Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Posts tagged ‘Lion King on Broadway’

Disney Banks on Broadway

disney pixie dustI wonder whether Walt Disney, who made his fortune  first in film, might have foreseen a time when his company would be one of the world’s most prolific and successful producers of theater musicals?

Walt certainly had theater in his thoughts when he went to work on Disneyland. But, more on that later. In the meantime, Disney is about to open its new production of Frozen on Broadway.

I’m a big fan of live theater. Unlike movies or television, a theater experience is unique in that each performance has the potential to be a different experience, for the audience and the performers. Stage actors have to give a polished performance eight or more times a week. In order not to get bored and loose the energy that each audience expects, good actors try to “be in the moment”. Yes, they know their lines and where they are supposed to be at different points of any scene. But, each time through, actors will try not to simply duplicate their performance. They listen to the other actors and react in real time, not changing the words, but often changing how the words are spoken. One night, perhaps a line is said in great anger. Another time, that same line might sound merely annoyed. I can tell you as a former actor that there is nothing more exciting and satisfying as finding yourself “in the moment” on stage when something organic happens in a scene that hasn’t happened before or doesn’t happen all the time. Theater not only makes the actors think, but often challenges its audiences to do the same.

DTP_logoAny discussion of Disney Theatrical Productions (Disney on Broadway) has to include the impact that it’s had on New York City. Following the success of of Beauty and the Beast in 1993, Disney jumped in with significant energy and money. They not only produced their most successful Broadway musical, The Lion King. But they agreed to 99 year lease on a theater that no one wanted and to give a share of the profits back to the City. They they completely restored it to its early 20th century glory. Many would argue that Disney’s investment, not only paid off for them, but led to a commercial and tourist renaissance for the Great White Way, which runs from 42nd street where Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater sits, up to 53rd St. and includes Times Square.

I wrote about a D23 event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Disney’s New Amsterdam restoration in Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event. Here’s before and after  some photos of this beautiful theater

amsterdam restoration

Let’s remember, that as much as we’d like to see Disney as the benevolent doer of good, it’s still a hard driving, money making operation, beholden to stock holders and under constant scrutiny by everyone from Wall St. to blogs like mine and millions of fans around the world. The fact that Disney has accelerated and increased its investment in live musical theater, must mean that it does two things – Makes money and promotes the brand. To date, Disney has produced nine musicals on Broadway.





Lion King Bway logo









mary poppins Bway logo













Aladdin the Musical Broadway








Frozen poster





According to the New York Post, only 1 out of 5 Broadway musicals turns a profit for investors. For those of you who are math challenged, like me, that‘s a paltry 20% success rate. Of the nine Disney musicals that have premiered , five have turned out to be critical and/or box office successes (success being measured by profit or length of run): Beauty & the Beast, The  Lion King, Aladdin, Newsies and Mary Poppins. Frozen is scheduled to open this March. Using the properties current success on film, theme parks and merchandise, I think it is safe to say, barring unusual circumstances or a complete failure of marketing, that Frozen will be added to the list of successes. That would make six out of Nine or a 66% success rate. Not even in Walt’s day did the studio make money on that many animated features.

To Disney’s credit, if you go back and look at the timeline, Aida was a failure and there were two failures in a row, Tarzan and Little Mermaid. Since the Lion King has become the most successful production and continued to run, they could have quit there and walked away with lots of money. But, they didn’t. Not only did they continue to develop Aladdin and Newsies. They also pushed ahead with development and production of versions of The Hunchback and Pinocchio.

I’m sure money has been a driving force behind increased attention and activity in Disney Theatricals and could easily dissuade naysayers. Because, Disney’s best selling property is not in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. It’s not even a film. Most Broadway musicals last a year or less. The Lion King, in its 21st year has generated just under $8.1 Billion in revenue. It is the highest grossing entertainment property in history. To put it in perspective the next biggest is Phantom of The Opera, with $6 billion. The biggest film is Avatar, at just (just!) $2.8 billion. Lion King on Broadway has made more money than ALL the Star Wars movies combined.

So, with money pouring in from not only Lion King, but successful runs of Aladdin and Mary Poppins what about brand promotion? Not everyone gets to see a show in NYC.  Lion King, Mary Poppins and Aladdin all have touring companies across the US and elsewhere in the world. An evening in any city brings in adults and children who will leave re-watching or buying the original movies and more merchandise. And, of course, based on the success of the current Beauty and the Beast live action film, Disney will continue to promote and make money from all the live action versions currently in the works of many of these same properties.

I look down my nose at those who look down their noses at Disney theatricals. I think anything that gets people and kids into theaters to experience the exciting immediacy of live theater is a good thing. And, while Disney, other than Aida, has stuck primarily to recognizable Disney stories, they have not shied away from taking chances in ways that live theater excels. Beauty and the Beast allowed the actors portraying transformed objects to be seen, yet used inventive costuming to add the element of urgency. The costumes became more objectified as the show went on and they edged closer to being objects forever.

B&B costumes.jpg

And, for those of you who did not see it, the Beast’s final transformation was nothing short of magical.

Disney took an enormous chance tapping director Julie Taymor for The Lion King. She had an off-Broadway reputation for using puppets and not playing it safe. But, the inspired use of puppetry, masks and staging has been an inspiration to those who believe a musical can be a success without big name stars.

In some ways, I found the stage version improved on the original. The actor’s physicality and their interactions with the other performers brought new insight and characters layers to the story.

the-lion-king-intl-tourEven, Tarzan which was a critical and box office failure, did not just try to move the story from screen to stage. It used innovative sets, staging and movement to recreate the jungle and the familiar family of gorillas.

I also appreciate that they don’t just lift the films and recreate them on stage. They redevelop the stories and characters, add new ideas and news songs. “Songs like Human” Again for Beauty and the Beast,

“Proud of Your Boy” in Aladdin

and “He Lives in You” for Lion King are all worthwhile additions to the stories.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I am altogether pleased with the all the direction that Disney Theatrical is taking. For one thing, Disney has not produced a single new property designed specifically for the stage. Sure, it’s a risk, but who do we know that took risks and built an entertainment empire. Let me see. . .Why Walt, of course. Disney certainly has the deep pockets to take a few risks. I think it would be great if Disney were seen as a leader again in an art form, instead of a recycler. It’s not only an opportunity to be creative, but it could inspire new generations of young people who might find the stage more inviting than film.

I’d also like to see Disney do something other than a musical. Sure, musicals sell. But, comedy or drama is what has historically been an opportunity for playwrights and directors to challenge our way of thinking or confront us with a different way of looking at our world. No, it would not bring in the megabucks. But, it could change people’s perceptions of Disney. And, it could reverse the direction for remakes, going from stage to film as was often the case decades ago. The Disney name could bring recognizable names to the stage, if necessary, and in combination with the Disney stamp of approval, I’m sure audiences would follow. I’d still like to see some new talent, but, I think some trade-offs are going to be necessary. Walt always stressed not talking down to kids. They will rise to meet the challenge. Many might find an evening of entertainment without the image of a toy or music, would be just as much fun, for them, and the adults.

Theater is an art form that brings people together to celebrate, challenge and yes, sometimes, provoke through the telling of stories. Theater is unique, since you see transformation right in front of you, in the moment. At the theater, what you see in any moment is unique and only you and the audience of which you’re a part. In film, the director uses the camera to focus our attention where he or she thinks is important. Watching a live theatrical performance is like walking into a room where a party is going on. You might focus on one conversation or a piece of art on the wall. Theater lets the audience choose what’s important and why. Then the writer and director asks us to make decisions, in real time about the language and action mean. It’s not a passive art form and deserves to be paid attention to.


Walt & Roy Disney

Walt understood audiences. He understood the importance of story . By all accounts, he was one of the entertainment industry’s best story tellers. Growing up, film was in its infancy. But, no doubt he would have attended live entertainment. Travelling theater companies were quite common and circuses and parades are forms of theater. According to those who knew, he liked to play act. It’s not hard to imagine that theatricality was something he understood.


Walt used film approaches in the design of Disneyland. And, cast members could refer to either film or stage. But, it’s no accident that he asked cast member to refer to “on stage” when they were in the presence of guests and “backstage” when they were out of sight. Those are theater terms. Walt always seemed to know what his audiences wanted. So it’s no surprise that there was live entertainment. Several shows a day were presented at the Golden Horseshoe Revue. And we mustn’t forget the many performances given every day since then by the Skippers on the Jungle Cruise.

Between the theme parks cruise ships and existing theatrical properties, Disney designs and produces a great deal of theatrical experiences every day, all over the world. The Disney company could use it’s success, influence and experience to pump new life into theater all over the world. The ages old tradition of having audiences attend live performances has proven to be invaluable in entertaining, educating and informing societies for ages. Disney would be continuing a long and valuable service and still make money.


D23 Expo 2017 Magical Afterglow

D23-Expo-Balloons-1I’ve spent the last week trying to absorb my D23 Expo experience and write a narrative for the three days I attended. There’s quite a lot to cover. And, it’s possible, that by now, you’ve started to hear many positive and negative reviews of the Expo. I’ll continue to work  on a blow by blow account, which may be useful for future Expo goers. But, when I’ve sat and thought about the Event, what comes to mind, more than anything else is the people I encountered. So, for now, I’d like to focus on some positives related to guests, cast members and presenters, who I think made my time at the Expo gratifying and pleasurable.

d23 2017 crowd

In my last post, D23 Expo 2017 Pre-Event Excitement, I talked about the Expo as an opportunity to be amongst all kinds of Disney fans. Some are there to buy limited edition or just released items. Some want to get autographs, selfies or see famous people. Others want to be “first” to know about movie, TV or theme park news. Unfortunately, many things I’ve read about the Expo, pre or post events, often start with the lines. I would say, if there’s one thing we Disney people know how to do, it’s wait on lines and follow instructions. On a Park queue, everyone is focused on their group – where they’ve been and where they are going. They have little interest in their line buddies. At the Expo, I usually waited 3+ hours seated or standing the whole time with the same people, waiting for morning entry into the Convention Center. The difference is, we all knew why we’re there, so the ice was already broken.  It was easy to strike up a conversation, usually started with “Where are you from?” or “Is this your first Expo?”. From there things either went to “What panels are you trying to see?” or “What are you here to buy that you can’t get anywhere else?” or “Whose autograph/picture are you hoping to score?” From all around, people would just jump into the conversation with their thoughts or questions. Even though we are all uncomfortable sitting on the hot concrete or rubbery legged from standing, everyone was upbeat, excited and just plain thrilled to be so close to getting inside (There are others who are much further back in an endless, snaking line. But I’m focused on the group that was unbothered to wake up around 5am to even get close to the front of the line). Then, even after waiting that long, the Disney crowd was still able to follow instructions that allowed us to all get inside, efficiently and without pushing, shoving or other chaos. Each time a group moved forward toward the Center doors a cheer would go up, followed by a groan as we were held at the next line checkpoint. It was truly a group happening, like a concert in Central Park.

Disney has gotten very good at Park crowd control. And the queues for panels or store entry were handled in the same organized manner. But the Expo morning entry is a different kind of animal. So, I’d like to say Thank You to the brave, hard working Cast Members who, not only,  maintained a cheery disposition in the face of repetitive questions (Is this the line to get in? Is there a VIP line just for me? What if I don’t have a ticket already? Is the (fill in the blank) panel already filled? Where’s the end of the line?, etc.) They repeated their pleas to “stay in line”, “have your bag open for inspection”, “keep the line moving” (when it did) “please don’t cut the line corners as you snake around” and “You’re almost there”. No one should underestimate the effect that positive energy can have on a large, tired, uncomfortable crowd of people to keep things from getting out of hand. Then, once things got moving, instructions were simple and consequences for rule breaking were made clear. It may just be me, but all these intangibles make me feel good about doing my part to make things run smoothly and efficiently so I can get to the fun.

end of queue sign blowup

Signs like this could be seen everywhere

On the whole, I found all Cast Members to be polite, upbeat and helpful. No, they didn’t always have the best or most accurate information. Yes, I did, get different answers from different Cast Members a few times. But, I don’t think that the individuals were always to blame. It’s not as if they were all wearing walkie talkies getting the most up to date news flashes. During my time waiting on various lines, I took an informal poll of the line monitors, whose job it was to hold up signs reading “Start of Queue”, “End of Queue” and “Queue Break”. Since I was sure that the postings were not full time jobs, I started asking what they usually do for the Disney Company. Most worked at Disneyland. I met tram drivers, tram announcers, gate ticket takers and even food preparers. So, in defense of the Cast Members, it’s not as if they are used to doing that job, or for that matter, any of the jobs at the Expo all the time. The Expo is only held every two years. So, it’s possible that training is not as thorough as it might be ordinarily. And, there appeared to be changes happening all the time. Most of the time, if someone didn’t have an answer, they were honest and said so. Most of the Cast Members I spoke to admitted that they would have been happier doing their regular job, instead of holding a sign for hours at a time. I watched another queue monitor very actively and enthusiastically, protect a line from potential queue jumpers. Even the daily, small parade the snaked through the show floor was full of the same Cast enthusiasm and professionalism as any I’ve seen in the Parks.



I was not successful in getting into any of the big announcement sessions like Movies and Theme Parks. But, I was prepared for that possibility and still managed to attend 8 panel discussions over the 3 days of the Expo. Without exception, all the speakers and panel members, not all of whom are professional presenters, were entertaining and engaging. Many that stood out for me were presented by the Disney Archives group, including:

d23 expo archives logo

Bill Cotter, TV Historian and author, gave us a behind the scenes look at the Zorro TV series, including behind the scenes pictures, casting accounts, and stories about the program’s promotions in Disneyland. He also emphasized, that unlike other TV shows of the day, Walt insisted on spending extra money and effort, to insure that the stories, sets and costumes were historically accurate. After Bill’s presentation, I now think the series doesn’t get its due as part of the Disney cannon.

Steve Merritt and Legendary Imagineeer Tony Baxter took us through history of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough from its Walt inspired idea to promote the soon to be released movie, all the way to the current re-incarnation of the original attraction. There were with blueprints, photographs and amazing stories of the design, engineering, execution, abandonment and recreation of the attraction.

Hans Perk, Animation Historian, took us for a virtual tour of the Disney Hyperion studios, allowing us to see where many iconic photos of Walt and Co. were taken during some of the studio’s most important and creative period from 1926 to 1940. I’ve read a lot about the studio. “Seeing” it as the odd configuration of buildings, put together to meet the growing demands of Walt’s imagination, allowed me to get a sense of the tremendous that he fueled with his energy and enthusiasm.

Fun, laughter and excitement was all around the Expo panel rooms and show floor. I saw people showing off their newly acquired treasures, sharing stories of surprises, even some disappointments. I and others shared our food with those who didn’t plan as well, graciously saved spaces in line for bathroom runs and even offered to sell. without markup, an extra limited edition item to someone who was less fortunate.

Some Expo surprises:

A daily parade on the show floor, complete with celebrities like Mark Hamil and Stan Lee.

Free cold brewed ice coffee with nifty Disney designs

A picture in the D23 lounge area which included my wife and I, taken during the NYC ,Gold Member, Behind the Scenes Event. We’re in the middle of the back row.

A free Gold Member gift

gold member gift

The Lion King 360° VR Experience let me virtually experience the Broadway musical from onstage. I could all around, in the wings, out in to the audience and into the flies as the opening scene at Pride Rock unfolded.

And, finally, admidst the thousands of people on the show floor, I ran into two people that I know from my NYC Disney fan group. And I got the chance to meet some Facebook friends for the first time.

There’s so much more to tell about my Expo experience. After something like the Expo, I usually find that I’ve taken photos of all the wrong things and missed other opportunities to capture the moments. I’ll post some of my photos here, anyway. Yes, there are things that I thought could have been done that might have made the Expo even better. But for now, I think I’m satisfied to share the things that made the Event so much fun for me. I’m sure I’ll be able to feed off the memories for some time. Hopefully the magical glow will last until the next time.

me at expo


Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event

D23-logo-official-fan-clubAs a Gold charter member of the D23 Disney Fan club I longingly read accounts of the many member events in California and Florida. Tours of the Disney Studios, Walt’s office, lunch with Imagineers are all things I’d love to do. But, since I live in New York it’s not practical. The D23 organizers have done some wonderful events in NYC. Just last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for the 25th Anniversary showing of Beauty and the Beast at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where Angela Lansbury sang. Before that the Fanniversary tour landed in NYC with highlights from the Disney archives.

As good as those events were, D23 they cooked up a whole day of fun and interesting experiences for 40 lucky Gold Members this past week in NYC. They called it, “D23 Behind-the-Scenes Experience: Magic in Manhattan & More”. And more it was!

We began the day by joining the rest of an enthusiastic audience at a taping of ABC’s The chew openingChew at studio near Lincoln Center. For my wife, Jackie, and I, it was our first experience at a television taping. We were surprised at how small the set space was, and how many people it takes to create a one hour television show. Cameramen, stage managers, food stylists, cooks, stage hands, sound engineers, a DJ, and lighting technicians were everywhere. As wed23 chew set 3 waited, the 5 stars made their way onto the set, introduced by the comedian, R.C. Smith, who kept us laughing the entire morning as he got us warmed up and taught us how to clap and laugh on cue. Finally, Clinton, Carla, Michael, Mario and Daphne sat down to tape the four segments of a show called Simply Perfect Sweets. They are very relaxed, chatting among themselves while reading segments from the teleprompter, all the while having stage managers waving time warnings in front of them. At the end of each segment, dozens of people appear from doors and behind set pieces, like an ant army, to clean up, add new food ingredients, move cameras, apply makeup, shift lights and more. R.C. kept d23 chew set 2our energy up as we hungrily watched the front row of “tasters” sample the dishes that were prepared by the hosts. Meanwhile, Mario, Clinton and Michael chatted with members of the audience. If you watch the show, you’ll notice that Clinton has a different jacket on for the last segment. He and Executive Producer Gordon Elliot were admiring a coat, worn by an of the audience member, so he exchanged it for the one he was wearing for the last segment. Following the taping, we watched Clinton and Carla do promo spots for use by other ABC programs. Then we took a group photo with the stars.


chew photo

d23 event snackAfter giving us some much needed snack bags and a gift bag from The Chew, we boarded a bus for our trip to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Ford23 chew bag those of you who are not aware, Walt Disney and his WED Imagineers created four of the most popular pavilions for the 1964-65 NY World’s Fair. It’s a Small World debuted at the Pepsi pavilion, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was the standout at the Illinois pavilion, GE’s Progressland featured the Carousel of Progress and for Ford Walt created the Magic Skyway. At the Park, we were introduced to Mitch Silverstein, Gary Miller and Stephanie Bohn, volunteers who working to preserve the iconic NY State pavilion (made even more famous by its role in the MIB movie). Mitch ny state towersand another volunteer who happens to be a Disney World guide, took us for a tour of the fairgrounds, pointing out the locations of the Disney designed attractions and telling stories about the fair.

For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Walt took advantage of the work at the Fair to push his WED geniuses to invent and perfect much of the technology that continues to be the backbone for many of the Disney theme park attractions. I’ll start with Mr. Lincoln, the invention that ushered in the age of Audio-Animatronics. There are now thousands at Disney and other theme parks around the world. The boat ride through Small World, was a precursor to Pirates of the Caribbean, Frozen Ever After and Living with the Land entertaining thousands of people in a day. And the ride system that guided cars through the Magic Skyway, eventually became the People Mover with similar systems still in use at the Haunted Mansion and Spaceship Earth. As important to Walt, three of the attractions, Carousel, Small World and Mr. Lincoln were added to Disneyland while many of the Audio-Animatraonic figures from Skyway, were re-purposed for other Disneyland attractions.

COP then and nowsmall world then and now

Because of our schedule we didn’t get to the Ford or Illinois locations. We ended our tour of the historic fairground with a very special opportunity to go inside the NY State pavilion. The structure is still in a bad state of repair, hence the hard hats we are all wearing in the picture. You can learn more about the pavilion preservation effort here.

042717_event-recap-NYC pavilion

D23 Unisphere cropped

After a final picture in front of the iconic Unisphere,  we re-boarded the bus and were given the second very special D23 gift, these limited edition reproductions of photos and postcards from the World’s Fair.

d23 vintage postcards

Our next stop was a well needed lunch at Trattoria Dell’Arte in Manhattan, where we enjoyed a three course meal. We also received our third gift, an event inspired picture containing 23 NY/Disney related images and a copy of the special event restaurant menu.

We took the quiz on the bus to guess what the icons represent. If you want to know what all the icons stand for in the image? The answers are here.

d23 event credentialWe took a short bus ride to the Times square area, where we received our next present, a newly designed earhat with the familiar I Love NY logo. We all put them on and took the picture below. With about 30 minutes until our final tour leg, we took our D23 event credential into the Times Square Disney store for a little 50% off shopping spree.

D23 Times Square.jpg

At 4:00 we re-assembled in front of the New Amsterdam Theater. Taylor  told me that this D23 event was inspired by the 20th anniversary of Disney’s re-opening of the theater after a lengthy restoration. On the theater marquee was a special message welcoming D23 Aladdin (1)our group.  Inside, sitting in the front rows of the orchestra where we were treated to a historical overview of the theater from it’s opening in 1903, to its long time use by the Ziegfeld Follies, then a slow decline, along with the rest of 42nd street, in the 1970s, then the theater’s closure and, finally, it’s rebirth as a Disney managed theater. We were led onto the stage, which is now hosting the Broadway version of Aladdin. The many complex workings of automated sets, trap doors and shown walls were explained and we saw many famous visitors who have signed their names on the theater’s walls.

Our next theater stop was a room Ziegfeld used at the back of the orchestra section. In the room, were props and costumes from many of the Broadway shows that Disney has produced, including Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Aida, Lion King and Newsies. We could touch and try on whatever we were found interesting. Some of the popular pieces were the $7,000 dollar lion king masks and props from Mary Poppins.

The day ended with a wonderful cocktail reception in the lower part of the theater where there was wine, beer, soda and delicious tapas. Our final gift, was an Aladdin playbill signed by the cast.

d23 signed aladdin

I can’t say enough about the logistics managed effortlessly by Tyler and Jen Marie. Even with the difficulties of keeping track of such a large group, NYC traffic and the many different stops during a very long day, they remained up-beat, personable and, most of all, fun. Everyone in the group, some had traveled from as far as California, were all great fun. We traded stories, talked about our Disney interests and enjoyed each other’s company during our NYC road trip. My thanks to Tyler, Jen Marie and the D23 organization for putting together one of the most interesting and enjoyable days my wife and I have had in Manhattan.

Have you attended a D23 event? What was your experience like?

Since I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Disney effect on the NY World’s Fair, I’ll use next week’s post to dig deeper into the four attractions that, for many, have become symbols of the historic Fair years.

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