Born and raised in New Hampshire, Sue M. McLaughlin attended Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, where she studied to become an actress.
Things changed after she moved into the city following her graduation in 1991.
"It took me a minute to realize that I liked working more than I liked auditioning," McLaughlin says during a recent interview. "And I had wardrobe skills. I joined the wardrobe union and worked for quite a few years at Lincoln Center Theater doing straight plays and a few musicals."
Her work with puppets would come later.
On the phone recently from the kingdom of Arendelle — by way of a consistently 100-degree-plus Dallas — McLaughlin is working as a key dresser and the puppet supervisor on the North American Tour of "Disney's Frozen," which is days away from starting a monthlong stint at Playhouse Square as part of its KeyBank Broadway Series.
To connect the dots to this gig, McLaughlin in 1998 took a job with the Broadway production of another Disney giant, "The Lion King" — a show synonymous with acclaimed puppetry.
"I was dressing (the puppets for characters) Scar and Zazu and taking care of the mechanical Scar mouth," she says.
She asked to serve as the Scar dresser for the first national tour but was told the production would hire local dressers in each city the show visited. However, the company offered her a slot in a new three-person puppet department — a traveling puppet shop, if you will.
"And that's really where I learned about puppetry," she says. "It was kind of baptism by fire.
"It was a fantastic experience, and I just loved it," she continues. "I had a strong background in crafts and in sewing, so, you know, all these things kind of fit together. It was a joy to work on that show, and it's a joy to work on this show."
"This show" is "Frozen," for which McLaughlin dresses the puppets for Sven and Olaf, the beloved reindeer and snowman, respectively, introduced to the world in Disney's monster 2013 animated hit centering around sisters Anna and the magical Elsa.
"It was absolutely a no-brainer," she says of accepting the offer of the show's wardrobe supervisor, Tess Weaver, after reaching out to Disney about a job with the tour. "I had seen one of the very first dress rehearsals of 'Frozen' on Broadway, and I was so enchanted with the puppets. I remember thinking, 'Wow, I really, really want to get a closer look at those' and had the opportunity to go backstage and have a look at them.
"I thought, 'If I could take care of those, that would be amazing.'"
"Disney's Frozen" opened on Broadway in 2018. And while it closed in 2020, with the novel coronavirus pandemic being cited as a major factor in that outcome, a handful of productions run around the world, in places including England, Australia and Japan.
The North American jaunt features principal cast members Caroline Bowman, as Elsa; Lauren Nicole Chapman, as Anna; Ryan McCartan, as Hans; and Mason Reeves, as Kristoff.
Along with both being Disney properties, the stage versions of "The Lion King" and "Frozen" share connective tissue in puppet design by Michael Curry. (For the former, he co-designed the puppets with the show's acclaimed director, Julie Taymor.)
"I've certainly been to museums where Michael Curry's work has been on display, but it's really when the puppeteers are in them and bring them to life that they're citizens of Arendelle," she says, referring lastly to the "Frozen" puppets. "That's what makes it incredible. And I think that's what's really going to enchant people."
Although McLaughlin says the Olaf puppet is similar in design to Timon from "The Lion King" and that audience members will see the human emotion of puppeteer F. Michael Haynie performing the kind-hearted, comic-relief snowman — as is the case with "The Lion King" characters. However, the reindeer is brought to life differently.
"I find Sven to be enchanting and honestly magical when the puppeteer is inside, and he's such an important character in the show," she says. "You don't see the performer ... at all."
She adds, "Sven, in particular, is such a physically demanding (part) that the role is shared between two actors that alternate it (Collin Baja and Evan Strand), and it's actually kind of a different skill set than what was used in 'The Lion King.'"
Both paramount puppets regularly require repair work, with replacement parts being needed now and then to keep the ol' ice train rolling. Given the revenue that the entire "Frozen" empire obviously generates for the House of Mouse, surely McLaughlin has a company credit with no spending limit, right?
"I absolutely have constraints, and I certainly have layers of human beings that, you know, if I say, 'Hey, I really feel like it might be time to replace this' — there are several people that have to sign off on it and say, 'Yeah, OK, go ahead and order that.'"
She says that while the show brings in lots of young fans of "Frozen," who can expect to hear all their favorite songs from the movie, director Michael Grandage has ensured that the show is accessible to someone who's never spent a minute in Arendelle, who doesn't know an Elsa from an Anna.
While one of the film's co-directors, Jennifer Lee, wrote the book for the show, the stage production stands apart from the movie in part thanks to new songs from "Frozen" songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
"For the tour, they added a duet between the sisters called 'I Can't Lose You,'" says McLaughlin, who gets a little choked up when mentioning it.
She even suggests we may have to edit out her use of the word 'magical' to describe the show.
'The costumes and the sets — I mean, you're really transported to Arendelle, and it's a very, very beautiful show," she says. "It's really going to mesmerize everybody."
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