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The Close Friendship – On Stage and Off – at the Heart of Disney's New Musical, ‘Freaky Friday'

The actresses who star in the new Disney musical, 'Freaky Friday', open up about their close friendship and their journey both on stage and off.

The first time Emma Hunton and Heidi Blickenstaff met, they felt an instant connection. 

"I don't want to speak for you, but I know that you feel the same way," said Hunton, who plays Ellie in Disney's upcoming Freaky Friday the Musical at the La Jolla Playhouse. "When we met it was kind of just like, 'Oh hi, friend.'"

"It was very fast," agreed Blickenstaff, who plays Ellie's mother in the musical.

The two had never met before when they started rehearsing for the musical, written by Bridget Carpenter ('Friday Night Lights', 'Parenthood') with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey ('If/Then', 'Next to Normal').

But when they first were introduced at The Signature Theatre in Washington, D.C., the venue where the musical had its first run, the pair said they instantly felt a kinship. 

"I think we were really lucky because that chemistry is like, just sort of, it is or it isn't. You get lucky or you don't," Blickenstaff said. "We got lucky that we just sort of were the ying to each other's yang."

For the pair, who play a mother-daughter duo who swap bodies in a freaky twist, that instant connection was more than just a friendship. 

"There was an immediate unspoken trust between us," Blickenstaff explained in an interview with NBC 7 at the Playhouse. "We work very similarly, we dive in, we do our homework."

Throughout the show's run at the Signature Theatre and to the La Jolla Playhouse, Blickenstaff and Hunton say they have become friends. Like a mother and daughter would in real life, the pair say they have grown close - and they are there for each other when it gets tough. 

"When one of us is not feeling so good for whatever reason, either vocally or just, you know, it's hard to do eight shows a week, we always say to each other, 'I've got you. I've totally got you,'" Blickenstaff said. "I couldn't do it without her, because this show is too hard to get in and out of each other's skin to not trust each other."

One night, for example, Hunton said, she was feeling really sick during the show. Right before her big end-of-the-night solo, she said, she worried about whether she would be able to make it through the song. 

"It got to my big 11 o'clock number and Heidi was in the wings, singing it with me, and cheering me on," Hunton recalled. "It was the only way I got through it."

Blickenstaff smiled as Hunton told the story. "Both of us want to not only to be there for each other, but I think, she raises the bar, I meet her there, I raise the bar, she meets me there," she explained.

"We make each other better," Hunton chimed in.

The end result, they say, is a relationship as real off stage as it is on stage. 

"I think that that shows up for audiences," Blickenstaff said. "People can see the relationship is real."

The Path to 'Freaky Friday'
Hunton and Blickenstaff both had long paths to 'Freaky Friday.'

Blickenstaff first played Katherine more than five years ago when another composer was attached to the project. She was called in for a week-long event where actors learned the music and did a cold reading of the script. 

"I remember thinking at that reading, this project is very special," she said. Blickenstaff was in her mid-30s at the time and knew she was a bit young for the role, she recalled, but wanted to be involved if something happened later down the line.

She would keep her eye out for it, she told herself.

And then, years later, she heard Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey were working on the music and lyrics - but a different actress was attached to the project. Then, through the grapevine, she learned the actress had left for a different project. 

Blickenstaff got in touch with Kitt, who she knew casually at the time, expressing her interest. 

Three weeks later, she got an offer to come on board for the Signature Theatre run. 

"I'm never right for anything and I knew that I was right for this. You know it sounds very, I guess it could come off egotistical, but it wasn't about ego. It was just, I had a Heidi sense about it," Blickenstaff said.

Hunton said she first heard about the musical when she was working on a concert with the previous composer - and stumbled upon the sheet music. 

"He was trying to find the sheet music and all the sheet music for Freaky Friday fell out," Hunton said. "And I found it on the floor and I was like, 'Freaky Friday? They're doing a musical on that?'"

She knew she wanted to be involved right away. 

"We both had a sense about it," she said. 

Becoming The Mother-Daughter Duo
Rolling out of bed every morning, both Hunton and Blickenstaff say are already very similar to their characters. Blickenstaff says she has also a Type A personality and is wildly obedient and responsible; she loves her family, like Katherine, and gets distracted by work sometimes. 

Hunton is a lot like Ellie: naturally perhaps a bit messy. Hunton's family, she says, calls her The Tornado, a trait she associates a lot with her character, Ellie. 

"But interestingly, additionally, there is a side to Emma's personality that is remarkably Katherine and there's a side to my crazy Type A wound really tight personality that is really Ellie, and I think there was certainly a lot of stealing going on from each other, but I think both of these characters live in both of us," Blickenstaff explained.

Some of those borrowed traits: Hunton took some of Blickenstaff's posture and mannerisms, and Blickenstaff took some of Hunton's mannerisms and personality traits. 

Though Ellie came naturally to Hunton, Catherine - the character she plays most of the time on stage when the 'Freaky Friay' swap happens - was a journey.

"Catherine was always hard for me to find because in a lot of ways I felt like I had to fast forward my growing up mentally, because I had to be like, how would someone think about this, how would someone approach this, in her shoes," Hunton explained.

It's not just the actress' on stage chemistry that makes them a perfect fit for the mom-duo pair. 

When they sang together for the first time, Blickenstaff said, they realized their voices blended together in a unique way. 

"Our voices do this crazy thing, like they were once upon a time were one voice and got split up in the universe," Blickenstaff said. "I don't know that I've ever sung with anyone who - I don't know, it's this crazy sonic thing that happens between us, and lots of people say it, that when we sing together, (they) can't tell who is singing."

"This was meant to be," Blickenstaff added.

"Always meant to be," Hunton agreed. 

Bringing the Show to Life
Then, when you add Carpenter's script with Kitt and Yorkey's music and lyrics, Hunton and Blickenstaff say, the musical really comes to life. 

"The score, in and of itself, if you were just hearing instruments play it, is so satisfying," Blickenstaff. "There are so many different styles. It follows that (Brian) Yorkey pop-rock thing. But there's definitely. . .They are playing with lots of different pop genres inside their very unique sound and it really is sort of like a feast for the ears."

Working with Kitt and Yorkey ('Next to Normal', 'If/Then') on bringing the score to life has been a true delight, both actresses say. Hunton and Blickenstaff have both worked with their music before, but building this musical has been a new experience. 

"One of the things obviously that I love so much about Kitt/Yorkey scores is they give women these amazing opportunities," Blickenstaff said.

"I say this all the time, but when you have two strong female leads, two strong independent women playing strong independent characters, that are not romantically involved, I think is very interesting to watch," Hunton added.

When mixed with Carpenter's book - "she is an aficionado at dialogue", Blickenstaff says - the show leaves audiences with a strong girl power message. One thing Hunton and Blickenstaff want the audience to take away from the show, in addition to that, is a message of acceptance and kindness and empathy. 

"There's a beautiful message of supporting other girls and loving yourself and being kind to other people and not taking crap from people who are trying to bring you down and calling you names," Blickenstaff said. "It is definitely an empowering, not just message, but vision of women."

There's a moment at the end of the show, Hunton and Blickenstaff say, where all that emotion and feeling builds and comes together. 

"To everyone's credit, there is this magical moment in the show, no matter how many times we've done this, the eyes just load up with tears and we both--," Blickenstaff said.

"I get emotional just thinking about it," Hunton adds. "It's really, really good."

"It's a beautiful, beautiful moment inside the show that's about a mother-daughter swap," Blickenstaff said.

It's a beauty that comes in the character's journeys and revelations, the actress' say: a mother and daughter who are beacons for each other.

When the show starts, the lights have been muted and covered up. But by the end, they find they way back to each other. It's such a moving experience that both actresses said they often cry when performing the scene. 

"It is a real thing that we all are either lucky enough to share with family members or wish we could share with family members," Blickenstaff explained. "When it is uncovered in our show, it is so pure and so sincere and then you add that Kitt/Yorkey score on top of it, and it's so earnest.

Hunton and Blickenstaff say audiences coming in expecting one show may find themselves leaving with a much different experience -- in the best way possible.

"I think some people are going to head into this expecting one thing and they're going to be very surprised that it actually takes them on a far deeper emotional journey than they might have been expecting. It certainly does for us."

Disney's 'Freaky Friday' runs at the La Jolla Playhouse from Jan. 31 to March 19. Book by Bridget Carpenter, music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Buy tickets here.

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