Since no adult except a graduate-level professor of Theater History is likely to enjoy the new Broadway musical version of Disney’s Frozen, and since most such professors, like most teachers in America, are woefully underpaid, I’d like to propose that parents affluent enough to buy their kids tickets to Frozen arrange for a professor of Theater History to accompany each group of children. This would handily allow the two audiences most likely to enjoy Frozen to be in attendance, and would spare everyone else the burden of sitting through it. Maybe some educational-theater org could set up a clearinghouse for the purpose. The kids could learn a great deal from the professors about the historical evolution of scenic design from Inigo Jones to Adolphe Appia (with intrusions by contemporary lighting and projection technology), and the professors would get a chastening lesson in how readily the most innocent of audiences can be dazzled by the old facile gestures and cheap effects, and would never again sneer at the hokum of yesteryear’s popular theater.
Professors who specialize in the history of the American musical theater — an increasingly popular subject now that the genre’s giant profits have made nearly every university start a musical-theater training program — would particularly have a field day at Frozen, the stylistic range of which is nearly as incoherent as its storyline. One major difference between the American musical and the more formal sung-through opera that evolved in Europe has always been the former’s degree of stylistic leeway, its variety allowing for a wider audience appeal. But Frozen is all leeway and no style, hopping randomly from neo-primitive vocalized chants through Student Prince–like operetta choruses to jaunty 1920s-style comedy duets to heavily belted rock ballads. The inchoate visual sensibility that goes from “transformation scenes” straight out of The Black Crook (1866) to showy 1950s parades of drops and revolves perfectly matches the savorless feel of a show that interrupts the urgency of someone freezing to death to stick in a jolly number about how even flawed people deserve love.
For an approach nearing this height of incoherence, you have to go back to the musical’s pre-1900 beginnings, in the fairy-tale extravaganza and the British Christmas pantomime. George Bernard Shaw, reviewing one such “panto” in the early 1890s, mischievously skewered the cultural mishmash of watching the Fairy Queen, in front of Ali Baba’s cavern, belting out a then-popular ditty called “In Old Madrid.” But even Shaw would have been flummoxed by a show that balances the curse of eternal winter with tap-dancing snowmen and cutesy jokes about glögg. The haphazardly assembled musicals aimed at family audiences that toured America for years in the late-19th century, the Mother Gooses and Evangelines, were similarly feckless. When L. Frank Baum musicalized his own Wizard of Oz with the composer Paul Tietjens in 1902, the Broadway hands who oversaw the production turned it, over Baum’s objections, into one of these anything-goes operations. In the late 1980s, two Oz devotees issued a 2-CD set of all the recorded songs that had been sung in the show during its years of cross-country peregrinations — a string of dialect-comedy numbers and kitschy parlor ballads, largely irrelevant to the story. Almost none of them were by Baum and Tietjens.
The only difference that the modern advent of Dramatists Guild contracts protecting authors’ rights has made is that songwriters and book writers, working for large combines like Disney, now conspire actively at the randomness instead of letting interpolators do it. The story that Frozen tells — or, rather, asserts, in its over-amplified way — offers only intermittent gobbets of sense. The king and queen of an imaginary Nordic kingdom called Arendelle have two daughters, Elsa and Anna. Elsa has magical powers (her mother comes from “Northern nomad” stock), but is coached by her parents to keep them carefully hidden, especially after she almost freezes little Anna to death during a playful romp in the snow (something that Elsa can seemingly create at will). Because the over-cautious king and queen have kept this so secret (even their courtiers don’t know about it), when the royal couple are later lost at sea, the now-grown Elsa (Caissie Levy) becomes queen. But Elsa loses her temper at her coronation ball over an incident with Anna (Patti Murin) and unleashes her magical powers, putting the country in a permanent winter.
Elsa flees to a palatial region of icy stalagmites, but before you can say Snegurochka, Anna — abetted by a warmhearted ice peddler named Kristoff (Jelani Alladin) and his friendly reindeer, Sven (Andrew Pirozzi) — has dashed off in search of her sister. Not long after, half the court has come slogging up the mountains to rescue Anna, led by Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (John Riddle), who purports to be in love with her. The little girls in the audience, however, have all performed in the school edition of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and so know that princes are charming, not sincere. At any rate, his and various other betrayals, along with a few misunderstandings, seem to leave Elsa and Anna both facing a frozen future, but characters who’ve given up on the situation as hopeless keep suddenly reappearing to provide hope. And the whole thing has a happy ending with the summer sun coming out, after which the management has thoughtfully caused a deluge of paper snow to fall on the audience, apparently either to celebrate America’s lackadaisical view of recycling, or to remind us that the federal government has stupidly turned its back on climate change to make us the world’s laughingstock.
It’s hard to know exactly who to blame for the strikingly lackluster and jumble-shop nature of this Frozen. These corporate-provoked enterprises tend to subsume artists’ creative signatures in a generalized swamp of marketing strategies, but even Disney has in the past made some effort to do with its products aimed at child audiences what the spinners of children’s tales have been doing since birth began: to create an imaginative world that would draw the children in. Such worlds can be built on the theater’s bare boards, with only the actors’ bodies as material, or on a stage teeming with inventively designed objects of fascination. When Paul Sills put the Brothers Grimm on Broadway in Story Theatre, he used the former approach; when Julie Taymor marshaled every kind of puppet to make the exploding world of Juan Darien, she chose the latter. Many other instances of all sorts come to mind (and Taymor’s Lion King, for Disney, was no slouch in this department either, when it began its apparently unending run). The issue isn’t how much money you throw at the project but what kind of world you build, and to what extent you rouse the children’s own imaginative powers as you welcome them into it. Frozen itself is like Elsa’s ice palace — a big, cold, ugly thing, full of glittering effects but ultimately barren. Its touch, I would hazard, will leave a little piece of ice in a child’s heart.