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Charlie Williams at Capitol Theatre
Photograph: Time Out/Dan Boud

Broadway star's plea to Sydneysiders: "Go see a show, because you can"

The Broadway luminary and associate choreographer of Disney Theatrical's latest stage blockbuster 'Frozen', talks New York's lockdown, the power of Instagram and why Sydneysiders should cherish the theatre

Written by
Maxim Boon

The animated original first cast its frosty spell on audiences back in 2013 – a good seven years before putting distance between ourselves and others became a government mandate – but the story of Disney’s Frozen shares a surprising amount in common with the trials and challenges of 2020. At least, it does according to choreographer and Broadway regular Charlie Williams. “It’s a story about one sister who puts herself in isolation and another sister who’s been forced into isolation and is begging to break out and connect with people. It’s about electing new leadership and the uncertainty surrounding that. And it’s about people wanting to reach out but not knowing how. I truly think that there’s never been a more relevant time to do Frozen than right now, in 2020.”

That might sound like a tenuously long bow to draw, but Williams, who is the associate choreographer of Disney Theatrical's latest stage blockbuster, has had plenty of time to ponder the deeper subtexts of Frozen – and life in general for that matter – while in lockdown in New York earlier this year. Stuck in his modest apartment in Hell’s Kitchen for several weeks, as the Big Apple bore the brunt of America’s first wave of the virus, the Broadway performer of more than a decade was just one of hundreds of artists from the famed US theatre district to find himself suddenly out of work.

“Broadway had never shut down before. Ever. Last year around the same time, we had one show cancelled due to an electrical outage, and even missing just that one performance was like, earth-shattering,” Williams recalls. “I hate to say it, but before it all came crashing down, we were making light of it, making jokes about it. Because we thought it was just so outside the realms of possibility – never in a million years would Broadway have to close.”

I truly think that there’s never been a more relevant time to do Frozen than right now, in 2020

With his busy schedule working on the Broadway production of Frozen put on indefinite hiatus, Williams, like so many others in the city, was left to watch and wait at home as New York’s outbreak quickly escalated. But throughout history, especially during times of great social struggle, artists have continued to make art. And so it was for Williams, using one stage that the citywide lockdown couldn’t shutter: Instagram.

Williams’ regular story posts – a mixture of ad hoc performances, funny vignettes, lip dubs, affirmations, and positive musings on lockdown life he named ‘corona thots’ – became essential daily viewing for his 48,500+ followers, offering a few reliable moments of uplifting distraction from the increasingly frightening events unfolding around the world. And as much as Williams gave to his online community, the opportunity to perform and connect with other people was also a gift for him.

Charlie WilliamsPhotograph: Dan Boud/Time Out

“This was the first time that I was able to use social media in a way that really connected with people,” he shares. “When you’re used to living that eight-shows-a-week hustle, it’s literally ingrained in you to create and be artistic. So it was a safety blanket for me to use social media to express myself. To go from living in the middle of a busy neighborhood, from a job where I get to interact with people in so many ways every single day, to being shut up in a tiny, tiny apartment, having that platform to share things about my daily life and actually connect with people really helped me get through it.”

Australia’s arts industry faced the same closure crisis earlier this year when national shutdown orders saw theatres shuttered across the country. Today however, the outlook for Aussie performers is far rosier, particularly in Sydney. Artists have returned to stages across the city, from small cabaret venues to our largest houses, including the Capitol Theatre. That's where Disney Theatrical’s Frozen, the first major international production on Australian soil since the national shutdown, is currently playing. 

All of this makes the Harbour City one of the most culture-rich destinations anywhere in the world right now. In New York, the lights of Broadway remain dark and the fates of many productions there are uncertain, at best. On London’s West End, theatregoers and performers alike are similarly affected by the forced closure of shows. It’s a story that can be found echoed in theatre districts around the world – so the fact that Sydney is enjoying a theatre boom at present, with every major theatre company announcing 2021 seasons as planned, is something locals should cherish, Williams insists. 

“My message to anyone in Sydney is: come see us. Come see performers,” he shares. “For us, coming back to the theatre is such a cathartic experience, because our livelihoods and our reason for being was taken away so suddenly, you know? But it’s kinda meaningless without an audience. Performing for people is like reconnecting with a long lost friend.”

This isn’t a typical singing show or a typical acting show. It’s a show about heart

This is the first time Frozen has been seen anywhere outside of the US, so as both a member of the original creative team and Broadway cast, Williams was an obvious choice to bring to Australia to train the Sydney ensemble as they prepared for opening night. While the show will be an exact replica of Broadway's, its all-Aussie cast brings a frisson of antipodean flavour to the action, Williams says.

“We’ve really encouraged everyone in the cast to make this show their own. The production team’s job is to give these amazing artists all the ingredients of the original, but the cherry on top is the Sydney flair they’ve added themselves,” he explains. “And there’s a lot of room for that, I think, because this isn’t a typical singing show or a typical acting show. It’s a show about heart.

"There’s a lot of pretty spectacular effects, and of course the costumes and set designs are incredible, but I really believe you could perform this show by candlelight and it would be just as powerful.

"So yeah, I’m sure audiences here are going to love all the pyrotechnics but it’s the heart of this show that I think they’ll be talking about when they leave the theatre.”

Disney Theatrical's Frozen is playing at the Capitol Theatre until May 2021.

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