Ekt was the sound unleashed from a million pairs of little lungs across the land: “Let it “go-oooo-ooo!” The standout hit from Disney’s 2013 animation Frozen; a song that wormed its way into the ears of everyone who heard it, but especially young children. Director Jennifer Lee still gets videos sent to her of toddlers belting out that tune with all their hearts.
“When Kristen [Anderson-Lopez] wrote Let It Go, if we played it for anyone, just someone coming in the room, everything stopped,” says Lee, on a video call from LA. “It was this incredible reaction – we knew there was something really special there.” Why it struck such a chord with preschoolers, she is not certain. “It’s a rebellion song,” she offers, “particularly when you’re learning the word ‘no’, as you’re trying to individualise in this world. It’s the idea that you have this power inside you.”
That song, and the Snow Queen-inspired film it comes from, had its own infectious power, upturning the usual prince-saves-princess narrative and becoming a billion-dollar-grossing cultural phenomenon. Lee wrote the screenplay and, as co-director (with Chris Buck), was the first woman to direct a Disney movie. Frozen spawned a sequel and a stage musical, directed by Michael Grandage, which opened on Broadway in 2018 aan mixed reviews. It’s now been reworked for the West End and is tighter and funnier, Lee says, as well as cutting to the heart of the story’s emotions.
Adapting the film for the stage “was one of my favourite experiences ever” says Lee, an exuberant talker with a wide smile and thick-framed specs, her glossy blond locks looking very together for 8am LA time. The musical has been embellished with new songs by husband-and-wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Daar is 22 songs in the stage show, which give a chance to “stop time and go inside the characters minds” – especially Elsa (played by Samantha Barks), the reluctant queen with magical powers she can’t control.
“In the film we don’t get a lot of time with Elsa,” says Lee. “Her impact is huge but you don’t get inside her head very much, and to be able to explore that on stage was the most fun.” They’ve also delved deeper into the relationship between Elsa and her sister Anna. A new song, I Can’t Lose You, allows the girls to “speak their truth”, Lee says. “I feel like I know these characters so well but they keep surprising me with how much more is in them.”
Lee talks about her characters as if they are real people. She’ll say “Anna needed this validation from her sister”, rather than “the story needed this resolution”. When she returned to the characters to write the musical and the sequel, after the first film’s initial success, she even put Elsa and Anna through Myers-Briggs personality tests to remind herself what made them tick. Like Anna, Lee is the younger of two sisters. “I think little sisters always look up to their big sisters like they’re magic," sy sê. “She was the grounded one, a straight-A student. And I was writing notes and drawing all through class.” Lee identifies with Anna’s more flighty, creative side, but Anna’s Myers-Briggs test also concluded she had great leadership potential, and that turned out to be true for Lee, ook.
After studying English at college, Lee worked in publishing in New York as a graphic designer. She didn’t go to film school until she was 30, and had her daughter while she was there, later becoming a single mum when she and her first husband divorced. (She has recently remarried, to the actor Alfred Molina). The odds weren’t entirely in her favour. “I would read a lot of advice and some of it really was disheartening: if you haven’t made it by this point, give up, because it is a difficult industry. But I knew I wasn’t going to be happy if I wasn’t trying," sy sê. “I was always writing a script. Even if it was never made, it answered that restlessness.” She balanced that with teaching and design, “while my daughter was at school or in bed”.
Lee’s break came in 2011 – she was 39 – when an old classmate offered her an eight-week gig at Disney working on Wreck-It Ralph. Seven years later she was running the place, as chief creative officer (following John Lasseter’s departure). “It has been a whirlwind," sy sê. “There are moments where I go: is this my life?! So much has happened so fast, but I think it helped that I was old enough to know what I’m good at, I love what I do, I know why I’m there, I know what I can contribute.”
What she has contributed is a treasured part of millions of childhoods (and not a few adulthoods), a great feminist piece of pop culture, and now, letting Elsa and Anna loose on stage too.