Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, which goes to subscribers every weekday morning before appearing on this site.
The unthawing of Frozen (and Drury Lane’s reopening)
Broadway, like the West End, is currently in the midst of re-opening some of the productions that were summarily shut down in March 2020, and led to Broadway’s longest-ever shut-down in history. But some shows are not coming back: a revival of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for instance, that included Russell Tovey and Patsy Ferran (respectively seen on the West End stage since in Constellations and currently Camp Siegfried respectively) shut down during previews; ditto a Broadway transfer for Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen.
Then there were the open-ended Broadway musical runs of Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen; the former had already recouped (its capitalization was $17.3m), so it cut out the dangers of incurring further losses, while Disney made the advance calculation that when Broadway did return, there might not be a sufficient market to sustain three of their titles, so closed Frozen which was already under-performing before the sudden shutdown.
They had also already announced a London transfer to Drury Lane — originally for last year, but then moved to this — so they were able to re-use elements of that physical production here, thus saving some costs.
Announcing the decision to close the Broadway production in May 2020, Disney Theatrical’s President and producer Thomas Schumacher commented,
“In the summer of 2013 when ‘Frozen’ began its road to Broadway two things were unimaginable: that we’d soon have five productions worldwide, and a global pandemic would so alter the world economy that running three Disney shows on Broadway would become untenable.”
I was away for the September 8 premiere of Frozen in London — though I’d been at both its Denver, Colorado world premiere in 2017 (reviewing it for The Stage here at the time) and its subsequent Broadway opening.
As I wrote then,
“Twenty years ago, The Lion King employed theatrical visionary Julie Taymor and British designer Richard Hudson to transform its Hamlet-on-Safari tale into a joyous stage struggle of good and evil. Now, Disney producer Thomas Schumacher’s masterstroke is to conscript Britain’s best directorial/designer partnership, Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram, to bring Frozen to the stage. Over the last two decades, Grandage and Oram have developed an intimate shorthand at conveying epic gestures on both a small and grand scale. For Frozen, these are both brought to the fore, in a production of thrilling theatrical flair and lavish effects…. The result is the biggest creative step forward for Disney’s theatrical brand since The Lion King, a show that is sure to have a worldwide life. The West End surely beckons, and soon.”
Now that it’s here, it is even more sumptuous in the gloriously restored Theatre Royal, Drury Lane than it did on Broadway. The visuals — set/costumes (Christopher Oram), lighting (Neil Austin, replacing Natasha Katz who did the Broadway original) and video (Finn Ross) — are astonishing.
The performances of the London company are a knock-out too —Stephanie McKeon and Samantha Barks (pictured below) are perfect as the feisty, funny Anna and icy Elsa respectively. And there’s great comic support from Craig Gallivan as Olaf and Obioma Ugoala as Kristoff. as Kristoff.
Under director Michael Grandage’s seamless guidance, Frozen remains easily the best Disney theatrical production since The Lion King, delivering a new, enhanced live version of an already beloved property to give it fresh and exhilarating new life.
The sense of theatrical occasion, restoration and reinvigoration is triply amplified by being housed in London’s most glorious theatrical refurbishment in many a year. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has always been one of our premiere musical houses, but its former slightly shabby grandeur has now seen it transformed into a veritable theatrical palace.
And owner Andrew Lloyd Webber — for whom it has been a major labour of love as well as investment — is set to capitalise on it by opening the venue as an all-day resource in Covent Garden, for ticket holders and non-ticket holders alike.
My visit didn’t start well — no fault of the show or theatre — as the PIccadilly Line I was waiting to take was taken out of service; I ended up heading back to street level at Green Park to try to find a cab. As there were none, I boarded a 38 bus and took it as far as Cambridge Circus. Another couple from the bus — who were heading to the Royal Opera House — offered me a seat in the cab they hailed there to complete the journey. I arrived about five minutes late, which I absolutely hate doing, and got irritated by not being able to find the unmarked box office in the foyer, which actually looks like a souvenir ceramics stand.
But LW Theatres’ brilliant team of “red coat” senior ushers sprung into action, and escorted me to my seat at the latecomers break, and I settled into one of the more comfortable West End seats I’ve recently enjoyed.
A New York TImes theatre critic comes to London — and catches Covid
In a Critics’ Notebook piece for the New York TImes, published on September 19, Laura Collins-Hughes reported on her recent trip to London and her experiences of going to the theatre here again.
“I felt guilty about the whole thing, really — about being in another country. But I’d had my two doses of the Moderna vaccine, I was a maniac about masks, and my world had gotten worryingly small in the pandemic. Months before, when I’d needed even the thinnest thread of hope that we would make our way through this mess, I’d bought tickets to see Ian McKellen play Hamlet. I didn’t want to give up that hope.”
She reports on the shows she saw — but even more importantly, the (lack of) COVID safety protocols she experienced at some of them.
At CInderella, for example, she writes:
“I sat beside a barefaced tween, and two other unmasked children were next to her. All of them looked too young to be vaccinated. And, surprisingly, given Lloyd Webber’s public insistence that pandemic theater can and must be done safely, there was no vaccination or testing requirement for the audience. Plenty of people were unmasked, including those who removed their masks to eat or drink.”
But then she heads to the National, and waiting to go in, she opens her e-mail.
“In big, bold letters, my Covid test result said “Positive.”
I fled on foot, double masked, straight back to my hotel, where I would have to isolate for the next 10 days. One of the first things I did was email all the box offices to tell them which performance I’d seen and where I had been sitting.
Before and after my test, and throughout my isolation, I felt completely well. But what about the unmasked girl next to me at Cinderella? What about the people around me at other shows? My friend Ken got tested and is fine. But how much good did my double masking do?
Theater is a social art form involving social risks. I calculated them before I traveled and decided they were worth it. But of course I didn’t realize I would be the menace in the room.”
After her ten days isolation is completed, she returns the theatre for a few more shows — and writes of her last one, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic,
“At that and nearly every production I saw, there were loads — sometimes a majority — of barefaced people in the crowd, which felt reckless and delusional, as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. (I’d have thought an audience could at least unite in the cause of trying not to kill Ian McKellen with Covid, but apparently not.) If I hadn’t just had the virus, it would have freaked me out completely. New York theaters, vastly more rigorous about masks and vaccinations, feel much safer….. I love London, love seeing theater here. I just wonder when it will feel OK to come back.”
As a UK-based theatre critic, I constantly worry about the same question: is going to the theatre here actually safe? (I’ve recently moved to West Sussex, so I’m not seeing as much as I used to — but my risk is still exponentially greater because I don’t just see one show a week or a month, but come up to London every week and typically see, as I’m doing right now between last night and today, three or four shows before I go home again).
Of course the choice is mine to take these risks. But SOLT, UK Theatre and Equity UK are failing to protect me — and my fellow audience members and casts — by not insisting that everyone in the environment is vaccinated, tested negative and masked.
TODAY’S THEATRE BIRTHDAYS