Caissie Levy Breaks the Ice in ‘Frozen’ on Broadway
Caissie Levy is sitting inside the window of Le Grainne Cafe, a French bistro in Chelsea that looks like it could have been plucked from the streets of Paris. From the outside, she looks like the subject of an Impressionist portrait in her wide-brim hat and ivory sweater, with a plush pink coat gently draped over her chair. It would be a pity to disrupt the idyllic scene, but alas.
As soon as I walk in, she immediately hugs me and asks about my morning, and within moments, it feels like we’re old friends.
“We match!” Levy says, gesturing to my camel riding boots, which although the same color, hardly resemble her perfectly maintained stiletto ones. Her coiffed look is all the more impressive considering the morning she’s had, and it’s only 11 a.m. She woke up early and made eggs for her two-year-old son, Izaiah, and then went to a recording session for a recent television guest-starring role. After our interview, she’ll head to her voice lesson and then to a wig and costume fitting.
“Some days I feel like a superhero, and other days I’m like, ‘I’m a mess,’” she says. “I think that’s just motherhood. I’m coming to understand that that’s part of the joy of all of this. I get to do what I love. I have this amazing son who’s the light of my life. I have a kick-ass partner. There’s a lot to be grateful for even on days where I’m like, ‘I don’t know my name.’”
Levy’s humility and groundedness made her the ideal actor to take on the misunderstood ice queen Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen,” which starts performances at the St. James Theatre on Feb. 22 and is scheduled to officially open on March 22. Director Michael Grandage says he was immediately drawn to Levy’s authenticity in her audition.
“She’s capable of showing great depth and feeling and nuance, like any great actor can,” he says, “but she seems to have an honesty that is absolutely uncomplicated.”
But Levy wasn’t cast in the role at first. She gave birth to her son six weeks before she first auditioned for “Frozen,” and he had just come home from the hospital. “He was a very complicated pregnancy and quite a frightening delivery, so my head was not in audition mode,” Levy says.
At the time, Alex Timbers was attached as the director, and Levy didn’t end up landing the role. Instead, she spent the summer singing back-up for Rod Stewart in Vegas with her then-5-month-old son happy and healthy by her side. Once back in the city, she was in talks to take over the role of Jenna in “Waitress,” a project she was thrilled about as a new mom, when she got the call that “Frozen” was casting again.
“I had kissed it good-bye, so it didn’t occur to me that it would come back around,” Levy says. She remembers her first audition with Grandage as very collaborative, and she says the two had “this amazing chemistry in the room.” The feeling was mutual for the director.
“It was supreme clarity for me that I wanted Caissie Levy to play the role of Elsa,” Grandage says. She still had to go through the rest of the process and meet the Disney executives for final approval, and she passed with flying colors. “I think it’s a great testament to Caissie that I wasn’t required much to put my case to anybody,” the director adds.
Levy understands how beloved and recognized this character is, but she tries not to think about the pressure that comes with originating the already iconic role onstage.
“The more I buy into that kind of stress, the less able I am to just be free in the rehearsal room,” she says. “It becomes about me, Caissie, rather than just playing a part…If I get too in my head and think about myself too much, it’s just game over.”
Every child and almost every adult in the world knows the film and can sing Elsa’s power ballad, “Let It Go.” Even Levy’s son can sing the melody. She shows me a video of her singing one line and Izaiah continuing the tune, high notes and all.
“I can’t believe that the kids sing it as much as they do, just because it’s not that simple a song to attach to,” she says. “It’s complicated, but there’s something touched by some other universe with this song that makes it so loved by so many people.”
While working on “Let It Go” in the rehearsal room, Grandage had Levy perform the lyrics as dialogue, without any music, allowing Levy to really delve into character work for the moment. In the musical, the song comes later in the story and is the Act 1 finale, in the same vein as “Defying Gravity” in “Wicked.”
Levy has also played Elphaba in that musical on Broadway, and there are many comparisons drawn between the two characters (not to mention Idina Menzel originated both roles and now Levy has both on her résumé). When Levy was discussing the characters with Jennifer Lee, who co-directed and wrote the animated film and penned the book for the stage adaptation, she gave Levy an important note on the distinction.
“With Elphaba, her powers come out of anger, and with Elsa, it all comes from fear,” Levy says. “It’s a very different approach, and I’m trying to hone in on that.”
She told Menzel that “her voice is in her ear,” as she takes on the role of Elsa onstage. “I’m such a fan of hers, and her performance is so fantastic,” Levy says. “I can only hope that people love what I do with it as much.”
However, Levy was careful not to create a replica of Menzel’s version, and she worked closely with her voice teacher Liz Caplan, on everything from the physicality of the role to vocal placement to how to sing while wearing a 15-pound gown.
Caplan and Levy began working together when Levy was in “Murder Ballad” off Broadway in 2013, and Caplan has coached her throughout the entire “Frozen” process.
“It was about stamina; we really wanted to make it where there was depth and emotion and spectacular clarity,” Caplan says. “Caissie is someone who isn’t afraid to feel herself in terms of the emotions. She is as powerful as she is vulnerable, and I think the two worlds together really create a magical character in Elsa.”
Composer/lyricists Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote new music for the production, including four new songs for Elsa. One of Levy’s favorite additions is a song called “Monster,” which she describes as a Kelly Clarkson-esque power ballad.
When the show had its world premiere in Colorado last summer at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Levy was surprised by how many adults connected to the show and its characters. Grandage’s goal with the stage adaptation is to bring a maturity to the material, making it accessible to all ages, while also delving into the story’s complexity.
“She means so much to people,” Levy says. “They identify with her feeling of being on the outside, of battling these demons, and repressing something that is so vital and organic to who you are, being told that it’s bad,” Levy says. “A lot of people relate to this feeling of ‘I’m going to be perfect for other people all the time.’ I certainly relate to that.”
Patti Murin, who plays Elsa’s sister, Anna, is in awe of Levy’s ability to dive into the darkness of the character, calling her work “effortless.” “The role of Elsa is such a challenge in how deep and dark she has to go every single day,” Murin says. “She manages to keep her soul light offstage, which is so impressive when you’re saying the lines and singing the songs she has to sing. I think I may be her biggest fan.”
Although “Frozen” marks the first time Murin and Levy have worked together, they’ve known each other through the business for years, and they say this experience has brought them closer together.
“She is the most solid support system I’ve ever had in a show,” Murin says, calling Levy fiercely loyal, smart, and intuitive. “She can tell when I need her before I can even ask. I say this a lot, but I don’t think I would make it through this incredibly demanding process without her and her heart.”
Levy grew up outside of Toronto with two older brothers, so she cherishes having a sister onstage. She also treasures her female friendships, something she finds adds to the dynamic between Elsa and Anna onstage.
“I’m always suspicious of women who aren’t friends with other women,” Levy says, adding that both she and Murin have strong bonds with other women in their lives. “Frozen” also marks the first time Levy hasn’t had an onstage love interest. While she’s had the opportunity to play some strong women like Sheila in the revival of “Hair” in 2009, Molly in “Ghost: The Musical” in 2012, and Fantine in the 2014 revival of “Les Misérables,” she’s excited for a change of pace.
“My whole career has been playing roles that are about a man,” Levy says. “This is the first time my love story is all about my sister. I don’t kiss anybody. I don’t take my clothes off. I’m loving it. It’s so free, and it shows a different side of me.”
“Frozen” is also arriving on Broadway in what many have called “the year of women,” when female voices are being championed in the wake of the 2016 election and the rallying cries against sexual misconduct. The musical opens with the coronation of a queen, who must restrain her intense powers in order to assume the throne. The similarities are not hard to draw.
Levy says she doesn’t think of the parallels while she’s performing, but she’s spent a lot of time reflecting on how society views women. “It’s given me a lot of food for thought as to how I play this character,” she says. “That’s the main thing I love about playing Elsa. She goes from feeling totally powerless to feeling completely empowered.”
For Levy, there’s power “in letting go” and embracing who you are and not who other people think you should be. As an actor, she identifies with the feeling of wanting the world to love you, but at a certain point, she recognizes that that’s not realistic and “sort of boring if everyone loves you.” Levy encourages everyone — and women specifically — to be true to themselves and their goals.
“It’s important to talk about these things,” she says. “It’s our time. There’s no more apologizing or shying away from our power, nor should there be. It’s time to own it.”
Let the storm rage on.
Hair by Sam Leonardi
Makeup by Alex Byrne
Styled by Julianna Alabado