Theater audiences are “Letting It Go” this February with the New Orleans premiere of Frozen at the Saenger Theater. The Tony®-nominated Best Musical completed its Broadway run in March 2020 after breaking four house records at The St. James Theatre. I was lucky enough to see the show on opening weekend and it was fantastic. The lighting, costumes and set were just gorgeous and the scene when Elsa sings “Let It Go” was simply breathtaking.
The stellar cast propels this wonderful show. One cast member was an audience favorite. Olaf, the lovable snowman that comes magically to life is portrayed by the talented F. Michael Haynie, whose impressive Broadway credits include Boq in Wicked, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was able to catch up with F. Michael for a quick and very fascinating interview; and they are as charming and endearing as the character Olaf. I could easily see why F. Michael was cast in the role, bringing their own personal magic to this lovable character.
TL: How long have you played Olaf?
FMH: I was cast in the role in March 2019 and we started performances in September of that year. Like everything else because of COVID, we shut down in March 2020 so we only had a few months of performances under our belt. I like to call that time 1.0 and now we are back for 2.0 after an 18-month hiatus.
TL: What is it like being back?
FMH: It is wonderful coming back to the theater and a character that I was just beginning to scratch the surface. I never dreamed of a world without live theater. As rules are becoming more relaxed with COVID and many people have moved on; we are very much still dealing with the pandemic. We are tested daily and take the health and safety of the cast and crew very seriously. I even have a mask pocket sewn into my costume. We have a responsibility as artists to do our part to help live theater return. It is a new era of live theater.
During the lock down with the pandemic, I hosted a Zoom happy hour for the cast every Sunday for those who wanted to talk and just get together. While we were away from each other due to the pandemic, our cast has had a couple of births, a few engagements and many other life happenings. It is so good getting back together with everyone. And we are thankful the support of the theater goers. Trust me I know it is not fun wearing a mask for two hours while watching the show, but we appreciate the audience for doing their part.
TL: Playing an iconic character like Olaf must be unique especially since you are working with a puppet attached to you. What was that like?
FMH: When I auditioned for the role of Olaf, I did not work with the puppet, so it was just me and how I can bring this snowman to life. Once I was chosen that is when my training began. I am not a puppeteer, so two weeks prior to rehearsals with the other cast members, I had to learn how to walk and control the mechanics of Olaf. I am so grateful to the patience the directors showed me and the trust they had in my capacity to be a puppeteer. Olaf comes up to my chin and like an old school marionette it is completely me operating every move it makes. My right hand takes care of Olaf’s head and eyeballs, while my left hand controls the hands. A bar attached to me works the character’s body and my feet work are fitted into Olaf’s.
One thing which was a little harder to get accustomed to was how I interact with the other characters. The other cast members look at Olaf, not me, so that took a little time to get used to. Also, I can’t grab onto props or anything, so many times, I rely on sounds effects for my reactions. I am a perfectionist so it is important to me to get the movements correct especially when he interacts with the other characters by taking their hands. I even have a special seat made for me when I come off stage along with a dresser who helps me with my costume. OLAF exists 100% every second on stage, he is born and lives a lifetime within the show. So not only is it very physical work, but the character is completely energized every minute. When I come off stage at the end of the performance, I tend to be pretty exhausted. I joke that “I have no Olafs left to give.”
TL: Have you ever been to New Orleans?
FMH: I have been in New Orleans before a few years ago when I was a brass preformist major and I came down to play at a night of 1,000 Trumpets. But I was only here for a day, this time I get to spend more time in your great city. I am from the South also, originally Georgia, so I forgot how friendly people are down here. They say hi and talk to you on the street. Like New York, which is where I live, your city is filled with so much art and culture. There is a level of community here and I am excited about seeing a little part of what makes this place so special. And, I also am going to get some beignets.
If you have not bought your tickets to Frozen, get them now, the production runs through February 20, 2022. You can buy your tickets at https://www.saengernola.com/. And like Olaf says “I Like Warm Hugs!” Embrace the magic.