Jenna Lee-James on being crowned 'Frozen''s newest ice queen

The actress, who assumed the role of Elsa in the West End Disney musical from Samantha Barks, shares why it's "the most exhilarating experience" of her career.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

We definitely can’t let it go! Audiences are still flocking to Disney’s Frozen in the West End – in fact, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane production just announced a ticket extension until June 2024. So what’s it like actually leading this iconic musical?

“I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” enthused Jenna Lee-James. She currently performs the role of Elsa while Samantha Barks, who originated the part in London, is on maternity leave. But there’s also pressure that comes with inhabiting such a beloved character – and, in particular, singing that song…

“My heart starts pounding when I’m in the wings,” she said of the build-up to the mighty “Let It Go.” “But it’s also the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had in my career.”

We chatted to Lee-James about keeping the secret of her casting, what it means to get this part in her 40s, building a "sibling" bond, and why she has to be careful around that crystal palace.

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Congratulations on the role! When did you know you’d got it?

This has been ongoing since about May. My agent was contacted, just to check if I was available for a potential role in Frozen, but I knew which parts they were casting and didn’t think there was something for me. Samantha Barks going on maternity leave was top secret.

Then I got a call to go in and work with all the creatives, and then I had my actual audition, which was filmed for the Americans. That was on a Friday, and the following Tuesday I was cast as Elsa!

How hard was it to keep that secret?

Really hard. I told my best friend, and that was it. I only told my parents right before I was about to start rehearsals – I kept the secret for five weeks. I did tell them “I’ve got a big job,” because my dad has access to my diary, “but I can’t tell you what it is.”

Before they announced it, I was tiptoeing around the theatre. That was the weirdest time, because my friends were working in theatres around there and I couldn’t say anything! But obviously the cast knew, and they were just brilliant.

What was the response like when it finally came out?

It was wonderful. The messages that came in, not just from friends, but people I know in the business who I really respect. There’s a bunch of us of the same age group, and the roles are getting smaller, so a lot of them said it was inspiration to keep going. We reach our 40s and we can feel like giving up. So they were saying, “You’ve landed one of the biggest roles in town – we want to do the same.”

Elsa’s meant to be 21 at the beginning of the story – I’m clearly not. But it’s about how you play the role. My age has never been brought up; it’s about me as an actress. People have been amazing. I’m the luckiest girl in the world.

How do you put your stamp on Elsa?

She’s so iconic – all these incredible actresses have played her. Obviously it’s just Sam in London, but also Caissie Levy and Caroline Bowman in the States, Willemijn [Verkaik] in Germany.

But I felt Elsa was a little bit of me. When we went through the pandemic, I had a really troubled time. Obviously our business was hit, and my neighbours had a house fire that engulfed my apartment. I really isolated myself from people. But ultimately it made me stronger.

I could see myself in Elsa struggling with her powers, how I felt I was the letdown and I didn’t want to get close to people – so I could tell my story through the show. It’s been a journey! I had to dig deep into my soul and tackle my demons to find Elsa’s vulnerability. I now have a wonderful relationship with the character, and with my new sister.

Tell us about that "sibling" relationship…

Our new Anna, Laura Dawkes, we have a real bond. I actually did my auditions with her back in July. Frozen is a story of love, but not one we’re used to in musicals: It’s a love of two sisters who are separated at a very young time in life but still have immense love. Elsa takes herself away to protect Anna, but ultimately, she realises if you love someone, you want to be with them. The show has a real heart and a real emotional journey.

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What’s it like having all these young fans?

Frozen the film is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, so all those youngsters have grown up with it and are now teenagers – we have a new generation coming through too. It’s amazing when you see little kids turning up at the stage door dressed as you!

These are their iconic characters they’ve watched over and over on screen coming to life, and they get to see them on stage as human beings. Luckily me and Laura look like them anyway – I’ve got the long blonde hair in real life.

Do you both have siblings?

Yes, I’ve got a brother, three years older, and Laura’s got an older brother too. My brother’s been down to see the show – he’s been very supportive. Ever since I left home at 16 to pursue this career, he’s travelled the world to see me, no matter where I am.

Is it intimidating to sing these well-known songs?

Initially I thought, “oh my gosh,” especially because Sam just nails it. Those are big shoes to fill. But you find your own character, and the songs are so great to sing. “Let It Go” obviously is the song everybody comes to hear. The pressure of it — my heart starts pounding when I’m in the wings and the intro starts. But it’s also the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had in my career.

You’re thinking of all the technical aspects needed to make it work, and then that ultimate moment with the dress reveal – you see the audience’s faces, and you know you’ve just made 2,000 people so happy.

What’s your favourite of the new songs in the show?

I love singing “Monster” – the story in that. It’s Elsa’s turnaround, as she works it through in mind, reaching out for help but no one’s there. She’s in this place [of solitude], but she wants her mother and father. It’s what I do every day: work everything out in my head. Then she finds a resolution: "This is what I must do."

I also love her duet with Anna, “I Can’t Lose You.” It’s the first time they admit there’s love there and Elsa explains she’s trying to protect Anna, not hurt her. That’s breathtaking to see.

Do you enjoy the theatrical special effects?

The magic is Disney at its best. Just walking into this beautiful theatre, you know you’re going to get something special, and the magic, how it’s all done, is so clever. There’s a technical aspect to learning the part, because you want to get it right, and we have an incredible stage management team and crew making sure it’s all safe.

The puppetry is a delight, too!

Hats off to Craig [Gallivan], who plays Olaf, and we’ve got two people playing Sven: Ashley Birchall and Mikayla Jade. Not two people like a pantomime horse, but they each do four shows a week because it’s so taxing on their bodies. They love Sven – how they get the eyes and ears moving, he’s really an incredible character.

Craig, as sensational as he is, you do watch the puppet. Olaf is real; the kids believe he’s real. Now I wouldn’t think twice about looking at Craig – I look at Olaf.

Do you feel like a princess in those gorgeous costumes?

Oh my gosh, the detail. My opening look, which is inspired by a traditional Nordic design, the petticoat under my skirt has these details on the edge that you’d never see [from the audience] – it’s just incredible. The beading on the ice dress is all hand sewn. It took 45 days! You can look at a model in the theatre lobby and get a sense of the weight of it.

The set design is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Though I do have to be careful of the crystals in Elsa’s ice palace. There’s a moment when I have to throw something, and I have to be careful not to knock any over or they’d shatter. But when that set makes its entrance, it’s a real "wow" moment.

Are you looking forward to performing during the Christmas holiday?

I can’t wait! Everyone in the cast says “Just wait until Christmas” – it’s the most wonderful time because all the kids want to come see it. Frozen, it’s just so Christmassy, isn’t it? Also, the 10th anniversary is right before Christmas. I’m so excited thinking of the amount of young children coming and how we’re going to fulfil their dreams.

Is it fun having a mix of new and existing cast members?

I opened four weeks before the new cast took over, so it was weird being on my own, but we’ve since had eight new people starting in this third contract. The previous company has welcomed us with open arms; it’s called “the Frozen family” for a reason. We had a particularly tiring time through that cast change – they did all my rehearsals and then theirs. Now it’s going to be fun just doing the show.

How long would you like to stay with the show?

I’m definitely doing it into next year. I’m going to enjoy every moment, breathe it all in – it’s a dream come true. Queen Elsa of Arendelle is right up there on my bucket list.

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Photo credit: Jenna Lee-James in rehearsal as Elsa in Frozen. (Photos courtesy of production)

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