The Making of a Disney Princess: How Patti Murin Overcame Setbacks to Become Anna in ‘Frozen’ (Exclusive)
By Leigh Scheps
Opening night for Patti Murin, who plays Anna in the Broadway musical adaptation of Disney’s Frozen, was a long-awaited fairy tale come true. “I cried,” she recalled to ET days later. “I barely remember it, but I've seen the video so I'm like, ‘Oh, right, there were flowers.’” The path she traveled to get to that moment was very much like the emotional journey her character endures in the show.
The stage version of Frozen is based on the animated film’s story about the struggling relationship between two sisters, Anna and Elsa, originally voiced by Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel, respectively, and now embodied by Murin and Caissie Levy. Double EGOT winner Robert Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who wrote the music for the film, added 12 new songs for this production now playing at the St. James Theatre.
Growing up in Hopewell Junction, New York, not far from Manhattan, it was easy for Murin to fall in love with theater at a young age, attending Broadway shows -- Cats was her first -- with her parents. “Betty Buckley was one of the first names I held on to and remembered and followed,” Murin says of the Broadway veteran, who originated Grizabella in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. “Now, it's funny because Betty and I follow each other on Twitter, and so when I get a happy birthday message from her, I'm like, ‘This is crazy town. This is utterly insane.’”
One of Murin’s first acting roles was in her middle school’s production of Cinderella. No, she wasn’t cast as the titular princess; instead, she played a mouse. She continued doing theater in high school and studied it at Syracuse University, and kicked off her professional acting career with regional theater before making her Broadway debut as a swing in a 2007 production of Xanadu.
Murin soon found herself in one of the main roles -- Erato, Siren, '40s Singer, Hera -- after the original actress hurt her ankle during preview performances. “I was getting to put on a costume and do the show, but I couldn't truly [have] my turn to take the bow,” she recalls of her first opening night. She later went on to understudy for the show’s lead, Kerry Butler (now in Mean Girls), during its run.
“I don’t think I can play an understudy again,” Murin says now. “Because those people are heroes, and I couldn’t keep up with the last-minute pressure of that.” Being in Xanadu, she explains, is where she learned she could be funny, which carried into her next Broadway role -- the lead in Lysistrata Jones -- and ultimately as Anna in Frozen. But the years leading up to Anna would not come without a string of personal and professional setbacks.
In 2011, she was on the cusp of her big break with Lysistrata Jones. “I remember that opening night was phenomenal. That was probably the most similar [to Frozen’s opening night],” she says. But the moment was short-lived, with the production only playing 64 performances, including previews. She followed it with more Off-Broadway roles and a brief stint as Linda Mason in the Holiday Inn musical at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where Murin first contemplated leaving the business.
“I was like, ‘I might do this show and then reevaluate,’” Murin says. But at a wedding, she was approached by the Lopezes, who suggested they work together. “That makes me cry now because that one thing they said to me really made me be like, ‘OK, maybe I’m not done with it.’” Then, in 2016, she was cast in Nerds, which was canceled three weeks into rehearsals. She wrote on her personal blog of the disappointing news: “2017 will be better, because I am going to make better things of it.”
Initially, things were better, with the year kicking off with the surprise that she was pregnant with her first child with husband and Chicago Med star Colin Donnell, whom she occasionally appears opposite as pathologist Nina Shore. “We were completely shell-shocked. This was not in our plans,” Murin says of her and Donnell’s reaction. But then eight weeks into the pregnancy, she miscarried.
The devastating loss was met with an offer to play Anna, a role that she had spent time performing and perfecting from the first table read to the workshops in between. “I decided not to go to the final callbacks,” Murin says. “I just wasn’t in a place to go.” But at Disney’s insistence and with the support of her husband, she refocused her dreams on becoming a princess. “He was very respectful about whatever I decided,” she says of Donnell’s support. “He just wanted to make sure that I wasn't going to regret anything either way. It was a difficult decision for us, but one that we made together.” And just like a Disney movie, everything came together.
In 2017, Murin was confirmed to play Anna in a lab presentation of Frozen followed by an out-of-town run in Denver before the show officially came to Broadway. Her dream of portraying a 16-year-old Disney princess and leading lady of a high-profile juggernaut came true at the perfect time in her life. “I'm 37 years old, and I honestly think that this is the best time for this to happen to me because I'm best equipped to actually understand what it takes and have the stamina to know how to handle it -- whether it's emotional pressures or having life perspective,” she says.
In the musical adaptation, Murin has to carry Anna through several dark traumas. Her parents die when she’s young and her sister Elsa stops talking to her. The next 12 years, she’s left alone to wander around the castle in Arendelle, wondering what she did to ruin her relationship with sister. Just when things miraculously come together -- Anna finds love, Elsa emerges from hiding -- everything falls apart, sending Anna on a dangerous quest to find her sister and restore order to the kingdom in a story about the eternal bond between sisters and female empowerment.
Murin plays Anna with heart and spunk, earning laughs from comedy bits that her earlier years on Broadway helped shape. “She is just a free spirit. She's socially awkward, so she just does what she wants. And when it comes time to take her broken ball gown off -- she just rips it off,” Murin says. That’s when Anna puts on pants. (In fact, both characters wear pants in the show.) “It's a fun part for me, because it really highlights the tomboy side. You can still see that I'm a human inside of it. And when you're crossing an ice bridge, I suppose you could have proper clothes on,” Murin jokes of the stunt-filled scene above the stage with Anna’s love interest Kristoff (Jelani Alladin).
With Frozen being the most high-profile show she’s ever done, Murin wants to use the momentum of the show to raise awareness about her passion for Muddy Paws animal rescue (she has two dogs named Petey and Milo) and her daily struggles battling depression and anxiety.
“Just because I’m a Disney princess on Broadway doesn’t mean life is perfect.” While Frozen was playing in Denver last summer, Murin suffered a panic attack right before show time. “There was no reason for it. That was probably one of the hardest days. I was in a bad place, but I didn’t want to call out.” Murin says she wants to be an advocate and find organizations to work with to help others in similar situations. “If there’s one person that you’ve made a difference to -- it’s something huge.”
And for the actress, there’s not one, but many people -- including her husband, family, friends and, notably, onstage sister -- that get her through the daily challenges so she can take her bow. “Those are the moments I'm like, ‘I am so, so lucky,’” Murin says.