As all mothers know, strength can arrive in forms you don't expect. It can look like giving birth to your son six weeks early via an emergency c-section. It can also, it turns out, manifest as the ability to perform before a live audience night after night and then be fully present with your toddler the next day. Strength can be heard outside the St. James Theatre on 44th Street in New York City, when Caissie Levy, who plays Elsa in the 19-song stage adaption of the 2013 animated film Frozen on Broadway, sings "Let It Go" for approximately 1700 musical goers expecting her do justice to an iconic Disney role. Or, for the Broadway star, it can be all of these things.
Levy says she has defined strength differently since she had her now 2-year-old son, Izaiah. In fact, it's an ongoing process, figuring out what will be asked of her and what she's capable of — body and mind — with each successive day, week, month, year, she says. "Emotionally and mentally, [strength] is such a big part of my day-to-day," Levy says. In her work, she says, that strength often manifests in her dealings with others in the industry. "You need to stick up for yourself ... and do it with class and grace and respect," she says. At home, especially in this larger societal moment, Levy feels called to be especially thoughtful and disciplined. "As a mom raising a boy and wanting to raise a boy who is a feminist and who is sensitive and understands that everyone is their own person. He can't just have whatever he wants because he is a boy," she says. Levy says she and her husband are trying to "walk the walk" when teaching their son these lessons, which sometimes takes strength. "I want to hug and kiss him around the clock, but I'm trying to reel that in a little bit, because, that's his body, and he has the right to say yes and no."
And then there are the physical feats required of her every day. When she's at home with her son, it's "go-go-go," she says. "It's like, let's throw some toys over here, let's bang on a drum, let's go to the park, let's draw, let's clap and sing for an hour ... And I had to go moment-to-moment with my day as far as being present with [Izaiah], while trying to take care of my body, and my heart, and my voice, and my sleep, and all of that... which doesn't really happen." Playing Elsa on stage doesn't involve any acrobatics, but her body — think not just vocal chords but core strength — has to be at the top of its game each and every night. "I'm carrying 20 lb dresses around on my frame, belting to the stratosphere" for two hours and 30 minutes, eight times a week, while carrying the pressure of "being the Elsa that every paying ticket buyer wants to see."
You don't get to lead a Broadway company by taking a lot of time off, so it almost felt silly asking Levy if she performed while pregnant. Of course she did. She tells me a story about a show she was doing at the Public Theater in New York in the early months of her pregnancy. Levy was performing two roles in a show called First Daughter Suite, by Michael John LaChiusa, as Julie Nixon and Patti Davis (Ronald Reagan's daughter). In the second act of the show, there was an imagined scenario where Davis had been drugged and passed out, and Levy had to lie completely still for seven minutes. Maybe revved up by the music, Izaiah had other ideas. "And I felt a kick. And I had one tear..." she says, drawing a line from her eye to her chin. "I thought, 'Yeah, this is a stage kid already.'"
Like every woman's, Levy's body went through a lot when she was pregnant, but for a stage actor, especially one in musical theater, it was particularly disorienting. On one hand, she was experiencing something that was so personally fulfilling. On the other hand, her anatomy, her voice, her instrument was completely changing, and navigating that was difficult and emotional. "You don't breathe and sing the same way," Levy says. "Even just the space you have in your ribcage and your torso is different."
She worried that those physical alterations might impact her performances and, thus, her career. To cope with that anxiety, she says, "I leaned a lot on other women in the business who have come before me and had kids, and I asked questions, and I talked to them and got advice." She also asked her mom, who raised three children while managing her father's medical practice. Eventually, Levy accepted that much of it was out of her control. "I definitely called some wisdom from various places and tried to surrender to the unknown."
The moment 13 songs into Frozen when Levy makes the famous quick change into the iconic blue look that most little girls know as The Dress on stage front of an entire theater of people and sings the climax of "Let It Go," arguably Disney's first viral feminist anthem, is undeniably powerful, but it's not when Levy feels her strongest. That moment already happened, when she delivered her son, six weeks early and at only 3 pounds, via emergency c-section. That, she says, was the single instant when she fully understood what the female body could do. "I felt really strong. I felt really exhausted and emotionally spent, but really strong. And not really proud so much as awed by what we're capable of."
Levy had intrauterine growth restriction during her pregnancy, which American Pregnancy says is a "fetal weight that is below the 10th percentile for gestational age." She spent months visiting the doctor, sometimes three times a week, getting her fluids checked and tracking the growth of her son. Levy recalls her doctor telling her, essentially, "We're just going to keep him in as long as possible, and we'll take him out when we have to."
Levy and her husband, composer David Reiser, decided that no matter when the doctors told her it was time to take her son out, "It was going to be a joyful day." But that was easier said than done. In addition to all of their worries about Izaiah's safety, she recalls, "I was scared of the delivery, because I was scared of the c-section and the surgery. I was mourning this situation of not getting to have a vaginal birth, which is something I had prepared for and longed for. So there was reconciling that disappointment, and also knowing what's best for my son is what mattered."
Figuring out how to balance her dreams with her son's wellbeing is, of course, the true work of motherhood. Now that she's a mom, she says she has more personal identification with Fantine, the character she played in Les Miserables who sacrifices herself for her daughter, Cosette, when she is forced by circumstance to sell her hair and her teeth, and eventually becomes a prostitute to support her daughter. "There's something about ... this idea of self-sacrifice that women know all too well, whether it's through motherhood or career or family or friendships. I think we're always trying to balance how much do we give of ourselves and how do we keep for ourselves."
With Izaiah in her life, she says, "There's no sitting and chilling anymore," but with people traveling from all over the world to see Levy bring Elsa to life, the performer needs to care for herself. For Levy, self-care, when she can get it, takes the form of rest and silence. "I sleep a lot," she says. "My voice needs that in order to function ... When I'm not at the show, if I'm not with Izaiah — or if I can sneak some silence in when I'm with him and still interact with him — I try not to use my voice." Of course, that means there's a lot more texting over calling her friends or family. "I miss hearing their voices," Levy says.
But the demands of her very particular career have made her a better mother, she adds. "There's so much uncertainty in what we do... You never know when the job will end, when the next job will come, if anyone is going to hire you. What the reviews are going to say. All of these things that you can't control sort of help prepare you for the fact that you're having a baby, and you can't control anything beyond that."
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