that) I promise you they will be shocked at least once in that first performance — for good or bad,” said Dennis Crowley, senior publicist at Disney Theatrical. “If it’s like every other musical ever written, the creators will find something they absolutely did not expect, either something they thought would be a knock-’em-dead moment that won’t, or a laugh they never saw coming.”

Crowley cited the example of “Aladdin: The Musical,” the pre-Broadway engagement of which involved major retooling in the show’s first 40 minutes after theater goers in Toronto failed to respond to voice-over narration, which diverged significantly from the film.

“Audiences said, ‘We don’t know these people. We don’t care about these people. Where’s the pretty girl in the midriff and the hot boy and the genie?’ So they cut all the narration, brought in the genie at the top of the show and,” Crowley said, snapping his fingers, “from the first New York performance it was a different show. And that’s not atypical.”

Disney Theatrical has built in at least three months of downtime between the end of the 46-show Denver run on Oct. 1 and its New York roll-out early next year, just in case it needs a new song, new sets or more. Already, a creative team that includes the married songwriters from the film, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, has expanded “Frozen” from a 102-minute movie to a roughly two-hour musical, with triple the number of songs and a cast of more than 40.

Like most film shooting schedules, the pre-Broadway engagement is a grueling sprint that squeezes the most out of everyone’s time and energy — even if it started in earnest more than a year ago with the film’s original co-director, Jennifer Lee, writing the script and rehearsing the show at Manhattan’s New 42nd Street Studios.

“Right now in (technical rehearsals) in Denver it’s pretty intense,” said Caissie Levy, a Broadway veteran who plays Princess Elsa in the musical. “We’re there for nine or 10 hours a day, popping in for wig fittings and slotting things in like that. The first month of previews we’ll rehearse all day, and there will be a lot of maintenance for Patti and me. A lot of justified massages, sleep and steam rooms.”

There’s plenty of pressure on Levy the role of Princess Elsa, which includes belting out the instantly familiar and Oscar-winning song “Let It Go.” But there’s also opportunity in evolving an animated princess into a three-dimensional character.

It’s a tricky balance: “Frozen: The Musical” must mirror major aspects of the movie, because that’s what is selling tickets for the DCPA right now. Loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” has resonated with global audiences thanks to its empowering female characters, humor and melody-drenched songs.

But the musical version must also find its own voice. Merely mimicking the film risks alienating fans with a hokey copy of the original — no matter how eye-popping the sets, costumes and special effects are.

And the potential audience is huge: “Frozen” is the highest grossing animated film in history, with more than $1 billion in worldwide revenue. DCPA and Denver tourism officials are anticipating plenty of out-of-state visitors to attend this pre-Broadway run, since 8 percent of DCPA patrons came from out-of-state last year — versus about 4 percent 20 years ago. The percentage of out-of-state visitors increases into the double digits for touring Broadway shows like “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” the DCPA said, which gives officials a good idea of “Frozen’s” potential draw.

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The stakes and tension are high for all involved, even without considering the instantaneous reactions will be posted to social media for all — including curious New York audiences and critics — to see. For that and other reasons, the show will run for about a month in Denver before critics are allowed to officially review it on Sept. 14.

“We must be adrenaline junkies and masochists and overall crazy people to do this, because it’s so thrilling and so terrifying at the same time,” said Levy, 36, who has appeared in “Rent,” “Hairspray,” “Wicked,” “Hair” and other pillars of Broadway success.

“But we need to make sure everyone who’s seeing the show for the first and only time, who bought tickets when they went on sale months ago and are bringing all their kids in their ‘Frozen’ gear, or who got a babysitter and went out to dinner, are getting the show that they’re meant to get,” added Levy, whose 18-month-old son and (as often as he can make it) husband are joining her from New York.

The Denver Post got the first peek at the production, provided this reporter swore to secrecy about any sets, special effects or details that he witnessed.

Inside the Buell Theatre looked like more of a buzzing hive than an empty shell, with dozens of designers and technical staff camped out among the audience seats at tables filled with lamps, computer workstations, hardwired phones and rivers of overlapping wires — more like NASA’s Mission Control than a stereotypical row of producers critiquing from the front row.

Many of them were designers and their associates, including Tony winner Christopher Oram (sets and costumes), six-time Tony winner Natasha Katz (lighting) and Tony winner Finn Ross (projections).

But the final collaborator in the musical, as the cast and crew likes to say, will be Denver audiences. The creative team is hoping to make something that will run for years to come, if not decades — less a time capsule of ideas, more a vehicle for their continual delivery.

Still, no amount of preparation can predict what happens on opening night.

“That is the day that I always say to myself, ‘Why did I do this?’ Because you’re always terrified,” Murin said. “You could be as ready as you could possibly be and still be like, ‘Why did I choose this career?!’ ”

Levy, who already feels a sisterly bond with both Murin’s “hot-mess” Princess Anna character and the actress as a person, said Denver is an ideal place to get acclimated to the show and its audiences. But she won’t refuse off-stage help if she needs it.

“Self-care is super important,” she said. “I’m sure we’re going to get very chummy with that oxygen tank in the wings.”

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