The Secret Life of Sven

How a onetime acrobat and a “Lion King” puppet designer introduced a speechless reindeer to life in Disney’s stage adaptation of “Frozen” on Broadway.

Sven nearly didn’t make it to Broadway.

When Disney determined to adapt its megahit animated film “Frozen” for the stage, the artistic group critically thought-about killing off the reticent reindeer (a destiny that did befall the marauding ice monster Marshmallow in addition to the menacing pack of wolves).

“We were going to not have Sven in the show,” mentioned Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Productions, “because we were afraid it would just occupy space onstage and be distracting.”

But the corporate invited its longtime puppetry collaborator, Michael Curry (“The Lion King”), to experiment with methods the shaggy creature could be represented onstage. He examined two-performer pantomime earlier than deciding to vogue a full-scale determine that might wordlessly interact with the unfolding plot — that might act — when delivered to life by a single actor inside.

The ensuing reindeer has change into probably the most widespread characters within the present, getting entrance applause and even a cameo on the Tonys (becoming a member of James Monroe Iglehart on the microphone to introduce the “Frozen” efficiency).

Sven’s head is molded out of carbon-fiber composite, his physique is formed foam lined with braided uncooked silk, and his hooves are rubber-coated foam sculpture mounted round aluminum and stainless-steel orthopedic braces. Underneath, the performer wears a full-body wicking go well with, a carbon-fiber head mount held in place by a comfortable urethane pores and skin, knee and elbow pads, biking gloves, and a mouth guard.

Sven is a barely bigger than life eight and a half ft lengthy, and his body weighs about 14 kilos. There is a display hidden within the animal’s neck, permitting the actor to see, though his visual view is sharply restricted — a lot in order that Sven has the de facto proper of means onstage.

The reindeer’s predominant coloring is a tan-like hue known as uncooked sienna, however he additionally has a little bit of pink (to heat him up visually), some purple and blue highlights (the colours of the Norwegian flag) and flecks of inexperienced (moss). Up shut, there are some touches a theatergoer would by no means see — hoof carvings, for instance, that echo Scandinavian design patterns within the set.

“He is a compromise between the caricature of the animated feature, a real reindeer and what I know would look human in a way,” Mr. Curry mentioned. “When you look at his mug, we did some things to the orbits of the eyes and the cheekbones and the mouth that really make the audience relate to the human quality.”

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Sven, featured in “Frozen” on the St. James Theater — and inhabited right here by the actor Adam Jepsen — has a mixture of reindeer and human-like qualities.

The function was originated by Andrew Pirozzi, an actor who has been dancing (beginning with ballet and faucet) since he was four, and who had discovered tumbling and hand balancing by finding out at a circus school and performing with an acrobatic team. Sven is onstage for about 40 minutes of the present, and the function is bodily taxing — the performer inside is on all fours, primarily planking for as much as seven minutes at a time, with 11-inch stilts connected to his arms, and five-inch metallic shanks connected to his ft.

Sven’s head pivots by a linkage system linked to the performer’s head and physique; the load of his head is cantilevered away from the performer’s neck by a customized orthopedic again brace. A cable connects the performer’s proper hand to Sven’s eyes, to make the animal blink; one other connects his left hand to Sven’s ears, which usually swing freely however can be rotated or pulled again to precise pleasure or happiness. The mouth strikes solely when one other character (Kristoff or Anna) rubs his throat.

Mr. Pirozzi was the one Sven throughout final summer time’s pre-Broadway run at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. But as soon as the mechanics of the function turned absolutely clear, Disney determined it was an excessive amount of for one actor to do eight occasions per week, so on Broadway Mr. Pirozzi is Sven at six performances, and Adam Jepsen, an actor who was as soon as a aggressive gymnast, does the opposite two. (The objective is that neither actor does it greater than as soon as a day.) “We spend a lot of time in the gym, with stabilizer exercises and shoulder exercises, strengthening really small muscles that I didn’t know existed,” Mr. Jepsen mentioned.

Mr. Pirozzi demonstrating the place he makes use of whereas within the Sven costume, worn right here by Mr. Jepsen.

Mr. Curry, who has studied animal anatomy, and Mr. Pirozzi, who merely loves animals, every spent hours watching YouTube movies of migrating reindeer, attempting to grasp how they transfer. “It turns out they’re really gangly, just like our guy — they’re not graceful,” Mr. Curry mentioned. They labored with a motion advisor, Lorenzo Pisoni, to determine how the animal would behave. Mr. Pirozzi additionally spent a number of time mendacity on the ground along with his canine — Bella, a Great Dane-pit bull combine — observing how she responded to being addressed, in addition to the place her gaze went in moments of silence. One thing more: “I actually trained with my daughters on my back,” he mentioned. “I can do all the planking and the lifts, but I needed the agility on stilts, so Disney let me take those home, and my kids knew every time I was rehearsing I could give them a ride. They’re 7 and 8, so the perfect ages — like a little Anna and Elsa.”

Mr. Pirozzi, who originated the function of the reticent reindeer in Denver, getting some love from Sven, performed right here by Mr. Jepsen. The males alternate within the function on Broadway.

Fun truth No. 1: A reindeer performs a heroic function in “The Snow Queen,” the Hans Christian Andersen fairy story on which “Frozen” is loosely (very loosely) primarily based. That reindeer, like a lot of the natural world in “The Snow Queen,” can communicate.

Fun truth No. 2: The costume is so scorching that, in breaks from the motion, Sven retreats to a “puppet corner” offstage, the place dressers provide water and even maintain tissues for nostril blowing (the actors can’t use their arms whereas in costume), and the place an air-con tube might be inserted into the costume to decrease their physique temperature.

“Being Sven is really really difficult, and I knew that it would be from the beginning,” Mr. Pirozzi mentioned. But, he added, “I like taking part in Sven, as a result of for these two hours every evening, I could possibly soften the hearts of 1,700 folks.”


Produced by Laura O’Neill.

More ‘Frozen’ Coverage

Michael Paulson is the theater reporter. He beforehand lined faith, and was a part of the Boston Globe group whose protection of clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church gained the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. @MichaelPaulson



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