Samantha Barks on returning to 'Frozen' in the West End

Frozen’s Ice Queen Samantha Barks took a break from the musical last year while on maternity leave, but now she is back on her throne with more power than ever.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

Samantha Barks started welling up at a recent rehearsal for Frozen. As she and Laura Dawkes, who plays Princess Anna, were singing one of the show’s songs, she found herself overcome with emotion.

“I was inconsolably sobbing because the lyrics meant so much more in that moment – because I felt like there’s a maternal feeling there,” Bark explains. “I know Elsa’s not a mother and it’s her sister, but I just felt so proud of her.”

Barks comes by that maternal feeling honestly. Since taking a break from the show last year, Barks gave birth to her first child, and now she’s returning to the role she originated in the West End.

Sitting on a Zoom call a few weeks before rejoining the company, Barks wears her new title proudly, showcasing her mug with the inscription “New Mummy”.

“I’m a different person. Having a kid just really changes you,” she says. “From the minute I saw my baby it was like, I’m changed – body and soul. It was really unbelievably powerful.”

Now, she’s bringing that power back to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where she’ll reclaim her ice throne on 7 February.

“It’s such an honour to get to represent Elsa here in the UK,” Barks says. “It’s gonna be very different going back because obviously now I’m going back as a mum with a new baby, but I’m really excited about it.”

A Family Affair

Barks is a huge fan of Frozen, and she recalls falling in love with the film when she saw it at the cinema. Her sister was actually the one who recommended that she see it, and as soon as she got out of the movie, she called her sister and exclaimed “Oh my God, it’s like us!”

Barks calls herself “the Anna to her sister’s Elsa,” and she identifies with Anna’s bubbly and positive personality.

However, she says Elsa is the type of role she generally plays because the vocals sit right in her range. She adds that Idina Menzel, who created Elsa’s voice in the animated version, is a hero of hers.

“In life, I think sometimes I’m quite like Elsa, so I understand and relate to both of them,” Barks says. “And playing Elsa, when I look at Anna on stage looking at me, I relate so much to that little sister who just looks at her sister with so much love. I still look at my sister like that.”

Frozen is a bit of a family affair for Barks too. She got married while starring in the show, and she had her son – two life-changing moments.

“I’ll never, ever have such fond memories of a show or job again, because the life events that have shaped my whole life have happened in this job,” she says.

She even stayed in the show throughout most of her pregnancy, a testimony to her athletic stamina and to Frozen’s impressive costume department.

Barks explains that they were able to tailor the clothes around her growing bump: “We almost created a new fake body on top of my body, so it just removed the kind of curve of the bump,” she explains. She performed in the show until her eighth month.

“I really, really love a challenge; that’s who I am as a person,” Barks says. “Everything’s a bit different when you’re pregnant. Walking is very different. Singing is different. But it’s quite a good lesson in living in the present.”

Barks has been preparing to go back into the show by singing around the house and to her baby. “Thank God I love singing Frozen,” she says, adding that she doesn’t sing “Let It Go” to her son because she’s “trying to encourage him to sleep”.

“It’s not the most peaceful,” she says with a laugh. “But I do sing ‘Dangerous to Dream’ because it’s nice and soft. And then I sing from Frozen 2 as well.”

The Power of Theatre

Frozen is particularly important to Barks because it’s the first show she’s done since the theatres shuttered during the pandemic, and Frozen reopened the Theatre Royal Drury Lane after a massive renovation.

“I will never forget our first preview,” Barks says, recalling a moment during “Dangerous to Dream” by softly singing the lyrics: I can’t believe I’m standing here. Did I really make it through? Father, I did it. Now what do I do?

FROZEN Sam Barks backstage

“I was like, wow, I really can’t believe I’m standing here,” Barks says, adding that she started crying in the middle of the song. “Because in the pandemic, there was a part of me that just thought: is theatre ever going to come back? And I’ve never been more grateful for what I do, than then, and now. And I really have not taken it for granted for a second.”

She recalls running offstage and hugging her castmates and just being overwhelmed with the reality that they were bringing live theatre to an audience. That’s what’s kept Barks inspired to do the show every night.

“The magic of doing ‘Let It Go’ – it’s not just in the quick dress change and the special effects,” Barks says. “It’s actually in the faces in the audience. I feel so honoured to get to deliver that theatrical magic to them.”

Why Elsa is Different

Barks has played several leading roles onstage and onscreen – from getting her start as Nancy in Oliver! on the UK tour after the reality show I’d Do Anything to starring as Éponine in the Les Misérables film, playing the title character in Amélie the Musical and creating the role of Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman on Broadway.

“With most parts I’ve played, there has been an expectation because the character is known in some way,” Barks says. “I choose to not take that on. I want to do a good job and I want people to enjoy it, but it’s not really a helpful emotion to take on in terms of thinking about what people might expect.”

But Elsa has a different cultural resonance both in terms of the character’s journey onstage and what she means to people.

“Every other part I’ve played has a love interest, and that has been like the main focus,” she says. “This is not that at all… Elsa is a really complex part. And she’s so isolated, so that’s very interesting. It’s a lot of ‘conceal and don’t feel’ until she has that moment of self-acceptance and self-love.”

And that’s one of the main reasons so many people admire Elsa, because she is the first Disney queen who charts her journey without romance. Barks calls the ending the “twist of the century”, and remembers being shocked after seeing the film.

And she doesn’t take lightly the responsibility of bringing that story to life on stage. She can’t wait to get back to letting it go every night.

“That’s what we all want – to just choose to accept and love ourselves,” she says. “And when she does, she sees her real power. And I think that it’s so relatable. I feel very lucky to be responsible for that message that means a lot to so many people.”

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Photo credit: Samantha Barks in Frozen. (Photo courtesy of production)

This article appears in the February issue of London Theatre Magazine.

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