How Frozen Actor Andrew Pirozzi Stays Fit Enough to Play a Reindeer

Interview   How Frozen Actor Andrew Pirozzi Stays Fit Enough to Play a Reindeer
 
The workout routine that keeps Pirozzi in shape to plank for more than five minutes straight.
Andrew Pirozzi
Andrew Pirozzi Marc J. Franklin

When Andrew Pirozzi auditioned for the Broadway-bound Frozen (now currently playing at Broadway’s St. James Theatre) he got cut at the final callbacks—but not because the creative team didn’t want him in the show. “They called back and said, ‘Actually, we’re considering you for Sven,’” Pirozzi recalls. Now, he makes his Broadway debut playing Kristoff’s loveable reindeer sidekick—the most physically demanding in the production.

Jelani Alladin and Andrew Pirozzi
Jelani Alladin and Andrew Pirozzi Deen van Meer

Pirozzi spends his time onstage on shanks (mini-stilts) that make Sven’s legs. His feet stand on extended pointe, with his weight lurched forward on his wrists, his core engaged in a plank, and his head holding the eight-pound reindeer head—antlers and all. “My foot has to be as if I’m in ballet [pointe] but my knee is bent the entire time,” he says. The longest continual time spent inside that costume is only seven minutes and 20 seconds, which includes about one minute of laydown time. But imagine scampering around the stage while planking, on pointe, with 30 pounds of Kristoff and Anna’s gear on your back, for six minutes straight, nudging, flicking, and breathing like the four-legged creature.

“I think I’m as fit as I possibly could be right now in this moment in my life,” says Pirozzi. He may be one of the fittest actors on Broadway, which is why we asked the dancer to share part of his workout routine, in which micro-movements most significantly impact his health and his ability to perform the role his prescribed six times a week. (He shares Sven with actor Adam Jepsen.)

Pirozzi combines yoga, capoeira, weights, breathing, stretching, cardio, nerve glides, and core strengthening to maintain muscle mass, flexibility, joint health, and strength to create a convincing reindeer and stay injury-free while doing it. We met up with Pirozzi at Mark Fisher Fitness in Hell’s Kitchen to walk through a handful of his exercises so you can get fit at home.

POWER BREATHS

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Inhale slowly through the nose to a count of 6 (8 if you want a challenge), contracting the diaphragm and abs so as to fill and expand your lungs and rib cage. (Photo 2) Exhale through the mouth to a count of 6, keeping your shoulders level and spine straight, deflating the lungs only. (You can also practice this on the floor with arms over head.)
Times per week: Before every workout
Sets and reps: 10 breaths
Targets: Intercostal muscles, core, lung capacity, and full body warm-up
What does this help with? Sven requires a lot of stamina, which means breath control. But Pirozzi also knows that injuries happen when the body is cold—so always warm up!

“ACUTE” NERVE GLIDES

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Start standing with feet hip-width apart, elbows tucked to your sides, arms bent at the elbows with hands up to the ceiling, palms facing each other. (Photo 2) Bend fingers at the first knuckles (where digits meet the hands) into loose fists keeping your wrists straight. (Photo 3) Extend fingers towards each other, making them flat and parallel to the floor, but keep the hands parallel to each other and the wrists straight. Then reverse into the fists and then straight hands. Repeat loop.
Times per week: 3–4, more if you use your hands a lot
Sets and reps: 16 “I usually do everything in sets of 8 or 16, to keep with the 8’s in the music.”
Targets: Finger strength, hand strength, wrist strength, joint health
What does this help with? Walking on all fours as Sven, Pirozzi needs to keep his hands strong and limber inside those hooves, but the average person can use these to keep joints loose between sets of heavy weight reps or during heavy lifting.


THUMB GLIDES

Do it at home: (Photo 1) Start standing with feet hip-width apart, elbows tucked to your sides, arms bent at a 90-degree angle as if reaching forward. Curl hands into loose fists with thumbs flat on top. (Photo 2) Lift your flat thumb to a thumbs-up position to stretch and uncurl fingers. Reach arms up to the sky and out to side while doing fist curls for full range of extension.
Times per week: 3–7
Sets and reps: 8 sets-16 reps
Targets: Thumb strength, flexibility, and joint health
What does this help with? This is an important exercise to do for all hand and wrist functions.

FOOT AND ANKLE ROLL

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Plié parallel. (Photo 2) Straighten both legs, slowly lift left heel off the ground into a forced arch. (Photo 3) Continue rolling through the foot to a full non-weight-bearing point. Reverse back down into plié. Repeat rolling loop on right foot.
Times per week: Every day for warm up and cool down
Sets and reps: 8-16
Targets: Toes, feet, ankles, calves
What does this help with? Inside the Sven suit, Pirozzi’s feet are on pointe while elevated on stilts, which requires strength and flexibility in his lower limbs. These exercises keep his reindeer gait authentic. Whether walking like a human or like a reindeer, it's always better with strong, agile ankles.

You wouldn’t know by looking at Sven that it’s Pirozzi; the puppet designed by Drama Desk winner Michael Curry completely hides the human actor inside—none of the double event seen in his collaboration with Julie Taymor on Disney’s The Lion King. Curry wanted to trick the audience into believing there was a live animal onstage.

“I realized during that process that the quality of movement was then going to be my job for discovery,” says Pirozzi. He collaborated with Curry on the design of Sven, reviewing blueprints and preparing to bring all of this training in dance, acrobatics, and circus movement to the role.

DANCING CRAB

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Start in second position grande plié—knees over ankles, thighs parallel to the floor, feet flat. Spine is straight. Bend your arms at the elbows so that your triceps are parallel to the floor, fingers resting on your shoulders, elbows pointing forward. (Photo 2) In a fluid motion, shift your weight to the right leg. Press the right foot into the floor as you straighten the right leg, simultaneously lift the left leg from the hip to create a 90-degree angle at the knee with the thigh parallel to the floor and lift the hands from the shoulders to create a 90-degree angle at the elbow. (Photo 3) Place the left foot beside the right foot, both legs straight. Extend arms fully forward with the insides of the elbows to the ceiling, palms up, fingers extended.
Times per week: Use as a really intense warm-up whenever you work out
Sets and reps: 32 on each side
Targets: Hip strength and flexibility, thigh strength, calf strength and stability, shoulder mobility
What does this help with? Some days there's just not enough time to get all your cardio and warm up in, this one helps tackle a whole lot of movement at once.

Pirozzi has been a dancer his whole life, having danced in the national tours of Follies, Dirty Dancing, and Twyla Tharp’s notoriously difficult dance opus Movin’ Out. Dancers on the Billy Joel tuner were prone to injury, and as the swing on the production, Pirozzi became obsessed with taking care of his greatest tool.

IMPOSSIBLE FINGER PUSH-UPS

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Plant feet hip-width apart and place a chair in front of you. Bend at the waist with a flat back and place your palms on the seat of the chair with the elbows aligned below the shoulders. (Photo 2) Push the fingers into the chair, lifting the heels of the hands and then the palms off the chair. Your weight should be leaning forward to increase the stretch and strengthening. (Photo 3) Roll up through the fingers until only the finger tips touch the chair. Reverse the loop. Repeat. (Photo 4-6) For more of a challenge, remove the chair. Set up on your hands and knees.
Times per week:
Sets and reps:
Targets:
What does this help with? These micro-movements may seem insignificant, but Pirozzi must support his own body weight and that of his costume on his hands. Can never be too strong or too careful.

FREE WEIGHTS: WRIST STRENGTHENING I

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Stand with feet hip-width apart, spine straight. Take one weight in each hand. Bend arms at a 90-degree angle, with the elbows tucked to the waist. The weights should be perpendicular to the floor—parallel to the biceps. (Photo 2) Lower the weights by extending the wrists, thumbs pointing down towards the floor. The weights move from perpendicular to parallel. Return to starting position. Repeat. (Photo 3) Open arms to the sides, maintaining a 90-degree bend at the elbows. The weights should be perpendicular to the floor—parallel to the biceps. (Photo 4) Lower the weights by extending the wrists, thumbs pointing down towards the floor. The weights move from perpendicular to parallel. Return to starting position. Repeat.
Times per week: 3–4
Sets and reps: 3–6 sets of 16 reps
Targets: Wrist strength and flexibility, bicep strength, core strength
What does this help with? Galloping on stilts on all fours requires intense wrist strength, but you can use this to prevent any wrist or elbow injuries.

Perfecting Sven’s gait required intense anatomical study. “I studied reindeer,” he says. “I studied my dog, a Great Dane-Pit mix so she has these beautiful long legs but the body and chest of a pitbull. The way she moves is clumsy and elegant all at the same time.”

TILTED WEIGHTS: WRIST STRENGTHENING II

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Place weights on the ground. Set in push-up position. (Photo 2) Shift weight to the left. Using your right hand, lift the back of the weight off the ground, extending the wrist. Switch sides. Repeat.
Times per week: 3
Sets and reps: 16
Targets: Forearm, core

Sven epitomizes the challenges put forth in Curry’s previous ambitions. “Take the giraffe, take the cheetah, take the hyena, take even Pumbaa, take anybody that is in one of those [Lion King] costumes and then put it all into Sven,” Pirozzi says.

KNEE CONDUCTING

Do it at Home: (Photo 1) Place weights on the ground. Set in push-up position. (Photo 2) Keeping your grip on the weights for stability, lift your right leg, point your right toes, and bend the right knee into your chest. (Photo 3) Lift your right knee out to the side and up towards your shoulder, being careful to keep the hips and shoulders level. (IMPORTANT: Keep your shoulders down and draping towards your lower back without letting your chest open towards the floor.) Reverse to Step 2, then Step 1. Switch legs. Repeat.
Times per week: 4–6
Sets and reps: 2–3 sets of 16 reps
Targets: Core strength, obliques, hip and shoulder stability
What does this help with? This is basically the plank position and core engagement that Pirozzi is using to navigate the stage on all 4's. Doing this often will keep your core strong and alleviate back pain.

CIRCLE WALKS

Do It at Home: (Photo 1) Set in push-up position. Bend knees to a 90-degree angle. Move hands in until they touch side-by-side. (Photo 2) Begin to walk with your hands. Move right hand directly to the side, wider than your shoulder. (Photo 3) Move left hand to meet the right. Continue hand-walking to complete a full circle (with your toes as the center of the circle). Then, complete a full circle in the opposite direction, left hand first. (Photo 4) Now step out with your right foot, wider than your hip. (Photo 5) Move left foot to meet the right. Continue stepping to complete a full circle. Then, complete a full circle in the opposite direction, left leg first. NOTE: For a bigger challenge, drop to a deep push-up on after every side step.
Times per week: 3–6
Sets and reps: 2–6 full circles in both directions
Targets: Shoulder stability, core strength, wrist strength, toes and ankle strength
What does this help with? Having upper body stability, strength and stamina keeps Pirozzi moving and shaking while holding a plank.

WATERBUG

Do It at Home: (Photo 1) Lie on your back, spine flat to the floor. Bend the legs up with the knees at a 90-degree angle, feet flexed. Raise arms perpendicular to the floor and flex the wrists. (Photo 2) Like a bicycle, begin to rotate. Opposite limbs correspond to each other, so as the right legs bends into the chest the left arm moves backward; as the right arms bends down and forward, the left leg extends and presses forward. (Photo 3) Continue rotation. Reverse and repeat.
Times per week: 3–6
Sets and reps: 8 sets of 8 reps
Targets: Full body, especially core
What does this help with? Keeping your core engaged while challenging the nerve receptors to and from your muscles and your brain.

SVEN WALKS

Do It at Home: Put it all together! Rolling through the feet, rolling through the fingers, putting weight in the hands and wrists and toes, bending those knees, walk like Sven (without the stilts).

ADVANCED CORE TWIST

Do It at Home: (Photo 1) Set up in a plank position: forearms on the ground, elbows underneath the shoulders, core engaged. (Photo 2) Shift weight to the right. Straighten the left arm and, twisting the torso to the wall to get the shoulders in one line, lift the arm towards the ceiling. (Photo 3) Keep weight to the right. Keep the left arm straight and lower to the ground. Once your torso is parallel to the floor, thread the left arm underneath the body, palm up. Twist the torso to the right to get shoulders in one line. Reverse. Repeat. Switch to the other side.
Times per week: 2–5
Sets and reps: 2–3 sets of 8 reps on each side
Targets: Core, obliques, shoulders
What does this help with? Whether making Sven gallop or simply breathe, Pirozzi has to use his shoulder stability and control to keep the reindeer alive. Adding this to any upper body workout will extend range of motion and control.

STANDING HIP STRETCH

Do It at Home: (Photo 1) Stand on your right leg. Placing a chair behind you, rest your left knee on the chair. Make sure hips and shoulders are square, facing straight ahead. (Photo 2) With a slight bend in the standing knee, press the left him slightly forward. Raise your left arm to the ceiling. (Photo 3) With the help of your right arm, push the left arm back and arch your back slightly. This creates a stretching sensation from the hip through the psoas. Hold. Switch sides.
Times per week: 4–7
Sets and reps: 1 stretch on each side for about 30 seconds
Targets: Hips
What does this help with? Release, relief, and fresh blood flow to your front and side body.

HAMSTRING AND BACK RELIEF STRETCH

Do It at Home: (Photo 1) Stand on your left leg. Placing a chair in front of you, place your right heel on the chair with an extended straight leg. Raise your arms to the ceiling. (Photo 2) Bending at the hips, lean over towards the chair. Allow your back to round. Be sure the standing leg stays straight. Switch sides.
Times per week: Every day
Sets and reps: 1 stretch on each side for about 30 seconds
Targets: Hamstrings
What does this help with? This one is a great stress-reliever. “We hold so much stress in our hips and when you release the hamstring, it’s opposing muscle group (the hip flexors) consequently release and it’s easier to fall asleep.”

For all of the care he pays his body while offstage—working out is a full time job—he can also take care of his body onstage. “If you watch these animals move, they flip their feet, they shift their weight,” he says. “They’re just like humans, when something gets uncomfortable, you switch.”

Even in the uncomfortable moments, Pirozzi can’t complain. “Sixty-year-old Michael Curry is the person who tested all of that,” he says of his costume. If Curry could do it, so can he.

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