When the much-anticipated Frozen stage show made its debut a few months ago at Disney’s California Adventure, the show also made news for its non-traditional casting (sometimes called integrated or color-blind casting), which does not consider ethnicity or gender when those aspects are not essential to the role. Much of the press was positive à la this happy little news story. However, not everyone was pleased.
Objections to non-traditional casting of the show generally come packaged with this type of handwringing:
A commenter by the name of rcurrier had this to say:
“While adults (and I include myself in that group) shouldn't have any problem with color-blind casting, children are going to make up a large portion of the audience and they WILL notice color-blind casting and ask questions (and be disappointed that the REAL Elsa wasn't in the show). The lead characters need to be on-model. If Mulan or Tatiana [sic] was portrayed by a white woman, there would be picketers and boycotts and calls for heads to roll. Disneyland is about the fantasy, there isn't any room for the Political Correctness of color-blind casting in Disneyland. If as a director you feel the need, there are plenty of venues other than Disneyland for you to feed your ego.”
(Point of order: Mulan, Aladdin and Jasmine are frequently portrayed in the park by actors who are not the race of the characters.)
To see how these casting choices affect the children, I gathered up my own child and her cousin and camped out to get Fast Passes to the show. These girls, aged almost-three and almost-four, were born in the midst of all-out Frozen mania. They know the music; they’ve memorized the film and they’ve got merch on merch on merch. My kid adores this particularly disturbing doll:
Before the show, I asked the girls what they thought the show would be like.
Almost Three: I want to see princesses.
Almost Four: I hope the princesses look like a birthday kind.
As the show started, Almost Three yelled out, “Where’s Cinderella?” She was quickly distracted by the appearance of Young Kristoff holding a stuffed reindeer representing Sven. “He has a toy! Mama, he has a TOY!” Check and mate, Disney merchandising team.
Almost Four was scandalized by Young Anna in her nightgown. “Mommy, Anna is naked!” The actress’s brown skin passed her notice completely.
(For anyone clucking their tongues regarding the girls’ outbursts, please know that we are working to raise Good Citizens of the Theater and they were appropriately shushed each time. There were also a pair of kids playing a game, complete with sound effects, on an iPad right behind us from the moment we were seated to the end of the show.)
As the show continued, Anna, Elsa and Kristoff became adults. With the layers of costuming, wigs, makeup and lighting effects, it would be difficult for anyone to confidently identify the race of the actors.
When the adult Sven appeared on stage, the auditorium collectively gasped and both girls cried, “Look! Look! Sven!” The reindeer is shockingly well-rendered, save for the puppeteer’s head jutting out from between the beast’s shoulder blades. The girls were delighted; it made me hyperventilate.
Forget race. If your kid is the type to struggle with suspension of disbelief, the human head sticking out of the reindeer’s back is going to be a hell of a lot more confusing than a woman of color killing it as Elsa.
There were a few technical mishaps in the show, a few missed notes, but it ended with applause and cheers. Outside the theater, kids in Anna and Elsa dresses were dreamy and twirly. After administering much-needed juice boxes and Pirate’s Booty to the girls, we talked about the show.
Mom of Almost Three: What happened in the show?
Almost Three: I don't know!
Mom of Almost Three: Hmm, did they sing “Let It Go”?
Almost Three: Yeah... And, and, her blanket flew away—whoosh! It flew away because it was time to play.
Almost Four: It was good. I liked it! But Anna and Elsa, I don’t know, their voices? The voices weren’t the same. And they sang different songs. But they did the Frozen and it was good! And the Duke was so SILLY. He was a chicken monkey! [breaks into lengthy chicken monkey dance]
So there you have it. If you’re worried about the children, you can rest easy.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.