From the Queen Elsa costume that's been ubiquitous for the past three Halloweens (and counting), to grown-up cosplay, to the ear-worm "Let It Go" still haunting your every move, to even the Bridal Week runway, Disney's animated hit "Frozen" is still nearly as celebrated as it was in 2013 when it set box-office records. So it's no surprise that the highest grossing animated movie of all time would turn into a staged musical production — three, in fact — including one extravaganza at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.
"Frozen — Live at the Hyperion," which debuted in May, brings Princess Anna, Queen Elsa and the Arendelle crew to life for fans of all ages through six showings a day. Disney also secured serious Tony Award recognized Broadway prestige for its mothership production: director Liesl Tommy, who received a nod for "Eclipsed," and costume designer Clint Ramos, who won this year's Tony for his work on the Lupita Nyong'o-starring play.
"The disparate styles of both shows helped me concentrate on each one better in a way," Ramos tells Fashionista over the phone about working on both projects simultaneously. Being great friends with Tommy helped the workflow, too. "So it was easy for us to switch gears."
Translating the aesthetics of the beloved movie characters on-screen onto real, live humans performing on stage involved a number of hurdles, including the gift shops and ripped-from-the-movie Elsas and Annas roaming about outside the theater.
"I think the biggest challenge for us was how to set ourselves free from the animation, but also make it make sense with the merchandising around the park," Ramos says. To research, he watched the movie "many times" to determine how to reflect the "humanity" and Anna and Elsa's relationship. Ramos also looked to the same inspiration that the movie's animators did by studying photos and imagery of Scandinavian fashion from the 1830s to 1850s. The other challenge was to ride the fine line between staying true to the film and looking too "cartoon-y," which Ramos achieved by reducing the scale of pieces and tweaking fabric patterns — while still perfectly matching the vivid colors of the stage costumes to the movie's iconic ones. Every single piece was custom and hand-dyed in Europe and Asia.
Of course, Disney executives and the animation team were heavily involved in the process. "It was a constant back and forth with them," Ramos says. "Maybe we had to go through three rounds of approvals and editing. But ultimately, what came out was a really happy compromise."
Translating an outfit from animation to real life performance also involves accommodating for wardrobe malfunctions that wouldn't arise in cartoon world: like when Queen Elsa unfurls her twisty up-do during that dramatic ice castle transformation.
"In the animation, Elsa's hair just glides over her dress, [but] in real life, that hair is going to get caught in those Swarovski paillettes on her gown!" laughs Ramos. So his team performed numerous tests and determined that a layer of invisible netting over the beading solved that problem. Of course, the bigger issue was how to engineer Elsa's magical quick change. (Running off stage for a dress change in the middle of "Let It Go" would really ruin the pace.)
The costume designer and his team worked for over a year to recreate Elsa's instantaneous and climactic transformation from her coronation dress into the ice-blue, silk georgette gown, complete with head-to-toe snowflake-patterned hand-beading. Ramos researched Japanese Kabuki theater. "They do this big costume change by pulling one thread and the whole costume unfurls and changes into another costume that is underneath," he explains. While also working with longstanding Broadway costume house, Tricorne, the team eventually devised a combination of old "theater tricks" to pull it off. "It's almost like a Transformer costume," Ramos adds.
Amazingly, the spectacular, hand-painted ice queen gown is covertly — and smoothly — packed in under the embroidered coronation dress. "This panel folds here, this panel breaks apart, the skirt of the underdress [has] to weigh enough — it's like physics," he explains. "Also, we needed to put little weights around the hem so that it unfurls at a faster rate. So it's like gravity, fabric knowledge and a lot of engineering."
Ramos' knack for incorporating technological aspects into his costume design also helped bring the enchanted elements of the story to life. In the cartoon, in a moment of sibling conflict, Elsa uses her ice throwing powers to put Anna in a temporary deep freeze. On the stage, the glacial effect is played out with video projection trickery. "[We] embedded these electrical nodes [in her dress], almost like little homing devices for the video image to catch where the actor is," explains Ramos. A number of videos are then projected onto the actress from 360-degree angles to mimic a freezing-over effect.
In addition to playing with state-of-the-art technology, Ramos enjoyed a bit of creative leeway. For a young orphaned Anna's mourning outfit, the designer looked beyond mid-19th century Norway — and to the modern day runway — to create a laser-cut lambskin leather coat. "I based it on an Alexander McQueen dress and the animation because there was something really similar about [both of] them," he explains.
"Frozen — Live at the Hyperion" features approximately 1,200 costumes to outfit the rotating casts of the six showings per day. In total, Ramos and the team spent a year and half doing research, development and designing before going into the theater for another two months to perfect all elements of the production. So if you thought you had heard "Let It Go" a thousand times, you probably haven't. But Ramos has. Literally.
"You're spending 12 hours [a day] listening to 'Let It Go,' over and over and over again and that's just in the theater," says Ramos; about six different Elsas rehearsed the song for a week and a half before the show debuted. "I would say it's probably up there in the thousands." But he was quick to add, "I actually don't mind it."