The curious care and feeding of Olaf the snowman in Broadway’s ‘Frozen’
He likes to hang out at the bar of the Broadway haunt Sardi’s when he’s not memorizing lines. He’s a consummate ladies’ man, and from his favored perch on a cushy leather stool, he entertains the Great White Way’s celebrated leading ladies.
His favorite company by far is Tyne Daly. He stares at her with his giant, bulging eyes, and he has a feeling that she likes what she sees when she stares back: the pearly white buck teeth. The big, bouncy butt. The twiggy fingers and long carrot nose.
Olaf the snowman won’t see his musical, “Frozen,” officially open until March 22, but he’s already copping the attitude of a Hollywood — make that Broadway — star.
“He’s constantly got a sarcastic remark when we’re in a hold during tech,” says Greg Hildreth, the actor who carries the 12-pound puppet in the show (and anthropomorphizes him backstage).
Hildreth is standing in a second-floor lounge at the St. James Theatre while puppet specialist and dresser Daniel Mura helps him with the unusual costume. Hildreth dons a harness around his waist, equipped with a thermoplastic brace for back support. That’s connected to a bar that affixes to Olaf’s midsection. Custom-made snow boots with steel rods link Hildreth’s feet to Olaf’s feet.
When they appear onstage for the first time, the crowd goes absolutely bananas.
Hildreth inserts his right hand into a hole in the back of the puppet’s head. His thumb works two triggers, one that controls Olaf’s eyebrows, and another that makes him blink. Hildreth’s left hand is occupied with a gear that makes the snowman’s foam arms move. One of the puppet’s hands is metal so he can pick up props embedded with magnets.
Olaf’s round, white body is a custom knit, with nylon hoops for support. The mask is made of flocking. Different sections of the body are connected by bungee cords so Hildreth can stretch the snowman when he’s hitting particularly hard notes, like at the end of his romp of a solo, “In Summer.”
The bungee that secures Olaf’s head to his abdomen snapped once during that number in the musical’s pre-Broadway run in Denver last summer. Hildreth had to race backstage, where Mura changed out the bungee.
“It’s like a NASCAR pit crew sometimes,” says Hildreth of Olaf’s maintenance in the wings.
In making sure that Olaf is in prime condition every night before the show, Mura is a mix of mechanic, roadie, coach, seamstress and nurse. His full-body inspection includes checking all the mechanisms inside Olaf’s head, as well as confirming that all appendages are working and lined up just so. If necessary, he gently cleans Olaf with warm, soapy water.
“If the puppet fails onstage it would be a nightmare,” says Mura, who also worked with the puppets for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
Puppet failure is a particularly perilous prospect for Hildreth because unlike Andrew Pirozzi, who brings the stubborn reindeer Sven to life, Hildreth is not inside the puppet. He towers a good 2 feet above the snowman, with Hildreth’s face and body fully visible as he performs.
Man and puppet look a bit like conjoined twins, with the rosy-cheeked Hildreth dressed in a matching white snowsuit complete with a jaunty Nordic hat. When they appear onstage for the first time, the crowd goes absolutely bananas.
That’s what happens when you’re one of the most beloved characters in a smash-hit film. Google “Olaf merchandise” and you’ll find yourself scrolling through page after page of Olaf snow-cone makers, Swarovski Olaf crystal figurines, Olaf shoes, Olaf novelty pillows and Olaf key chains. (“He likes to talk about how he did the film,” Hildreth says of his alter ego. “He likes to lord that over everyone’s head, and how he’s deigned to come to Broadway.”)
Being a star isn’t easy, especially for the man controlling the mask. Hildreth has practiced for hours in front of the mirror, perfecting the snowman’s facial expressions. He can’t stand still onstage, because then Olaf appears lifeless. Hildreth must keep Olaf’s feet, arms and head in constant motion, always bouncing, like a hyperactive child.
“He never stops moving,” Mura says. “The second you stop then people are like, ‘Oh, that’s a puppet.’”
Being Olaf is so physically taxing that Hildreth must see a physical therapist twice a week.
“She was like, ‘I don’t like your posture in that puppet,’” he says of his therapist, Jennifer Green from PhysioArts, who also works with many of the puppeteers in “The Lion King.”
Hildreth credits Green for “placing my right shoulder back on my spine, because it’s so forward from being in [Olaf’s] head.”
Mura bends over to help the actor step into his unwieldy boot. It really does take two people to get into character, Hildreth says. “I couldn’t do it without Dan — like so many other things,” he says. “I’d be dead in the streets.”
“When you’re connected to a puppet,” he says, “you’re a little helpless.”
He likes to talk about how he did the film. He likes to lord that over everyone’s head, and how he’s deigned to come to Broadway.
Greg Hildreth on Olaf the snowman
Olaf was developed over six months by renowned Oregon puppet designer Michael Curry, who also fabricated the massive golden lion that Katy Perry rode across the field during halftime at Super Bowl XLIX.
Hildreth was in the Broadway production of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” in 2013, but he had never worked with puppets before, so he collaborated closely with Curry to master the challenge. In a world dominated by TV and phone screens, Hildreth hopes this type of old-fashioned theater magic helps audiences connect with live performance.
Director Michael Grandage’s approach to Olaf is part of what makes that magic so charming. Grandage leaves the puppeteering to Hildreth and concentrates instead on Hildreth’s acting. He reminds him that the mischievous snowman is essentially just a little kid, “which is super helpful and grounds the whole experience,” Hildreth says.
Olaf is a classic Shakespearean clown, like Touchstone in “As You Like it” or the Fool in “King Lear,” Hildreth says — analogies teased out by Grandage, who has a formidable background directing Shakespeare in London’s West End.
“He’s the naive clown saying everything he shouldn’t say, asking things he shouldn’t ask and noticing things nobody else notices,” Hildreth says.
Nobody except Mura, who says his watchful eye never strays from the twosome and the mischief they might get into.
“I’m just chain-smoking backstage, saying, ‘What’d you do this time?’”
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