For the first time in forever: Frozen the Musical
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
It's time to defrost your best theatre attire and pack the quietest-to-eat snack you can find: Frozen has come to the West End. Harriet Clifford meets Prince Hans (aka Oliver Ormson) to find out about his musical theatre journey.
When a young Oliver Ormson arrived at Priestley College's induction day in the late 2000s, his heart was set on one thing: becoming a ‘serious' actor. He didn't want to sing, and he certainly didn't want to dance, having never danced a step in his 16 years – he just wanted to act. In his mind, musical theatre meant Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Grease at a push, but either way, it wasn't for him. That's not to say Ormson couldn't sing – he'd been singing and acting at an amateur level since the age of five or six, happily joining the ensemble of his mum's amateur dramatics society and watching her friends paint stage sets on the living room floor. But heading off to college in Warrington – located almost directly between Liverpool and Manchester – he was ready to get on with the real stuff.
Fast-forward to 27 August 2021, and Ormson stepped onto the West End stage as an iconic Disney prince, ready to sing, dance, and act his way into the magical, extravagant, no-expense-spared theatrical spectacle that is Frozen. Since graduating from Liverpool Theatre School in 2012, Ormson has played roles in musicals including Hairspray, The Addams Family, Book of Mormon, and High Fidelity. So, what happened? Readers of this magazine will be pleased and probably unsurprised to know that a teacher – namely Sarah Graham, music teacher and then head of performing arts at Priestley College – is who Ormson believes sparked his change of heart.
‘She came up to me – she didn't really know me as this was the induction day – and she said, “I hear from your high school that you can sing.”’ Ormson brushed her off with a mumbled ‘a bit’, he says, but Graham tried again, suggesting that he audition for the Performing Arts course. (He had planned to take straight A Level Drama.) Thinking back, Ormson laughs: ‘She twisted my arm, so I did. I auditioned, and I got on the course.’
What he doesn't mention, although Graham – now assistant principal – fills me in over the phone, is that he spent a year doing A Level Drama, before switching courses and staying on at the college for an extra year. ‘I don't know if he remembers this, but he was resistant at first. Then I think he saw what was happening on the Performing Arts course,’ says Graham, meaning the technical lessons and the vocational emphasis on preparing for a performance career without exams and theory. Although she won't take all the credit, Graham feels that Ormson wouldn't have had the confidence to take the plunge and make ‘the right choice for him’ if the seed hadn't been planted by Priestley teachers who saw his potential. Ormson adds now, ‘I loved Sarah and she was a great teacher. I think that was quite a pivotal moment actually, because that led me down this path and I'm happy to be where I am now.’ (If Ormson's pathway to the West End isn't proof of the value of soon-to-be-scrapped vocational performing arts courses…).
Finally they're opening up the gates
Based on the 2013 Disney film and playing Broadway from 2018–2020 (with a different cast), Frozen will finally hit the West End this summer after several false starts no thanks to the pandemic. With music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and a book by Jennifer Lee, the production promises a joyous return to the theatre for both cast and audience, packed with all the famous songs plus eight new additions. Frozen will be the first show to play in the newly refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and Ormson reassures me that the £60m project was worth it: ‘It's beautiful. Andrew Lloyd Webber and his team have done a very good job.’
Ormson is delighted to be back on stage, and to finally be able to play the role of Hans. ‘It's been a long road because the goalposts have kept on moving – we've waited a long time for this,’ he says. ‘My first audition for Frozen was in June 2019 and I found out I got the job in March 2020. That was the good news of March 2020,’ he adds with a grimace. Navigating the various lockdowns without the theatre has been ‘a difficult ride’. ‘I found I had to try and reinvent myself. As actors, we're quite resilient, because you have to be in this business, so I found myself throwing my creativity into baking, or cooking, doing online content, or creating or editing videos.’ He tells me that he managed to keep himself ‘busy and sane’, although shares a relatable anecdote about how he accidentally permanently deleted his entire Twitter account (sending his 20k followers off into the Twitter-sphere) when he wanted a momentary break from the endless stream of mid-pandemic noise.
The actor feels that his youthful reluctance to dip a pointed toe into the musical theatre world was down to not being ‘educated fully on the whole spectrum of being an actor-singer’. ‘I just thought I wanted to be a “serious” actor, and what is a “serious” actor? It's such a silly phrase,’ he says. ‘But I'm so glad that I broadened my mind and opened my eyes to the musical side of acting.’
Alongside the expected fun, joy, and sparkle (‘there are no corners cut with Disney’), you'd be hard pressed to argue that Frozen doesn't also tackle some deeper themes, some of which may now take on new meaning. ‘Honestly,’ Ormson says, ‘It runs very close to how we've all been feeling in the last year or so. There's a song called For the First Time in Forever and it's all about Anna opening the gates, letting people in, and making connections. I feel like it runs parallel with our lives, and that's going to be something that will hit pretty hard.’ I mention that the lyrics of the well-known Let It Go have often made me unexpectedly emotional (‘That perfect girl is gone’), and Ormson agrees: ‘It's about celebrating your individuality and just being confident in who you are. Samantha Barks, who plays Elsa, does that so well. Let It Go is an anthem for so many people and it means so much to so many people going through so many different things.’ He adds, ‘It resonates with every single person and every single child.’
Oliver Ormson (Hans), Richard Frame (Weselton), and the company of Frozen in rehearsal © Marc Brenner for Disney
Let the storm rage on
Trying my luck, I ask Ormson whether he can relate to his character (a villain in disguise as prince charming) in any way. He laughs: ‘Hans is a Disney prince, but he has a dark side, let's just say.’ Thinking for a moment, Ormson continues, ‘The only relatable thing I can jump on board with is that he has this desire to achieve and be someone – that's his main drive.’ (Prince Hans has 12 older brothers and is 13th in line for his own kingdom, so he's decided that marrying into the throne is his only way in.) ‘In my own career, when I was a young boy starting out, I was driven. It got to a point, at around 16, when I knew I had to be an actor. I guess that's the parallel between me and Hans – I tried everything to make that happen.’
Despite this drive, Ormson spent parts of his early career wondering if he had made the right decision: ‘The biggest challenge was these couple of years where I was getting so close to jobs, but just not getting them. I had to do bar jobs and keep money flowing in and also find time to audition. That was a challenging period because it also tests your own self-confidence in your ability. But I kept on telling myself that I am good enough to work in this industry.’ He believes that financial worries are one of the biggest challenges for young people currently considering a career in musical theatre. ‘There are a lot of scholarships out there, and there are ways for working-class actors, musicians, and performers to get onto these courses, but there's no hiding the fact that they're expensive.’
Image: Samantha Barks as Elsa © Trevor Leighton for Disney
Ormson continues: ‘That is a big hurdle which, if you're coming from a working-class background, you can look at and think: it's not for me, I can't do that. But I'm from a working-class background. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship at Liverpool Theatre School, and also got help to pay because I am from a low-income family. So, I am the proof, I guess, that it can happen.’
He is also keen to stress that aspiring performers don't have to train in London, which is often seen within the industry as ‘the place to be’. ‘There are great schools around the UK, so you don't have to pay the London premium. We're not just talking about the course here; we're talking about living.’ Whenever Ormson speaks to young people in theatre schools, he says, he always reminds them that, ‘It's like anything else in life – you get out what you put in. You can train in any part of the country, but if you work hard, you'll reap the rewards when you graduate.’
While most music and performing arts teachers probably dream of being the final catalyst that sets a young person on a path towards the West End stage, we all know that it's hardly ever that simple. Particularly when, in most secondary schools, music and drama are separate subjects with little or no overlap. Getting into musical theatre in these earlier years often relies on young people choosing to take part in extra-curricular productions, and opportunities to join out-of-school drama groups or go on trips to the theatre. We spitball a more formal cross-over between drama and music lessons: ‘Maybe doing that for a term or a couple of weeks and saying, hey, get on your feet – let's act or sing this out,’ Ormson says. ‘Just expanding a tiny bit and trying to connect the acting and the singing or the playing.’
From the perspective of someone who didn't until he got to college, how can teachers encourage young people to try musical theatre earlier on? Ormson says, ‘I think maybe by broadening the stereotypical musical theatre musicals, it would allow people to find their own path into it. Playing a song from a musical and asking, “How does it make you feel?” It might just hit a nerve, or they might connect.’ He adds: ‘There's so much out there; so many really good stories to be told. I feel like they will resonate with younger people – like the musical SIX, or Everybody's Talking About Jamie, or even Frozen.’
Frozen's run was recently extended until 26 June 2022, so there's plenty of time for students (and teachers) to step into the kingdom of Arendelle. ‘I would love to inspire the actors and performers of the future,’ says Ormson. ‘I think [young people] will look at Frozen and think, “Wow, that looks like so much fun up there” – it's so visually beautiful and they're going to recognise these songs that they've probably heard at home or in the car. I feel like it should, and it will, inspire them.’ Education rates are available for group sizes of 9-19 and 20+, and Disney has produced downloadable wellbeing and enrichment resources for primary schools. The website also says that details of how to book workshops will be coming soon, and if you're coming to the Music & Drama Education Expo (24–25 September), you'll be able to join Disney teaching artists in a ‘Frozen the Musical: Fixer Upper movement and music’ workshop on Day 1 (all free of charge).
I personally can't wait to get back to the theatre, and Frozen seems like it could be the one to thaw my theatre-going hiatus. Perhaps I'll make my return in the post-Expo winter months, when it's dark at 4pm and I need something to look forward to (the cold never bothered me anyway). I can't wait to look around me as the lights go up and see pure delight on the faces of young people who, one day, might be standing on the stage instead.