Saturday, July 31st, 2010

Disney Saved Broadway—By Hiring the "Most Original Creative Minds in the Room"

CATCH THE DISWithout 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.

MERBLADES?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.

YOU AIN'T LIONSure, 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.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Um, what's with this explosion from the stomache, sorry, stomachicalle, of theater shite?

Have you seen what they are putting on Broadway the last decade?

I thought CATS was bad enough, but whatever. The real places to go are way off off Broadway into those 100 seat theaters (fuck you) where real plays are played and you don't have to smell people from Ohio sitting next to you.

aloysiusw (#6,488)

There is quite a bit of anger in the majority of your posts. I detect a hint of unfulfilled dreams…

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Whatever gets you through the night.

gaytheist (#929)

Ugh thank you for hating Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her performance on the Tonys was like that scene from The Exorcist. Except her singing was way worse.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Psst, 3 digit number. decided to tout Jezebel's monthly trending (which is faulty from an advertising perspective since you can better figure out best dates to ad from the dailies and save money).

That got me suspicious.

So I looked at the same period on quantcast for, and I'm not saying the declines are linked to patterns related to my commenting behavior (I am), but if you look at that bird sites trending on quantcast, you'll notice…

My commenting history shows a decided uptick on the awl, while at the same time it shows just as dramatic a decline on gawker's main site.

Just saying or rubbing it in Jeff NewFuck & Not Foster's face. Either way works for me.

Nick, sometimes not saying something tells more than saying something dude.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Also, I saw Evil Dead after a double feature of Drunken Monk & some other bloody kung fu movie on 42nd street when we couldn't get into a titty porn house (we were 8, 9 & 13 respectively ninja's when my oldest brother was considered old/respons enough to babysit us) so Disney can suck the little hairs around my ass free of my fart residue.

gaytheist (#929)

like, um. what?

barnhouse (#1,326)

I love all this exotic theatre (!) stuff, and only want more.

It's a terrible thing when people won't allow themselves to enjoy anything that hasn't been blessed by the authorities; I wrote a whole book about that. So I really, really loved this post so much.

Mr. Ozanich's writing reminded me a bit of Frank Rich's wonderful memoir, Ghost Light it is called.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Um, ironically you are praising only what has been "blessed" by Bloomberg & transnational authorities.

Guess they paid handsomely for your fap fanfic.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

In fact, my love of Opera began off Broadway in a theatre (just because I loved this production) that didn't have some fancy shmancy sound system or huge budgets.

It was just their voices. A very old space that, the ambiance itself, imbued the melodic nature with some mysterious requirement that I add my contribution of listening and imagining to the production.

Bleh, you go fuck your IMAX whores, the lot of you.

theroundearth (#6,483)

"I haven't trusted the Germans since the Hapsburgs ruled Austria."

The Hapsburgs were ruling at home since they weren't German but Austrian. (A different country).
You should know that this was and still is a well respected European family.
Or does any German name convey negative images to you?

omfg (#6,490)

Roundabout Theater Company did not produce "Promises, Promises." In fact, it was produced by Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, The Weinstein Company and Candy Spelling (certainly not musical theater insiders.)

I appreciate what you're saying about snobbery on Broadway – but by over-generalizing and assuming things, you are part of the problem you're trying to decry.

Maureen (#1,839)

David, loved "Skating Becomes Vermoutha." And can't agree more re Daldry's Dumbo.

cayce88 (#6,497)

The only thing Disney is responsible for is dumbing down the Broadway audience. Sure, if you throw enough money into a show you can come away with technical elements that will astonish the most jaded theatergoer, but you have also removed all elements of imagination and individual thinking. With all the blanks filled in at every turn you come away having had the exact same experience as the moron sitting next to you. Give me a show like Next To Normal or Fela! over Disney's (fill in the blank) any day. I prefer to think for myself. You should try it.

TroutSavant (#1,990)

I think the first musical I saw was Les Mis, and truthfully, I do not remember much of it. But ugh, Phantom. That music! I don't understand how anyone can stand it. And God I wish I could forget it.

HiredGoons (#603)

'messing around with DUMBO'

Disney is coming to the outer-boroughs now?

nocturnal9 (#6,641)

You've forgotten to mention the cruiselines and theme parks. Although totally separate from the theatrical branch you're discussing (to the point where they can't even get the rights to do a mini-Lion King on a Disney Cruise), they do some great hiring of their own, particularly recently. The Title Of Show guys just did a Disney Villains show for the cruiselines, the GrooveLily guys wrote a Toy Story musical for the cruiselines and eventually Disneyland, one Avenue Q writer wrote a Finding Nemo musical for the Animal Kingdom… debate the quality all you'd like, but their small cruiseline and theme park shows help fund musical theater writers to create their own next big thing.

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