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NEW YORK — It has been exactly 20 years since Disney announced its arrival on the Broadway scene with Disney Theatrical Productions’ Beauty and the Beast (1994-2007). Right from the get-go, the theater community, which can barely agree on the day of the week, seemed to agree on one thing: however entertaining the Mouse House’s stage ventures might be, they represented a dark turn for the Great White Way, towards corporatization and away from originality.
Over the years between 1994 and the start of 2014, Disney Theatrical, for all but the first years under the oversight of Thomas Schumacher, has opened eight other shows on Broadway, some more successful than others. Its crowning achievement was The Lion King (1998-), which blended great music with amazing costumes and puppetry, won the best musical Tony and is still a giant hit, topping all other shows at the box-office last year. It is also the only show in Broadway history to cross the $1 billion box office threshold.
Then came Aida (2000-2004), which kept Disney in business with composer Elton John and enjoyed a solid run, and later, Mary Poppins (2006-2013), the division’s first adaptation of a live-action Disney film, which also performed strongly. In between those shows, however, came a duo of critically-derided flops that each brought significant losses when they shuttered after runs of just over a year: Tarzan (2006-2007) and The Little Mermaid (2008-2009).
Fortunately for Mickey and Associates, the operation got back on track with a couple of productions that exceeded expectations — perhaps even the company’s own: Peter and the Starcatcher (2012-2013), a non-musical, was embraced enough to garner a best play Tony nom, and Newsies (2012-), a musical, which demonstrated that even a Disney property that failed on the big screen could be effectively repurposed for the stage, generating a best musical Tony nom, a win for its score and choreography, and ticket sales that continue to be strong. (While Peter and the Starcatcher was not actively produced by Disney, it was developed and shepherded through the entire creative process by the studio’s theatrical division, based on a property from its publishing arm.)
Throughout the ups and downs, many critics’ and pundits’ attitudes toward Disney Theatrical productions have remained largely the same: pining for days of yore (that never really existed) in which every show on Broadway was entirely original (meaning not drawn from an existing book, play, film or theme park attraction), the musical-theater gatekeepers have greeted each new show with chirps from the sidelines that they represent another nail in the coffin of what Broadway once was and is supposed to be.
Interestingly, though, the March opening of the latest Disney show, Aladdin (adapted from the studio’s 1992 film of the same name), seems to have quieted a lot of the dissenters, continuing a shift that began with Mary Poppins and Newsies. Nobody, not even the backers of the musical, could deny that the production was in very hot water coming out of its Toronto tryout, where it was widely deemed “not ready for prime time.” But, in the grand tradition of the theater, it was reworked — not with air-droppings of money from Burbank, but with the same personnel under the oversight of a crafty director/choreographer, Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) — and reshaped into one of the most enjoyable musicals of this year or any that I can remember.
When I caught the show at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Thursday night, I was struck by a number of things…
For one, Aladdin features what has to be one of the hardest working casts in town; even in a freezing cold theater and with mostly skimpily-dressed performers, it takes only mere minutes before every person on stage is literally dripping with sweat from the grueling demands of a swashbuckling, dance-packed, 165-minute show.
For another, the musical features just about the most likable character you can imagine in The Genie, for which James Monroe Iglehart has been nominated for the best featured actor in a musical Tony and will almost certainly win it; he has taken a character that Robin Williams made iconic and made it even better — campy, but great, and infectiously fun, to the extent that audiences give him a standing ovation in the middle of the show on a nightly basis.
And, for yet another, I was impressed by the sheer spectacle of it all — something which Disney creates, in its films and at its theme parks, as well as anyone: ornate sets, intricate costumes and cool visual effects (how do they make that “magic carpet” fly across the theater with no visible strings?). All this is beautifully complemented by lovely music — some familiar old staples from the film by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, others by Menken and Tim Rice that were written for the movie but unused, and some newly tinkered songs with additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who wrote the show’s book.
But, above all, my main takeaway from Aladdin was the excitement and enthusiasm that it engendered amongst the hordes of people of all ages inside and outside the Times Square theater. Is this not the sort of effect that Broadway should have on people?
That quality applies not just to Broadway but also to the road. Many Tony pundits place emphasis on a show’s touring potential when factoring a best musical win, and along with Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Aladdin seems a safe bet to create high demand at theaters across the country once it starts traveling — more so than fellow nominees A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder and After Midnight.
Nobody would ever advocate — nor would it ever be possible — for Disney to take over all of Broadway, nor is there imminent danger of copycats showing up from Hollywood and replicating the studio’s success. DreamWorks tried and failed with the expensive flop Shrek, as did Warner Bros. with the short-lived Lestat, though that ill-conceived vampire musical was not aimed at the family market. (Warners had more luck with its seasonal show, Elf, based on the Will Ferrell movie.) Now a couple of other studios have hired theater producers — Kevin McCollum by Fox and Scott Sanders by Sony — and given them first refusal on properties from their vaults. But there’s no guarantee that they have the goods, and even if they do, those shows are years of development away.
My sense is that even the biggest sourpusses are beginning, at long last, to accept that Broadway, like film and television, is, by necessity, a business as much as it is an outlet of artistic expression, and that perhaps Disney’s presence on the scene, which, in turn, draws masses of the public to it, is not such a bad thing, after all — especially when its output is high-energy family entertainment of the quality of Aladdin. Could that make the show a contender to break Disney’s long dry spell with a best musical win at this year’s Tonys?
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