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On March 9, 1994, audience members sat down to the very first performance of “Beauty and the Beast.” When asked to “Be Our Guest,” they likely had no idea Disney Theatrical Productions would be extending this sort of invitation for decades to come. However, by the end of the show, theatergoers knew they would happily take Disney up on this offer again and again and again.
Indeed, the crowd-pleasing “Beauty and the Beast,” which changed the face of family-friendly musicals forever, ran on Broadway for over 5,500 performances—a near record at the time—and earned an astounding nine Tony Award nominations (winning one for Ann Hould-Ward’s breathtaking costume design).
Over the past 27 years, Disney has invited millions of people—from New York natives to international tourists—to witness a truly mind-blowing combination of the stunning visuals, memorable music and superb storytelling through some of the most exciting shows Broadway has ever seen. These one-of-a-kind extravaganzas have set a slew of box office records and caused audiences to leap to their feet night after night.
"The Lion King" and "Aladdin" Return to Broadway
Now, as the Great White Way finally reopened in September, two of Disney’s other biggest all-time hits, “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” returned to their respective homes (at the Minskoff and New Amsterdam Theatres). Each show is ready to delight millions of more spectators who have been hungry for the kind of live entertainment that has been absent from their lives for the past 18 months.
Before suddenly closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Lion King” (which debuted at the New Amsterdam in 1997) had played over 9,300 performances, and“Aladdin” (which opened at the New Amsterdam in April 2014) had chalked up over 2,500 performances. Neither show is in danger of closing any time soon.
The Disney Secret
While some may think that Disney has figured out a winning formula for making a hit every time, Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatricals, modestly begs to differ: “I would say every show is a surprise,” he says. “If they don’t work, you’re like, ‘What the hell happened?’ And if they really work, you still go, ‘What the hell happened?’”
Still, there’s no question that Schumacher and everyone at Disney understand quite a bit about choosing the right ingredients to cook up a successful Broadway show. First, there’s finding the perfect source material upon which to build a stunning production. Luckily, Disney’s stage musicals already have a built-in following from many of the hit Disney movies that preceded them, including “Mary Poppins,” “Frozen” and “The Little Mermaid.” Even the dazzling show “Peter and the Starcatcher” took “Peter Pan” as its inspiration.
Behind the Scenes
Disney has been remarkably savvy about hiring incredible talent behind the scenes and on the stage. For example, the brilliant Julie Taymor rightly became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical for “The Lion King.” She astounded even veteran theatergoers with her unmatched use of puppetry and visual effects with life-sized giraffes, hyenas and elephants populating the stage (evoking oohs and aahs from audience members of all ages). Meanwhile, Disney has also employed such top-flight artists as Sir Matthew Bourne, Michael Grandage, Bob Crowley, Casey Nicholaw,
Christopher Gattelli, Natasha Katz and Gregg Barnes (to name just a few). These talented artists bring unparalleled joy to theatergoers through their use of ultra-inventive choreography and staging, extravagant costumes and jaw-dropping stage design. As a result, such showstoppers as “Step in Time” from “Mary Poppins,” “Carrying the Banner” from “Newsies” and “Friend Like Me” from “Aladdin” have lingered in theatergoers’ memories for days, even years after the curtain has come down.
The success of the company’s shows also stems from Disney’s wise decisions to hire the crème-de-la-crème of composers, lyricists and librettists to write its show’s scripts and scores—from pop superstars such as Elton John and Phil Collins to multi-award winners such as Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Doug Wright and Harvey Fierstein. It’s no wonder such timeless tunes as “The Circle of Life,” “Santa Fe,” “Part of Your World” and “Let It Go” Disney On Broadway have been performed by leading artists from around the world. Theatergoers of all ages have been able to relate to such multi-faceted characters as Simba, Jack Kelly, Ariel and Elsa. These characters would not resonate so strongly (or sing so beautifully) without the perfect performer having been chosen to play them.
To no one’s surprise, Disney has proven to be masterful at casting. A whopping 60 performers have received Tony Award nominations for their work—with winners including Heather Headley (“Aida”) and Christian Borle (“Peter and the Starcatcher”). Future superstars such as Christopher Jackson and Renee Elise Goldsberry first attracted audiences’ attention in Disney shows before launching into the theatrical stratosphere. Disney also knows the value of theatrical star power— for example, Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel had already gained significant fame from “Rent” before taking major roles in “Aida”—but uses it sparingly and smartly.
During the almost-13-year run of “Beauty and the Beast,” such boffo box office names as Toni Braxton, Deborah Gibson, Andrea McArdle, Christy Carlson-Romano and Jamie-Lynn Sigler stepped into the dainty (if formidable) shoes of its heroine, Belle.
At the same time, superstar Donny Osmond came onboard to embody the egotistical Gaston and soap opera heartthrob Jacob Young lit up the stage as the chatty candelabra Lumiere. All of them continued to bring new audiences into the long-running show.
Furthermore, the consistent and often non-traditional casting of people of color in all of Disney’s shows, including such performers as Braxton, Norm Lewis (“The Little Mermaid”), Capathia Jenkins (“Newsies”) and Jelani Aladdin (“Frozen”), proves the company’s unwavering commitment to diversity in the theater.
Happily, Disney Theatrical plans to continue making its mark on Broadway formany years (if not decades) to come, with possible productions of such properties as “The Princess Bride” and “Hercules.” If any company can go the distance on Broadway, it’s unquestionably Disney Theatrical.