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For a seasoned comic actor like Melissa McCarthy, getting a chance to play a sardonic, dark character like the late author Leonore Carol "Lee" Israel offers one of those rare opportunities to display your chops. Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” provides the 48-year-old with serious but unexpectedly droll fodder for both her mind and personality. And as a result, she’s getting award season buzz like she hasn’t had before.
The movie, in turn, surprises if not quite delights, challenging audiences to look under the scruffy skin of the talented but curmudgeonly Israel whose emotional distance masks a deeply vulnerable woman, made all the more so as a lesbian in less enlightened times, who copes with the deep chasm she feels with most everyone let alone a lover. Only her cat offers her comfort as does her belief in his writing skills — both abruptly challenges when the animal becomes ill and the writer finds no one want to publish her after successful biographies of Katharine Hepburn, Talulah Bankhead, cosmetics executive Estée Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen.
Because Lee Israel falls out of step with the book industry's desire for warts-and-all biographies, she goes broke and finds herself at wits end. To survive, she turns to forging letters of legendary writers such as Noel Coward with an innate skill at accurately mimicking their styles. But once suspicion falls on her and her accomplice Jack Hock (Richard Grant), a homeless gay man she takes in, she turns to theft of collectibles from archives to further their survival.
In this case, McCarthy’s character doesn’t so much reveal who she was as she shows who she wasn’t. And in managing to illuminate that, the flat out comic McCarthy demonstrates that there’s as much a thought provoker in there as much as she been a societal provoker in such grungy/grotty films as “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover Part III.”
Through such films and many others including the “Ghostbusters” reboot, She became a two-time Primetime Emmy Award winner and received nominations for a Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Awards, a BAFTA Award, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, among other accolades.
With husband and fellow comic writer Ben Falcone, she founded production company “On the Day,” launched her clothing line, “Melissa McCarthy Seven7,” and was named the one of the top five highest-paid actresses in the world by Forbes with earnings of $33 million.
Though she transitioned from her Plainfield, Illinois roots having made it to both New York and Los Angeles, she still connects with her serious Irish roots having been raised on a farm in a large Catholic family with an Irish father, two cousins — actress and model Jenny McCarthy and professional basketball player Joanne McCarthy — and a mom of English, German, and Irish ancestry. Graduated from St. Francis Academy (now Joliet Catholic Academy) research into her past reveals much family from County Cork. As she said, “I am very proud of my Irishness. I was just doing an ancestry project with my daughter and I talked with my dad about when my grandparents came over and where they’re from— their real names are Carty. I discussed this with my father and want to learn more.”
Q:What part of this film tested you the most?
MM: The playing of a character with such stillness was a fun challenge. I’ve played so many strong women that have been energy forward and there’s more physicality and verbal sparring. I felt Lee was more turned inward and did a type of deflecting that was more like, “I will wait you out in hopes that you go away.” And it usually worked for her. So there’s a stillness to this type of character that I found very interesting.
Q: Were you familiar with Lee Israel prior to doing this project?
MM: I wasn’t and I felt like I should have been. That was my take-away when I first read the script. I didn’t know about her.
Q: Who lent you the insight in regards to her mannerisms because you gave her nuance and a rich personality.
MM: It was challenging in researching her. Initially, I thought I’ll do a ton of research, and watch things. True to her personality, she didn’t want people in her life and didn’t offer that up. No photos or videos. Also, it was a time before people felt the need to document every moment of their lives, so it’s just not out there.
One of the few photos I found was of the back of a [book] jacket. Luckily, David Yarnell, one of our producers, knew her very well, for about 20 years ,and he was the main person who poked, prodded and made her write her memoir — which she didn’t want to do. She was incredibly difficult about it and, I think, he might have called her “a pain in my ass,” but she did finally write it. And for 10 years, Anne Carey was taking her book around and trying to turn it into a film. She would meet with Lee for dinner. I find this weirdly endearing, Lee was always early. Anne would show up and Lee would be waiting there, drink in hand, and once dinner was finished, Lee would up and go before the bill would come. Anne realized Lee would get there early and order a few drinks to put on her bill.
Q: Well, given all that, you seem to have gotten her right.
MM: That’s good to hear, thank you. I asked if I was on the right trajectory and they said, “stay the course,” so I did.
Q: What was it like working with [director] Marielle Heller — what was her process like?
MM: It was fantastic. Mari is one of the few people, who, if she said she had something for me but I couldn’t read it ahead of time, I’d still say okay, which is not something I have ever said before. There was a great comforting sense that you knew who was in charge. She had a great tone with the crew and everyone involved; they looked to her to lead us in the [best] way. She did it with such a, I don’t know, light touch. She never said, “This is the way we’re going to do things today and it will not change.”
Something comes up, something happens in a scene or organically changes, she’s okay with it. Or, if something felt a little bit odd, there was this absolute certainty we would work through it. When someone is there to guide you, but also listen to you, it’s very collaborative. Everyone, us actors, every department, rises up to do their best work because we all contribute to making this thing as opposed to having someone say, “It’s my way or the highway”.
Q: By embracing falsehoods, Lee makes her best work. Did you feel a connection to that because, as an actor, you’re playing pretend to find truths in reality?
MM: I feel like we were on very similar paths in terms of what we do. I don't want to play someone exactly like myself. I would be very uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do as myself, I don’t know where to put my hands in a picture. As a character, strangely, I have no hesitation on how I do something. It gives me a lot more courage than I have in my normal life. Lee and I would do the exact same things. She lived through other people. She was a great writer when she could write through someone else’s voice. Turns out she was a great writer either way, but the safety net of standing behind someone, I really relate to that. We picked different ways to do it, but we do similar things.
Q: Did you find your way to the character through her mannerisms, the way she dressed, or did certain things?
MM: It’s all of those little things. I certainly connect to a character first from reading it, and if it’s a real person, trying to look into who she really was, and that was through her writing. Then I feel like I have to take care of the exterior or I can’t do the first thing to quite of an extreme. It’s a bit of a game of Tetris, I do so much work with hair and makeup and wardrobe. We had such amazing people at the helm of all those things. I thought she should dress like an Italian, was my weird initial thought. It should be a small closet, but with well made, quality pieces, and that she probably hasn’t shopped for anything new in 15 or 18 years. So at one point she probably had a tailor and had her pants and jackets made and three cashmere sweaters, but they needed a lot of wear.
I said utilitarian and comfortable, and when vintage pieces didn’t fit right I said we can’t tailor it or fix it for me because if you’re wearing pants from 15 years ago they may not fit great. When things didn’t fit great we let it ride. I think all of the costumes and the hair, the whole pallet of the film could have easily been the costume shop, and a wig and makeup.
Q: What do you want audiences to take from this film — that crime does pay — after Lee got off easy once she was caught and admitted her guilt?
MM: I’m hoping that’s not the takeaway, although it [does] makes me giggle. For me, I hope people will think about seeing the invisible people that are around them all the time. Lee and Jack were just people that no one looked at. No one passed by Lee and thought, “I wonder if she’s remarkable? I wonder if she’s smarter or funnier than anyone in my life?”
They were just invisible. Jack was homeless when they met; how many people do we pass each day that we don’t even look at? Especially today, we’re all so busy staring at what other people are doing, I hope that people look up and actually see people.
Q: This film is a love story between two queer people in New York. How did you portray that and what do you hope a modern queer audience will take away from it.
MM: It was very much a part of her personality, and a heartbreak [for someone] watching it — that she just couldn’t connect. The fact that she went to Julius’s in the early ‘90s was very telling [as to] how uncomfortable she was. In the early ‘90s, gay men and lesbians didn’t intermingle. In those days, I was at Julius’s with my friends and it was not a place to be seen. I think Lee went there because she wouldn’t be bothered; she could still go somewhere where there was a bit of safety in the company. She would not only be bothered, but it was another way for her to shield herself.
Towards the end, at that point in New York City, when Jack is clearly losing his battle with AIDS, epidemic wasn’t even a big enough word. It plays back into what I was saying before about the invisibility of people. I don’t think we’re there yet by any stretch, but I think that people now don’t have to shield themselves or cloak themselves — [and that] is a very good thing to be reminded of. Not that long ago you did [have to do that]. You still do in many places now. I love that it was part of who they were without that being “on topic” to the story.
Q: And what was it like working with actor Richard Grant who played Jack?
MM: Very difficult. Awful. It’s all a sham [laughs]. No, he’s constantly as charming as he seems [to be]. It was just fun [working with him]. He’s an attentive and remarkable actor. We shot this film in 28 days, which seems fairly insane. We both worked similarly; we showed up, and we knew what we were going to do. And he’s a tremendous listener. Just the most receptive. He’s like that as a person [as well as an actor].
When you talk to him about anything, he’s all in. He’s one of the most present [people] I ever met. Each scene, it was like the lights went out around us and we were just singular. What a dreamy situation to have with someone you’re working with. We met on Friday and were shooting on Monday and if it didn’t work it was gonna be tricky, but in seven seconds I knew it would be great.
Q: Did it help that you played Sean Spicer on SNL also a person constantly trying to justify lies.
MM: I was doing that on weekends. Oh lord. I’d come back and feel like I was in opposing worlds. So, no, because Lee is someone I found engaging and wanted to look at the heart of why she did troubling things. Whereas with the other one I was just holding the mirror up, I wasn’t examining him. I said we must always use his words, I don’t want to make things up, I just want to hold up the mirror and have his own words reflect back because they’re crazy enough. It was a very different world.
Q: What was it like to work with former SNL star Jane Curtin who played Marjorie, Lee’s agent; was it hard to yell at a comedy legend?
MM: [laughs] No, not at all, because she’s so game for anything. Getting to do those scenes with Jane, I felt like if I could run back to my younger self, watching SNL through the door crack to my parent’s room, I don’t know if that ever would have processed at that age. She seems like she’s 35, she’s so game for anything that to do less than that, to not hand it to her, she’s just like “come on!” She’s all in, she’s an amazing woman.
Q: Her gayness was portrayed in a very matter of factly way, not as a cornerstone of who she was. It was played so brilliantly. How was it to make that aspect of her so casual?
MM: It made nothing but sense to me. It’s a part of who you are and it’s integrated into your being from the beginning. So it shouldn’t be like this separate entity that’s added on, like you picked it up along the way. I love the history in that scene with Anna [Deavere Smith as Elaine, Lee’s ex-lover], because there was this lovely possibility between them — you almost see Lee at her best.
Every time I see that scene with Lee outside the restaurant, I think it could work out. And when you see her with Anna in that park, you see someone that knows her well and isn’t so charmed by her. I think the reality of both those situations of who you are and who you have been, and seeing past loves that truly know you and aren’t so taken by you, it feels real rather than “presented.”
Q: Why was she always so pissed off and angry?
MM: For me, it was just about when someone loses focus and loses who you are. Lee lived with her outward abrasiveness and stopped seeing what it was. She was so inside and struggling with “why am I losing my career? Why is my talent undervalued?” She was so at odds with herself inside that she stopped realizing when she offended someone. She stopped ever looking at herself and saying, “am I doing this?” It was just, “The world is against me.”
Jane [Curtin] met her, which none of us knew. When we were shooting the scene that was in Jane’s apartment at the book party. She said that 25 years ago, her and her husband were at a party for a book launch. It wasn’t so much [a matter of] volume as [it was] someone who just came in and was disruptive, who walked through conversations; she was like a groundhog going through the party. She took some food, pounded [down] a couple drinks, and took off. And Jane turned to someone and said, “who the hell was that?” It was Lee. They didn’t even write that scene based on Jane’s experience [directly into the film] but she lived through that scene.
Lady Gaga is as mega as you can get as a rock star and Bradley Cooper knows the best and worst about the movie business. She’s got the vocal chops; he’s got the acting chops. You might wonder in making A Star Is Born if she was putty in his hands or if he just let her loose to run wild.
Like the characters they play, she says, “We relied on each other in every single way. We were truly in this together. We approached every scene, every song as partners.”
He states, “As a storyteller, you want to make sure you cast the right person. Her talent and work ethic honed from years of performing exploded every time we did a musical number. I saw this undeniable force in her, and knew there was no one else who could’ve played the part. There’s something about acting and singing that’s so honest, you can’t hide at all. I thought that those two things could be put together in a way that maybe I’d find my point of view.”
Putting his stamp on the a thrice-told story to make its timeless nature of human feelings and failings appeal to today’s diverse audiences and music lovers, Cooper says, “I never thought, ‘How do I make it original?’ I just knew I had to make it authentic. I wanted to tell a meaning story filled with lots of raw emotion.”
Though she loved his take on the story, Gaga was nervous taking on a role of such depth. It was my first feature film. When somebody has talent inside them, brewing for years, ready to move into another medium and it finally happens, it’s a huge explosion, an opus. I’m so insecure. I had to get past the nerves. When Ally talks about how ugly she feels, that was real. Bradley was not only at the helm but also always by my side. He knew the ropes, and as we created the songs, I watched him become a real musician. He was meant to direct, and I got lucky to be in his first film.”
Cooper states, “You’re going to say, ‘This is her first feature?’ Stefani [Gaga] has done incredible work as an actress, but to make this huge transition was brave of her. Actually, we were at the same point individually in our work, and we both needed the same thing from each other, essentially, in order to jump the tracks to this other place.”
In the film, when they first meet, Jackson tells Ally, “Talent comes from everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out there and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth.”
“I always wanted to direct,” informed Cooper, “but I knew I needed to have a point of view to know why I was doing it. I always wanted to tell a love story, because it’s something everyone can relate to — love, the loss of it, the high of it. It’s the thing that makes you feel the most alive. I wanted to explore the complexity of intermingling lives along with fears, joys, doubts, anger, hopes. Coupled with that is music — not just music, but singing. I was ready to dive into something that would challenge and push me to be relevant and current.”
To enhance the immediacy of Jackson and Ally’s first connection, while dancing and is lying on the bar looking at him for the first time, to really get the impact of that moment, Cooper shot at 48 frames per second instead of 24. Another thing was to go close up on Ally in the beginning of the relationship – when Jackson touches her nose, when he’s wrapping her hand after a bar brawl, when she touches his ear. You always remember the first touch of somebody, because it either sends a chill down your spine or it’s a dead fish. But for them it’s chills!”
“I wanted to pull back the curtain on what it means to be a star and a rising star in today’s industry,” observes producer Lynette Howell Taylor. “And Bradley isn’t your typical first-time feature director. He’s business been in the business for years, soaking up knowledge from directors David O. Russell, Clint Eastwood, and Todd Phillips and honing his own craft as a producer. He’s paid attention”.
Though they’d never met, Cooper conceived the role of Jackson’s brother, his surrogate father, manager, counselor, and talented singer who sacrificed his aspirations for the more driven Jackson. “We discussed his vision and how I might fit in. He shared footage on his phone of working with Stefani at her piano. I was dumbfounded at the beauty of it.”
“It’s all about the work with Bradley,” he adds. “Getting at the truth, being honest. He’s such a collaborator, so generous, and filled with trust that you want to give it back to him.”
On the heels of what would have been his 55th birthday, June 25th, the late rock great George Michael came into mind. I realized my rare interview with him needed a rethink and I went back to see what I had. And I found he expressed such insightful concerns. “When we did ‘Wham Rap!’ we were trying to do a parody. We were trying to say, ’Dough is shit by saying dough is great.’ I was trying to say that, ‘Just because you don't have a job doesn't mean you're shit.’”
So said the late pop star a little more than 30 years ago. He was detailing the development of "Faith,” his then much anticipated debut solo album which became a huge hit and life changing for the artist.
The boyish singer added, “There were a lot of elements that people took serious about Wham! when we were being totally tongue-in-cheek. We tried to do a parody of sexism with the guy that was rapping in ‘Young Guns.’ He was supposed to be me. We were making out that he was a jerk thinking that girls were only good for fucking and getting married to. Then I got this sexist crap back. I'm used to being misunderstood…”
The former pop superstar and Wham! lead singer said that and much more during our lengthy interview back in mid-year 1987. I was sent to Los Angeles to conduct this intimate conversation with the former teen star who had made Wham! a hit-making machine and who was virtually a household name at the time. Of course, many rock cognoscenti disdained Michael for his bubbly pop in comparison to say the more critically acclaimed Boy George, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet.
But as the conversation and album proved, there was much more to Michael than expected or had been expressed at that time. As is known now he went on to record other powerhouse records, make controversial statements, come out as gay, have drug/alcohol problems, and tragically die of natural causes on Christmas, December 25th, 2016. Some have speculated that his past chemical abuses led to the heart condition that felled him.
In any case, I had pitched the idea of doing Michael for the cover of a new magazine, "In Fashion", a Euro-publishing transplant breaking boundaries between pop culture and style in a way that the burgeoning Brit mags like "ID" and "The Face" were doing. Its cover concept at the time was to pair a male personality with a female one — say a music star with an actor of the opposite sex. This hadn’t been done before; no magazine was crossing the divide between men and women that way, incorporating forward fashion, couture and popular design. So no wonder that the creative team — publisher, art director and editor — thought Michael was a perfect artist to pair with some female icon of the time.
Apparently, the idea also intrigued someone in Michael’s camp because Sony not only thought the interview important enough but they sent me westerly to his manager's LA home and gave me enough time to nail down a substantial interview. And he was giving very few at the time.
As a result, editors at a major rock magazine got wind that I had this interview and that "In Fashion" was hesitating to publish it since Michael insisted they use only his favorite photog — which was Herb Ritts. So another magazine came to me to publish a version which forced "In Fashion" to do so as well. I continued writing for this magazine for another year until there was editorial turnaround again.
The soulful singer ruminated about his controversial single off that album. “‘I Want Your Sex’ is perhaps the most successfully black-sounding record I've ever done. Having spent a lot of time listening to modern black music and dancing in clubs, that song is my reflection of my life at the moment. One of the reasons for making sure there is more funk-oriented material on this album, as part of my new career, is to get people to hear the other songs on this album.”
He added, “The most important songs for me are not the funk songs. There are some songs that transcend anything I could possibly do on the dance level. The stuff I'm most proud of are the ones based around my song-making as opposed to my record-making. My songs are not usually contemporary but are usually something that transcends a contemporary sound.
“People will hopefully remember them in five or 10 years. I feel this is not a pop album. It has a far more earthier feel to it, more black-based, simpler, and more aggressive than anything I've done before. I've even added a jazz ballad. There's a strange mix of influences here that gel together.”
As we spoke, I realized I was getting something special from him detailing his career and how it saw it at the time. As he reflected then, “I’m very proud of the pop music I've made, but it's also had very little to do with my personality. [The song] Go-Go’ was not a reflection of my personality, it was a reflection of my craft.
“I built up this group sound which is really only a hint of who I am. I didn't want people to know who I was at the time. I was just very much enjoying my craft. I have had to spend a lot of time in the last two years convincing people that just because the songs I made were pop, they weren't necessarily disposable.
“I think some of those songs were a lot stronger than a lot of the pop that was made at the time and some of those Wham! records will be remembered for a long time. Just because they were lightweight, I've been having to spend a lot of time in the last three years trying to explain to people that I'm not brain dead.”
Caught between pop and soul, Michael found himself in strange place as the build to the LP’s release began. “Black radio would not play "I Want Your Sex." It's the worst reaction I've had on a record for years. For them it was too dirty. Don't ask me why that is, when every good black song on the charts is full of innuendos. If there was a woman singing, they would have played it. I believe the slant on sex generally in the past several years has made it seem terrifying to kids. I've read that even though we've had huge campaigns about AIDS in my country, there hasn't been a large increase of sale of condoms. The kind of lust in "I Want Your Sex" is all part of something good.”
At the time, no one really had an inkling that this solo debut was going to be the smash hit it became. Somehow, between one machination or another, I got to hear some of it early on — especially the title track. I was also deejaying at the time and could hear in every riff and vocal inflection that this was a special recording that powerfully reflected the zeitgeist of that time — the late ‘80s — on both radio and dance floor.
Michael was open and passionate about it all but especially when addressing sex. Of course, the biggest issue surrounding him at the time were questions of his own sexuality. Though I tried, he pivoted around the issue without actually denying it. “I’m totally used to people saying that I'm gay, even though I don't think I've ever done anything lyrically to provoke that. But I'm used to being misinterpreted on that level. People used to say that the only reason Andy was there was because he's gay, but that's a laugh from day one.
The press has tried to link me with my cousin and they've tried to link me with my friend David Austin. They've done the whole bit, but I don't really care, I've never really cared. I've heard so many examples in pop history of that kind of rumor. What difference does it make? These days it's not even an open question. In the '70s it might have been open for debate. Now, if you want your career, it's another story. Yet I don't think anyone's sexuality should get in the way of their talent or career--which it does.
“I have heard the most fantastic rumors about me in the past few years. There are all kind of orgiastic things; they're not even subtle. They're usually something horribly loud. If my life had been that much fun, perhaps I would have written about it. But I know what my life's been like in the past five years, and compared to what people have said, it's extremely dull sexually. I'm happy with it. Anyhow, it suits me if people are talking about it.”
Drugs were another issue that has been a part of his life and even moreso later in his career. “I wouldn't say I'm anti-drugs. I'd say I'm anti certain drugs. They're a very destructive thing to most people, because people only have a certain amount of perspective. There are some people I've seen handle drugs perfectly well in a moderate amount. Moderation with anything is okay but the effects of drugs on the nervous system are far more of a risk to your body. But I don't condemn people for most things. I wouldn't condemn people for taking drugs.
“I condemn encouraging anybody to take drugs because most people can't handle them, it's as simple as that. Put it this way, if we're talking about moderate use of alcohol or moderate drug use, you should go for mild alcohol. I think alcohol is a far more clear-cut issue. Anyway, I've always been glad I was born too late for the psychedelic era, because I would have definitely been a hippie.”
But it was all part of an overall effort to grapple with the consequences of becoming a rock star. As Michael proclaimed, “The rock business is one of the few ways in which young people can become rich very quickly without having to make the kind of rough decisions which push a person into a right-wing bracket. There are business decisions that are made by entrepreneurial types which are to other people's disadvantage. When people want to make money, they have to step on each other.
“Only if you're lucky enough to have the ability and talent which other people want to make money on can you become rich without having to walk over other people. Then you can turn a blind eye for an awfully long time to how people become rich. I've always thought I was always really lucky that I managed to become wealthy without having to walk over others. There aren't many opportunities where that can happen.”
As I read these words again now, long after we spoke, and in reflection of his untimely death at 53, I see however troubled he was or became, he was also incredibly insightful. “There's obviously a dichotomy in having money, yet seeing the things around you that are wrong. I've stayed in my own country, never left for the purpose of taxes, and yet, at the same time, I'm giving lots of money to a country I disapprove of strongly. Maybe I should leave the country. But what difference would that make? I'd only come to the United States. Your government and mine are becoming much the same entity anyway. What bothers me about American culture is it's based on competition. If you don't have a lot of status financially or in terms of celebrity, then you're not much over here.
“On the other hand, when I go home, it depresses me how little ambition there is in England. People just don't aspire to anything there because people feel they're on a loser to begin with. But Margaret Thatcher has an incredible opportunity to do something no one's ever had the opportunity to do before. She's got her third term.
“When you think about her actual ethics, you can't help but admire her ability to turn ideas into reality. She wanted to put England back on the international industrial map and she's done that. That's why our pound's getting stronger again; she's brought money back into the country. But if she wants to be the best known and most respected prime minister ever, she'll have to put some of the money from the top end back to the low end of the country to prevent the division from becoming so wide that the public, especially the middle class, becomes scared. I think a welfare state is absolutely necessary.
“I think it's a shame the way the one in England is being chipped away to resemble the one here in the United States. I was asked to join campaigns of Conservative and Labour in the last election in England. It terrified me because I couldn't believe they were sinking so low as to take a pop artist and to have them up on the hustings, as they call them. Though I understand how politics work, I find it very hard to be in any political direction at the moment. It's easier to apply myself to individual issues.”
Keeping in mind the recent revelations of the charities he supported and his own philanthropic efforts, it’s a tribute to Michael that he had been a champion of many causes for a lon time. He was no Johnny-come-lately to helping — and his put his money where his words were as well, As he said, “I’ve given financial help to the AIDS cause. Anybody who has even vaguely long-term awareness will be able to see that if you've got kids, in 10 or 15 years time, things are still going to be way out of control. You're going to think, "Fuck, I could have done something."
“I’m also very distressed about how the British national health system is deteriorating, equivalent to the one you have here. From the beginning of Wham! we took a tongue-in-cheek at people to get off their asses and not be intimidated. In my country they wouldn't even call me left-wing because the left has become really left and the right has become really right, which makes people like me moderate. The trouble with moderates is that they're a little too nice.”
Disney’s 2013 Oscar-winning animated worldwide phenomenon Frozen, with colossal grosses in excess of $1.300-trillion, is now a Tony-nominated Broadway live-action musical phenomenon by the film’s Oscar-winning husband and wife composers Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Coco). Robert’s also the Tony-winning co-writer of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q. Loosely-inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, Frozen: The Broadway Musical is the story of fearless Princess Anna who sets off with a rugged mountain man in search of her sister Elsa, now Queen, whose curse of cryokinesis has inadvertently trapped their kingdom in eternal winter.
Screenplay writer Jennifer Lee created a more nuanced, sometimes darker, script for the stage. The Lopez’s wrote over a dozen new tunes to supplement the film’s immensely popular power ballads, “Let It Go” and “For the First Time Forever.” The show has shattered the ice ceiling at the St. James Theatre, with week after week record-breaking grosses approaching $3-million -- far exceeding previous record holder, The Producers. Of course, ticket prices are higher. Incidentally, the figures don’t include a virtual department store of souvenir merchandise.
Following a weekend of laying down tracks for the show’s just-released cast album, the men and women of Frozen -- Jelani Alladin, in his Broadway debut, who portrays Kristoff; Caissie Levy, Queen Elsa; John Riddle, the dashing Prince Hans; Patti Murin, sweet Princess Anna; and Greg Hildreth, the human alter ego of Olaf the snowman sat to, in the words of the show’s breakout hit, let it go.
Though it immediately becomes apparent there’s a mutual admiration between the cast members, the men quickly address the media fascination surrounding Elsa’s salute to female-empowerment by wearing pants [quite glamorous ones] as she turns her world into icy tundra. “Oh, and it’s not just onstage,” laughs Riddle. “Caissie proudly wears the pants off stage, but in a good way. She’s the essence of female empowerment and an incredible team leader. We happily quick-step behind her.”
It starts at the top, observes Hildreth, the seasoned pro of three successful Broadway musicals (Cinderella, Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). “It’s nice and rare being in a hit, but what makes coming to work such a joy is having Caissie and Patti as team captains.”
“I’m the new kid on the block,” Alladin notes. “I’ve worked Off Broadway and regionally, so I didn’t know anyone. As luck would have it, when I auditioned I was paired with Caissie. She was amazingly generous, and when she sang it was like time stopped. Her dressing room door’s always open, she’s always reaching out, cheering us on.”
“Patti and I have known each other forever,” states Riddle. “She’s long been my spark of creation. Seeing her bring Anna to life has been a joy. The warmth you see onstage is real. She’s gives so much to the company. When you’re part of something that’s surely going to be around for a while, it’s wonderful to be working in that sort of atmosphere. The company looks out for each other. Even when one person is out, you feel the loss of them. The nature of the show is all about caring – how Anna goes in search of Elsa, so to not have a company like this would be a disservice to the piece.”
“John,” boasts Levy, “is special onstage and off. He’s a triple threat, with everything you’d want in a leading man: charisma, an absolutely stunning singing voice, and he can act. Best of all, he’s a team player. His star will continue to rise.” “The first time I heard John’s absolutely glorious voice,” recalls Murrin, “I was blown away. As brilliant as he is as an actor, the support and love he offers when we're onstage is unmatched. He will, literally and figuratively, never let me fall. I'm lucky that I get to watch him every single day. His performance is one of the most complicated and masterful. I’m in awe how, in the first act, he goes about smoothly, craftily planting the seeds for the stunning events at end of the show.”
Riddle, whom Anna falls head over heels for on first sighting, has the challenge of making audiences forget the film. “My job as Hans is to trick audiences into believing I’m really Prince Charming. Then, in the big reveal, when my true motives come out, to shock them. I love it when they gasp! I’ve done my job. It’s fun to be the villain.” The trio points out that with the deeper character development and new songs, the stage adaptation has gone beyond a kid-friendly animated film. “The show’s been flipped,” Greg says, “so there’s something for everyone.” “When audiences enter,” adds Riddle, “there’s a certain expectation. You want to honor what’s become iconic; however, an actor, you want to say I dare you to rethink what this is and how deep it goes.”
In the area of rethinking, audiences might be surprised at Disney and Tony-and-Olivier-Award-winning director Michael Grandage’s big leap casting an African American as mountain man Kristoff. “I was as surprised as anyone,” states Alladin. “When you go into auditions, you investigate the roles to see what might fit. After so much work Off Broadway and regionally, I was hoping to get anything. This is much more than a dream fulfilled, another thing I can check off on my bucket list. I’m grateful to Disney and Michael for the opportunity to have kids of color see a black man in the role.”
Murin admires Alladin’s energy and enthusiasm. “Jelani faces every challenge with determination and verve. His heart’s bigger than anyone could ever know. We rely on each other a lot in this show, and I know from looking in his eyes that he has my back at all times.”
“This is Jelani’s first Broadway show and it certainly won’t be his last,” predicts Levy. “His Kristoff is strong and tender. Best of all, he’s everyone’s biggest cheerleader. And when he dances, he moves unlike anyone else! You can’t take your eyes off him.”
Olaf the snowman, whom moviegoers fell madly in love with [“he” even became a best-selling plush toy], has unique traits among snowpersons. He’s always seeking warmth and fearlessly loves fireplaces. “It’s been a two-year master class in puppetry,” explains Hildreth. “He’s now my new best friend.” While acting, singing and dancing, he’s tethered to the 5’ steel harness (covered with carbon fiber, foam, andyarn) and manipulates Olaf through some intricate finger trickery and a magnet which allows Olaf to pick things up. “It’s a new talent for my resume. My job is to make him front and center, and then sort of disappear.”
Levy and Murin adore Hildreth’s ability to make them laugh and his personal warmth. “Greg’s heart of gold shines through every performance,” says Levy. “He can do it all, one reason he’s so spectacular as Olaf.” Murin’s the one who has the most fun with him, “As soon as he enters, audiences’ faces light up. They feel what I feel. His task isn’t easy, but watching him is a master class in making some incredibly difficult look easy.”
The men speak for all with high praise for the man driving them through the icy slopes. “Michael’s allowed us to see how far we can go,” notes Hildreth. “He’s incredible to work with because he was an actor.” Riddle agrees, “Michael understands our frustrations and those moments when we’re searching to understand something. Best of all, he knows how to talk to an actor. From the beginning, he said, ‘This is yours. Do with it what you will.’ That’s the biggest gift an actor can have. You see how far you can go, and then, sometimes, you get reined in!”
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