The typical pattern for local theater groups and arts organizations is to quietly assemble the following season.
Then as the current season winds down, they announce the next year’s lineup to stir excitement for what’s ahead.
That is exactly what Fort Wayne Youtheatre had planned to do, and in fact they did announce their 2019-20 season as their season finale, The Commedia Rapunzel, was bringing 2018-19 to a close in May.
But one show was announced ahead of the usual schedule because the good folks at Youtheatre knew it was going to cause a splash.
Jumping at the chance
“We already had selected a different Christmas show for our season,” said Christopher Murphy, assistant director of Youtheatre and the director for the annual holiday production.
“Just as we were going to the presses, we found out that Disney was releasing Frozen Jr., and we jumped on it and applied for the license. It really came out of the blue and was a surprise because it’s unusual for them to do that when the original show is still running on Broadway. Todd [Espeland, executive director of Youtheatre] and I were each in our offices when the email came in, and I’m not sure which one of us yelled from our computers first. Within an hour we had decided to apply for the license.”
Striking while the iron was hot, Fort Wayne Youtheatre wasted no time in announcing the production shortly after they were granted the license.
It was a coup for the organization to be one of the first in the region to stage a performance of Frozen Jr. particularly as their performances will come on the heels of Disney’s release of the film’s sequel.
Murphy, having recently visited New York to catch some Broadway shows, caught a performance of Frozen, a nifty bit of professional preparation.
But it wasn’t his first exposure to the musical. In fact, it was when he was teaching for Mark Kistler in Texas, joined by music teacher Dorothy Kittaka, that he was introduced to the hit film.
A musical with depth
“Dorothy had brought some materials down to Texas,” Murphy said. “She handed Frozen to me, and of course by this time every little girl was singing ‘Let It Go.’ When I watched it, I was thunderstruck by how much I loved this Disney princess movie. The music is as good as any Broadway show, and it just had this depth to it. As I was starting to prepare for this show, I started listening to the songs in the car because I could see some of the blocking in my head. But as I’d listen to the songs, I would get so emotional. I’m sure people in other cars would look at me crying and think my mother had just died when in fact I was just listening to the Frozen soundtrack.”
As soon as the show was revealed, buzz began among the younger set who were already counting the days until the holiday production.
But buzz was also building in the young acting community, and as a result, 110 actors between the ages of eight and 17 showed up for auditions. The potential cast members were so talented, Murphy found it difficult to whittle the numbers down to the desired 35, settling eventually on 36.
But even that was difficult for him to do as he worked with musical director Ben Wedler and choreographer Heather Closson to set the final list.
“The three of us kept passing this Google document back and forth as we were trying to come to a decision on the cast,” Murphy said. “And sometimes I’d find myself adding kids back on until one day Heather said, ‘Why are there more names on the list?’”
Easier for kids to perform
For those who aren’t familiar with the “Jr.” distinction for certain programs, Murphy explains that there are changes made, even to shows originally aimed at young audiences, that make it easier for them to be staged in school and community productions.
“Jr. shows are typically when a licensing company takes an existing show, and they have their writers go through it and make changes like reducing the length of the show to 70-80 minutes,” he said. “They also change the key of the songs so they’re more appropriate for younger audiences, and they may remove anything that might be objectionable.
“Usually the process takes place after the show is already done, but in the case of Frozen, the Jr. version was done in tandem with the writing of the Broadway show so they were doing both shows lock step as they were going along. Having done several Jr. shows over the years, I think this is one of the strongest because they took that approach. It really creates a seamless, smoother version, and it has a good mix of the songs.”
Heading the cast are two young performers who have a remarkable resume for their ages.
Playing Elsa is Addi Antibus, a Homestead student active in show choir. Playing Anna will be Emmie Conner, who played Rapunzel in Youtheatre's spring show which Murphy also directed.
As he talked about his leads, he also summed up what has made the film and the show so appealing to generations of fans who are enchanted by the story and the music.
“Those two girls can really put a song over,” Murphy said. “They are incredibly talented. At the end of the show when they sing a reprise of ‘Let It Go’ as a duet, and this might sound silly, but this is the love song of this show. The show is really a love story between two sisters. They loved each other as kids, and they were separated by circumstances beyond their control. But they found their way back to each other.”
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