Monday, April 15, 2024

Meet the creator of Olaf and Sven, the two puppets in musical Frozen

A Broadway musical version of the Disney feature starts an 11-day run at the National Arts Centre on Feb. 22.

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Frozen

Feb. 22-March 3, Southam Hall, National Arts Centre

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Presented by Broadway Across Canada

Tickets at ottawa.broadway.com

One of the biggest challenges in creating the musical version of the animated Disney feature, Frozen, was bringing to life the two non-human characters of the movie: Olaf the talking snowman, and Sven, the mystical reindeer.

After considering the options and holding auditions, the producers decided on puppets and recruited master puppeteer Michael Curry, who had also worked with director Julie Taymor to design the puppets of The Lion King.

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In this interview, Curry takes us behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of Frozen’s puppet pair, discusses their roles in driving the tale of the princesses of Arendelle and reveals a big lesson he learned years ago while working on The Lion King.

Here’s the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell me about Sven, the reindeer.

A: Sven is the companion of Kristoff, who is what we would call a rustic, almost a hermit, so I thought if I could make his partner, Sven, less of a cartoon and more of a spiritual guide, then it would draw more believability to Kristoff’s character. I wanted him to look more naturalistic, so I blended him with more realistic features of the reindeer than the feature animation did.

Q: What is his purpose in the story?

A: Sven is the one who is really pivotal in predicting the love story between Anna and Kristoff. He knows things before his master. He knew they were in love, so, if you look at the way Sven moves, just the way that his ear perks up when Anna says something and then he looks at Kristoff, like, “Did you get that?” And he doesn’t, of course, but the audience knows that he is the intermediary.

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Q: Is there a puppeteer guiding him?

A: Yes, but the director was really worried that this big puppet of a reindeer would get in the way of the love story between Anna and Kristoff and literally become the third wheel. So we found a way, with lots of trial and error — and lots of support from Disney — to immerse the actor inside the body in a way that fools the eye. Sven is a bit of a magic trick for me in that people are a bit confused at what they’re looking at. Is it an animal? Is it a human? I love the puzzle.

Q: But there is a person inside Sven. How does that work?

A: It’s a really specialized role that can only be done by the most fit, trained, athletic dancers. I didn’t want a stunt man in there because it was really important that the character be directable and understand the terms of a musical. So they’re dancers, but they’re dancers who can do 100 pushups and 50 pullups because your feet are on stilts and your arms are on crutches. It’s like doing a plank for an hour, but your fingers are free. There are finger triggers to control the eyes and mouth.

Q: What about the snowman, Olaf?

A: He’s a classic. Disney doesn’t do a story unless it has a comic foil. In this case, Olaf has this innocent, abbreviated intelligence. And, because he’s childlike, he’s honest. He says whatever comes into his mind, which is really fun and insightful for the audience. He has very expressive eyes and tiny little arms, which don’t do much, but I made them in a way so the actor can flail them around. And I wanted to make him more like a stuffed animal, so we covered his whole body with a sweater so he’s got this soft, fuzzy glow around him. I wanted it to feel like you could hug him.

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Frozen Olaf Sven
A scene from the North American touring production of Frozen showing the puppet characters Sven, the reindeer, and Olaf, the talking snowman, created by Michael Curry. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Broadway Across Canada /Handout

Q: With Olaf, the puppeteer is visible. How come?

A: We didn’t want to hide the puppeteer because there’s an actor voicing the puppet’s lines. It’s a proper character, but the challenge is for the audience to know what to look at when he’s talking. We don’t want them always looking at the actor, so we do this wonderful game, like ventriloquism, where the Olaf actor is trained to look at the back of the puppet’s head so the audience knows instinctively the lines are important and the actor becomes secondary. It’s very challenging to do correctly, but I’m really proud of the audience for getting it.

Q: You have said you don’t play around with the comedic characters. Why is that?

A: I learned it the hard way. In The Lion King, we have a couple of real comedic characters, and in my early tests I made one of them look like a sophisticated African sculpture. It wasn’t funny. I can’t explain it scientifically, but there’s something about humour. It takes no prisoners. People want their comedy, they want to see the thing the way it first appealed to them. So I don’t mess around with the comic characters.

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Q: I suppose you could have used robotics or digital technology to create these characters for the stage. Why puppetry?

A: Puppetry is one of few ways that you can really bring those fantastic characters to life, and to be present on stage in three dimensions. Plus the director, Michael Grandage, is a really great traditional dramaturg — he didn’t want to get into technology. It’s interesting because, even after a whole generation of digital saturation, people still crave reality. Even though a play or musical is an artifice, it’s real. One thing I notice in today’s audiences is more and more people whispering in their neighbour’s ear: “Wow, this is really happening.” That’s special. It’s like reality is a new special effect.

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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