While F. Michael Haynie is no stranger to performing in Broadway productions, playing Olaf in Disney’s “Frozen” offered a new challenge.
Not only did he have to take on a beloved and well-known role — one that many kids (and some adults) can quote the lines of perfectly — but he had the added challenge of learning how to perform with a puppet.
Not necessarily something they teach in acting school.
The Olaf puppet in the Broadway version of “Frozen,” which opens in Schenectady on Sunday, has the same bright eyes and wondrous look as the animated character.
Designed by Michael Curry, it’s built to be a comparable size to Olaf in the movie. Haynie stands behind it in a bright white costume throughout the entire production.
“We’re like an old Vaudeville duo,” Haynie said.
It might sound like a strange set-up and it took some time for Haynie to get used to, but it was all a part of bringing the “Frozen” storyline to life, a story that has surprised Haynie from the very beginning.
“I saw it at the AMC theater on 84th street in the big beautiful recliner seats. I lost my mind . . . It was respected as a piece of theater even before it was and that was the first time I’d ever experienced that in a movie,” Haynie said.
However, when his agent, Jeremy Leiner of Nicolosi & Co. Talent Agency, sent him to audition for the role of Olaf, Haynie wasn’t so sure he was the right actor at the right time.
“What’s funny is when I auditioned, I was thinking I was going to transition [in] my career. . . I always play young parts. And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this kid thing anymore.’ So I shaved most of my head, went with a mohawk and a beard for a while . . . I was like ‘They’re never going to see me. I look so different,’” Haynie said.
Needless to say, director Michael Grandage saw him as the ideal Olaf and advised him to shave and lose the mohawk before stepping into the role, one that Haynie found challenging not only because of how popular the character is but because of how many talented actors had played before him.
“The pedigree of performers who’ve come before me in this role is really daunting and intimidating. I’ve been a fan of all of them. Ryann Redmond and I went to college together, we were in the same acapella group, [I’ve] known Greg [Hildreth] for ages and watched him in so many exciting roles,” Haynie said.
Then there’s the process of learning how to act with the puppet Olaf.
“It takes passion and all my scene partners to act with him and me. . . to get to synthesize those things and have learned that language, learn how he blinks and moves, practice tripping over stuff,” Haynie said.
For the first few weeks of rehearsals, Haynie worked with other actors to improvise and learn how to keep his movements in line with the puppet’s, to make the lines and reactions seem as natural as possible.
But with his role, and with the entire production, Haynie said that the audience gets to decide who to watch in every scene. There’s so much going on that they have plenty of choices.
“Our ensemble is so brilliant that you could watch any single member of this ensemble at any time and watch them learn what’s happening in the scene and dancing and singing their hearts out,” Haynie said.
He also pointed out that Olaf doesn’t come on stage until a while after the production starts.
“When I finally get to make my first entrance, I walk on and they did it all for me. I have to run laps backstage to be ready to come on with the amount of energy and with the amount of heart and love [required]. Basically, I have the greatest opening act in the world,” Haynie said.
Working with Sven
When he comes on stage, he’ll also be acting with Mason Reeves, who plays Kristoff, and Collin Baja and Evan Strand, who split the role of Sven, an anthropomorphic reindeer.
While Reeves doesn’t have to worry about controlling a puppet, there’s still the challenge of learning how to act with someone wearing a giant reindeer costume.
It’s a tall order for Reeves, who is also working his way through his last semester of college at the University of Michigan (online of course). However, being part of the Broadway tour is an incredible learning experience in itself.
“It’s been insane. There’s some days I’m not called [to rehearse] or I’m called but I’ll have a break and I truly just sit in the corner and watch what everybody else is doing . . .
Sometimes I sit with my notebook and [I’m like] I’m getting a master class from these rehearsals. It’s been a wonderful learning experience and then just a wonderful theater-going experience for me,” Reeves said.
During his own rehearsal time, which took place mostly in New York City, until about two weeks ago when the cast came up to Schenectady, he’s been focused on working with Sven. The reindeer is Kristoff’s best friend and is practically a family member. Kristoff’s backstory is that he’s been raised by these troll-like creatures and hasn’t really had a lot of interactions with other people. Well, at least not positive ones, as evidenced by his song “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.”
“I’d say the challenging aspect of it has been getting used to how to interact with the Sven puppet, I think. I have a lot of training in acting but dealing with a puppet is not something that you’re always trained in,” Reeves said.
Thus, Reeves has been learning to dodge antlers, to dance and to play tag with the puppet.
“It takes a lot to get used to that and Kristoff does the Sven voice, as you know from the movie, so it can feel like you’re talking to yourself. It’s been nice to get to learn and to work with the guys and see how they blink at a certain time when they’re being sassy or [how] they flick their ear when they’re mad at me. It’s been challenging but also rewarding to get to see how all the small things can build a full character that you can relate to and play off of,” Reeves said.
While the tour is booked out for the next two years, Reeves said he’s already planned out a few days off in May to graduate from college. In the meantime, on stage, he’ll be helping Anna find her sister, and working with some remarkable cast members, such as Haynie.
“I’m spoiled rotten to be a part of it. It’s an amazing burden but it’s a responsibility that we all have every single day to go out and do this show because it’s someone’s first show and instead of them coming to New York and journeying and taking the effort to go to New York and experience Broadway here we get to sneak Broadway to them with no expense spared,” said Haynie.
Disney’s “Frozen” opens on Sunday at Proctors as part of the North American touring production of the Broadway musical. The production will run until Sunday, Nov. 24. Tickets are $30-169. For more info visit proctors.org.