Wednesday, May 22, 2019

If I Were Disney CEO Part 40 - Disney Theatrical Group

"I just don't think anything is quite as magical as a Disney cartoon fairy tale."
"I am a musical theater person and I do see a very strong connection between these two mediums."
Howard Ashman, lyricist and songwriter, Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid

"As Broadway musicals go, Beauty and the Beast belongs right up there with the Empire State Building, F.A.O. Schwarz, and the Circle Line boat tours.  It is hardly a triumph of art, but it'll probably be a whale of a tourist attraction."
David Richards, New York Times Theater critic, April 1994

"Clearly, because of the titles that they bring to Broadway, it's gotten audiences, press, people from around the world more focused on it and interested in Broadway.  I think that Disney productions have provided a really important entry point for audiences into the theater, whether it's young audiences and new audiences going to see a show like Beauty and the Beast or Lion King or Little Mermaid because of the title."
Steven Chaikelson, Head of MFA Theater Management and Production program at Columbia University

Walt Disney Theatrical Production was formed on February 8, 1993 to produce Beauty and the Beast, the original Broadway opening.  From that initial production, Disney has put forth 20 total theatrical productions across the nation and around the world, with two in development for production this season or next.  It's had as many as four Disney shows on Broadway at a time.  It's efforts have earned the productions 19 Tony awards and 59 nominations.

In fact, Disney has been so invested in live theater and Broadway, that it signed a 49 year revenue based lease for the New Amsterdam Theater in May 1995.  Disney then went about painstakingly restoring the theater to its original use and grandeur. Since then, the theater has served as a home for theatrical productions of King David, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Aladdin.   Disney's move into the theater began the revitalization of Times Square.  "When The Walt Disney Company committed to restoring this theater, it gave everyone else the confidence that they could do it too."  Disney Theatrical Group President Tom Schumacher.

Currently Disney Theatrical Group has three shows on Broadway (Aladdin, Frozen, and The Lion King), with four on tour if you count the 20th Century Fox based Anastasia.   Additionally, Disney's partnership with Musical Theater International for theatrical licensing has proven very lucrative, with examples like the musical Newsies, which initially was intended to be primarily a licensing only show.  It's surprise success at the Papermill Theater was the only reason it headed to Broadway.

With all that as background, I have a few thoughts regarding how to proceed with this division.

Primary Goals for the Division:
  • Focus on material that will be theatrical in presentation: The Lion King wowed audiences because a visionary director transformed the already popular songs and material into a visually stunning use of puppetry.  Mary Poppins and Aladdin make use of a lot of stage magic to uplift those shows.  Conversely, The Little Mermaid suffered because of the difficulty in translating underwater scenes without resorting to wheelies or people stuck on wires.  Tarzan feel short when it moved from the intriguing theater-in-the-round concept, where the action would have taken place into the air, into a sight-line impaired traditional theater.  While there are many great Disney classics that work well in film, not everything is going to translate into a good musical or play.  Any production mounted must have a theatrical component to its story.
  • Go purpose built when playing Broadway - There's something special about seeing a show on Broadway.  There are effects that generally you cannot see on the tour because the longer run period affords purpose built effects on that stage.  For example, in the tour version of The Lion King, Pride Rock comes in from the wings.  On Broadway, the same effect builds up from the floor of the stage.  It's a bit more visually impressive.  I mention this because for Disney's newest musical, Frozen, they forwent the spectacular Broadway purpose built effects and only installed ones that could be used on tour.  It's a cost saving measure I understand, but it represents a loss of Disney magic. The Broadway production should always have that little bit more, that little bit extra, to be a destination.
  • Buy the New Amsterdam outright - Disney's history on Broadway will be forever linked to this theater and its time to not have to worry about a lease.  Further, with three productions on Broadway, it might be time for Disney to consider purchasing another location to be a permanent home for its shows.
  • Consider more plays - Disney is known for lavish musicals, but has found success with two plays with music: Peter and the Starcatcher and Shakespeare in Love.  With the Fox library at its disposal, are there pieces that could be developed into gripping plays?  I'm fascinated by the Gore Vidal-William Buckley debates.  Those aired on ABC and would make an excellent play in the vein of Frost-Nixon.  Is there a story like War Horse or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, either of which would seem to align with Disney Theatrical sensibilities? Again, plays provide a source of revenue through licensing beyond their time on stage.  There is a lot of opportunity here, if investigated.
  • Build performance spaces at Disney Resorts for touring productions - Shanghai Disneyland is the first Disney Resort to have a theater for a Disney Theatrical production, showing initially The Lion King before changing to Beauty and the Beast.  This would seem to be something that could benefit other Disney Resorts.  In Florida, one could be added to Disney Springs, providing a justification for the separate cost.  California could potentially use the Hyperion, but would run into logistical complications.  Another one could be added in Downtown Disney or potentially the Eastern Gateway space.  Paris and Hong Kong could likewise easily house the space.  These are all markets that get touring productions.  The spaces could either simply house tours like Broadway Across America or could just cycle through long runs of Disney Theatrical shows.  
  • Pay attention to the Broadway Princess Parties - 54 Below, a newer cabaret space in New York, has hosted a few Broadway Princess Parties, where actresses who play princesses and similar characters in Broadway productions come and sing their favorite songs from musicals, animated features, etc.  These are great talent pools both for Broadway productions and for Disney animated features.  Laura Osnes needs to be a Disney Princess.
  • Leverage existing talent connections - Disney has a great affection for Broadway talent. It's television programs are filled with Broadway voices.  Most of the cast of the Tangled television series is straight from the Great White Way.  Likewise, Disney has strong partnerships with Broadway creators like Lin Manuel Miranda.  What would a Disney Theatrical presentation with Lin look like?  Could Hamilton have been Disney Theatrical?  I don't know but I would love to find out.
  • Explore variety - Disney is partnering with Cirque du Soleil for its show at Disney Springs.  Could Disney partner again for a touring production?  Could Cirque performs transform the troubled Tarzan into something truly spectacular in the round?  Likewise is there an opportunity for Fantasia to be a ballet?  Or to bring forth King David as an opera?  The sky is the limit.
Suggested new productions:
  • Aida (Revival) - this is a very impressive musical and its time for a revival.  Elton John music.  Tragic love story.  Perhaps for the 25th anniversary in 2023.
  • Vidal-Buckley - A play about the Vidal-Buckley debates and how they saved ABC and forever changed political discourse, as mentioned above.
  • Enchanted - the Disney live action-animated hybrid would now provide an opportunity to show the progression of musicals.  Starting as a comic operetta in the fairy tale portion and moving to modern musical as the show closes.  This could be very impressive and very theatrical.
  • On the Record - a revamped musical revue of Disney songs, stripping away the conceit of a story and just presenting the songs and dance in inventive ways.   The album is a delight to hear and I think something could really be worked from those bones.
  • Jungle Book (revival) - I would love to see the Jungle Book from the Goodman finally get a shot at Broadway.
  • Pocahontas - Of all the Disney Renaissance films that have not yet been adapted to stage, Pocahontas has a lot of pluses for it and a strong message to share.
  • Tangled - Of the current slate of Disney films, Tangled is the best suited to stage adaptation.  If you remove Maximus or change him into a guard, it's nearly a straightforward adaptation. Plus the tricks with the hair would be a lot of fun.
  • American Graffiti - American Graffiti would provide an excellent backdrop for a jukebox musical.  Would cost a fortune in licensing but would be a lot of fun.
That's just a few initial thoughts on new shows.  There's a world of possibilities now.

Next up in the series - Disney Music and Disneyland Records

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