Without Disney, Broadway-and New York theater in general-would be like those depressing days when Chorus Line was the only show to see in a grim Times Square and you had to fight past hookers in rabbit fur coats to get to the box office. Many resent the "Disneyfication" of Times Square. Sure, I had a great time sipping nine dollar low-quality red wines out of plastic glasses at Runway 69 as much as the next gay. Sometimes, in bitter moods, I totally get why this weirdo likes to boycott Disney stores. But one of the great things Disney has done (besides inventing animatronics) is put a massive amount of money behind one of America's dying art forms-the theatre. (Yes, I'm going to spell it that way because I'm fancy.)
They don't waste their time with "pared down" productions where the orchestra is reduced to two actors playing recorders and a keyboardist plinking out orchestrations designed for at least 24 real musicians . No, these folks always put mad cash behind their productions-and they still turn a profit.
The surprisingly excellent Mary Poppins is a great example of this. Based on a classic movie that was basically a Broadway musical without ever being one, this show has a strong book, believable characters in conflict, fabulous sets that move up and down and all around, soaring music (much of it new), and a hot bitch with an accent who fucking flies and does magic and is not painted green. It's also surprisingly dark for a show aimed, primarily, at the elementary school set.
Here's where the theater cognoscenti start saying "But did you SEE Little Mermaid? It was a clusterfuck of Lisa Frank imagery and chorus boys scooting around on wheelies." (Technically they were called "merblades.") Fact of the matter is actually that none of these complainers did see it. I did, though, and it was fun. It was certainly more entertaining than In the Heights, with its faux hip-hop "take" on the life of colorful ethnic types who dream of dancing and being friends in what is basically a drawn-out version of "Sesame Street."
Another thing Disney has going for it is that they hire truly great theatre artists to create their shows. I spoke via email with Thomas Schumacher, producer and president of Disney Theatrical Group. Here's what he said about his habit of hiring avant-garde artists: "I like to say that I only had one great idea on The Lion King -hiring Julie Taymor. When creating that show, and all of our shows, we want the strongest, most original creative minds in the room because we want the theatrical experience to work completely on its own terms. It makes sense, then, for us to go after giant, iconoclastic talents like Julie, Doug Wright, Bob Crowley, David Henry Hwang, Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne, among many others. We're lucky to have had the chance to work with some of the very best."
Who the heck had heard of Julie Taymor when she got hired to go all puppet crazy for Lion King? Not me, that's for sure. But now that crazy lady is directing closing night films for the Venice Film Festival (The Tempest) and is working maniacally to bring U2's Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark to the Great White Way (which I, for one, cannot wait to see no matter what it turns out like.)
However, I mostly respect Disney for hiring playwrights like Doug Wright (who won the Pulitzer for I Am My Own Wife), David Henry Hwang (who penned M. Butterfly which alone is important for introducing the world to BD Wong), and even screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) to write the books for The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, and Mary Poppins respectively. As one who has written a play, and one that was even mildly successful, I made about 24 cents on both the New York and London productions combined. The fees that the above three make for every performance of these Disney shows no doubt fund their other, perhaps more high-brow, attempts at theater-making. These are not the actions of an outfit that cares only about bringing in bucks on the backs of tourists with kids.
Also, the kiddies! I mean, will some one please think of the children?! Who among us that loves musicals doesn't remember the first time we saw a real live Broadway show (even if, like me, it was a touring production in LA). For me it was Phantom. And 6th grade me fucking loved it. Just think how many future theater goers (and future ticket buyers) are falling in love with musical theater when they thrill to the opening number of Lion King or the swinging monkeys of Tarzan or the merblading sea creatures of Little Mermaid. Let us also not forget that every kid (and parent for that matter) who sees Lion King is sitting through a 3-hour avant-garde puppet show! This is not Sound of Music puppetry, but rather really bizarre, at times even disconcerting, puppetry. It's sort of like introducing people to Pop Art and then slyly replacing it with Abstract Expressionism or contemporary video art.
Sure, not every Disney production has been Tony worthy. (Though what these days is? Uh, hello: Memphis?? Ugh. And let's not even get into the horror that was Catherine Zeta-Jones in Little Night Music. Wasn't it hard for her to sing with the massive amounts of scenery she's chewing?!) Ben Brantley of the Times called Tarzan a "giant, writhing green blob with music." And, well, he wasn't entirely off base. There are rumors that a revamped version plays amazingly well in Hamburg, Germany but I haven't trusted the Germans since the Hapsburgs ruled Austria. But so what? Even Sondheim wrote Bounce or Road Show or whatever that junk is being called now.
This raising a burning question: what exactly is Disney really good at it besides making money? Some might say its stealing great talent and using it for their own nefarious purposes. I think that's a particularly negative way of viewing things. Pastiche is often used in regards to Madonna, Lady Gaga or even Karl Lagerfeld when he channels Coco Chanel in his latest resort-wear collection. Homage is used by schmancy filmmakers ripping off other, more talented, directors. I think what Disney does is just recognize great talent and say to themselves "Hey, we're gonna be making Hunchback of Notre Dame anyway because the Lord commanded it so why not hire some sexy show queens and their brethren and let them go at it?" And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, but kudos to the execs in their glass offices for actually giving artists creative freedom to try something new. It's not like the Roundabout allows for much of that anymore, if Promises, Promises is any indication.
As for what's upcoming, Mr. Schumacher told me, "We are working with the New York Theatre Workshop on a show we created with Rick Elice, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers at the La Jolla Playhouse last year called Peter and the Starcatchers. It is a smaller-scaled ensemble piece based on the great series of books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. On the larger scale, it has been reported that we are messing around with an interesting take on Dumbo with Stephen Daldry."
Come on, aren't you just DYING to find out what "messing around with Dumbo" means? I know I am! And if Disney is looking for a playwright to pen the book, well, they have my email.
David Ozanich writes the occasional play, teen novel, and travel guide among other things. His favorite musical is all of them.