Frozen opens in the West End: meet Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon AKA Elsa and Anna

·5-min read
 (Trevor Leighton ©Disney )
(Trevor Leighton ©Disney )

Stroll through Covent Garden at about 7pm and you might notice something unusual: a sticky-fingered succession of tots in blue tulle and tiaras, some bashing passers-by with magic wands, others warbling Let it Go in fevered anticipation. The long-awaited stage adaptation of 2013 Disney movieFrozen has finally reached the West End. But with dazzling Broadway production values and an emotionally astute storyline, you don’t have to go to infant school to get seriously excited about it.

West End regular Samantha Barks is taking the coveted role of Elsa after rising to fame with an appearance on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Any Dream Will Do, starring alongside Dublin-born actor Stephanie McKeon as her plucky, put-upon younger sister Anna.

McKeon reckons that the secret to Frozen’s devoted fanbase is the way it steps away from fairytale clichés and towards the more relatable complexities of sibling dynamics — Elsa is powerful but emotionally distant, while Anna is puppyishly desperate for her love, and must work to reunite Elsa with her community when crisis hits. “What makes Frozen so interesting is that its love story is not necessarily a romantic one,” says McKeon. “It’s about the golden bond between two sisters who are very different, and the way they are prepared to fight for it.”

Stephanie McKeon as Anna in Frozen (Trevor Leighton ©Disney)
Stephanie McKeon as Anna in Frozen (Trevor Leighton ©Disney)

McKeon explains that she and Barks both felt a strong connection to the story from the start. “We actually both have sisters that we’re really close to, so we had the same gut reaction — it just makes it resonate more, it all feels so real.”

The pair’s own bond first began two years ago. “They took their time casting her,” Barks explains. “Thankfully, because they found the perfect Anna! We met up on the Century Club rooftop for a coffee, and then the coffee turned into lunch, the lunch turned into drinks and we were there for 12 hours. We talked about everything, like we’d known each other our whole lives.” McKeon says that she knew early on that this relationship had legs. “I remember just coming home and thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna be good’.”

It sounds like the start of a theatreland fairytale… but like any heroines, this duo’s faith has been sorely tested. Frozen the Musical premiered on Broadway in 2018, and was scheduled to come to London last autumn. Since then, successive lockdowns have meant that Frozen’s opening night has been postponed several times. “Each time, it’s so difficult for your heart, because you’re so invested”, says Barks.

Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon in rehearsals for Frozen (Marc Brenner)
Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon in rehearsals for Frozen (Marc Brenner)

As McKeon adds, “We were chatting constantly the whole time, watching the news. You’d have off days where it all felt a bit hopeless, but we kept each other going. We were sort of each other’s cheerleaders.”

The pair needed all the team spirit they could muster upon re-entering rehearsals after months of watching Netflix on the sofa. For McKeon, “It has felt like a Couch to 5k type situation because it’s quite a physical show, with these big set pieces that I have to climb”.

Barks has a challenge of her own to master. Let It Go is a song that pretty much every aspiring princess born in the last decade has dreamed of singing. So performing it in the West End comes with its own pressures. Whereas Idina Menzel delivered her landmark movie vocals from the comfort of a recording studio, Barks has to sing it live, at the centre of a blizzard of technical wizardry that marks Elsa’s transformation from dutiful daughter to all-powerful ice queen. “It’s the most thrilling part of the show for me,” she says “Things have to go right, but it results in absolute magic.”

A viral YouTube video show just exactly how wrong things can go, charting the agonising moment when an actor playing Elsa in a Hollywood stage version of Frozen gets tangled in the strings designed to transform her dress. “That’s a different production isn’t it,” says Barks, hastily changing the subject to reassure me that things are more professional in the West End: “I just can’t tell you how many people’s creative genius goes into making that moment what it is”.

Frozen certainly proves what theatre designers are capable of ‒ if it’s not technically magic, it certainly feels a lot like it. Designer Christopher Oram’s enchantment starts with flickering Northern Lights that glimmer across the imaginary Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, mesmerising anyone starved of foreign travel, before reaching a climax decked with enough glimmering crystals to outfit the entire infant population of the UK with tiaras.

This stage version adds new depths to the film musically, as well as visually. The movie pins all its hopes on a tiny handful of fantastically memorable tunes. Here, there are 12 new songs, including unlikely highlight Hygge, a bonkers Mel Brooks-esque number full of semi-nude Scandis beating each other with birch twigs.

It also gives Elsa and Anna a much-needed duet: “It allows you to delve deeper into their relationship,” says Barks, “showing how their love manifests differently from each other in a way that’s really powerful.”

Samantha Barks as Elsa in Frozen (Trevor Leighton ©Disney)
Samantha Barks as Elsa in Frozen (Trevor Leighton ©Disney)

These sisters are so different, and their relationship is stretched to breaking point - but it survives, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Frozen has such an intense emotional hold on people. That, and the fact that everyone would secretly like to be able to retreat to a gigantic ice palace when their family pisses them off.

Is Barks worried about overly-invested Frozen fans singing along to ‘Let It Go’ and putting her off her stride? “Well, I can’t hear anything from the stage,” she says, “But I love seeing people dressed up in Elsa and Anna costumes.”

Glimmering princess dresses are on sale in the foyer of the newly restored Theatre Royal Drury Lane, one of the West End’s most storied venues, where Frozen’s historical stylings sit beautifully alongside 350 years of history and at least four resident ghosts. “The theatre looks amazing after its renovation,” says McKeon. “The first time Samantha and I went to see it, we were like, ‘I wish I could go on a girls night out and have a glass and come see the show!’.”

Fortunately for us, they’ll be singing their hearts out on stage instead of lounging in the stalls - with hundreds of watching fans itching to join the sisterhood.

Frozen is at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, currently booking until June 2022; frozenthemusical.co.uk

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