Disney has habitually expanded their repertoire into other areas of media, such as television and theme parks. But one avenue that often goes overlooked by many is Broadway musicals. They’ve created many theatrical experiences playing in regional theaters and even television specials. However, only ten have played on Broadway, making for unique shows.
They range from simple copies of the film in a live-action environment to complete artistic reinventions that breathe new life into classic stories. But, no matter their quality, all of them are the result of dozens of performers, creative leaders, and technical wizards who work tirelessly to bring such works to the stage.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this popular film would come to the stage. The songs are well-orchestrated, Olaf and Sven are made into genuinely charming puppets, and the costuming replicates the film’s iconic style to a tee. But, unfortunately, that’s also this show’s biggest problem.
It suffers greatly from trying to copy the film almost beat for beat while changing small things that mess with the bigger picture. For example, moving the film’s iconic song “Let It Go” to the end of the first act; it provides a powerful showcase for the performer but a less effective emotional culmination.
‘The Little Mermaid’
The film that helped kick-start the Disney renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s was specifically written to be like a Broadway musical, so it only makes sense that it would come to the great white way someday. Sadly, while the Broadway production had a unique aesthetic, it was also somewhat underwhelming.
The revelation that Ursula is King Triton’s sister makes for a unique deviation from the film’s storyline, but the sea witch is defeated far too quickly. Still, the script has moments of genuinely clever touches, and the score is timeless as always.
Translating the story of a man raised by apes is no easy task, but this short-lived production found a way with a unique production design. It depicted the gorillas as humans with facial makeup and excessive hair and represented the jungles of Africa with little more than a background curtain canvas of trees and ropes.
With the music, the show utilizes Phil Collins’ classic soundtrack, but unlike the movie, the characters sing their songs, allowing more of an emotional connection to their scenes. Certain character moments get dropped from the show (including the main villain’s death), but the sheer ingenuity makes it worth a watch.
The flying nanny was reinvented for the stage as a co-production between Disney and powerful producer Cameron Mackintosh. While keeping all the original songs, the storyline differs somewhat from the film.
Mr. Bank’s issues with his employers are given slightly more focus, the children are more actively disobedient, and Mary temporarily leaves the family for a brief period before intermission. Don’t expect to see any dancing cartoon penguins, but there are still tap-dancing chimney sweeps, spoonfuls of sugar, and Mary flying with her umbrella – even over the audience. While different from the movie, it still provides that delightful mix that only Ms. Poppins could provide.
The only Disney theatrical production not based on a previous movie but rather a Giuseppe Verde opera. The original piece told the story of a Romeo and Juliet-type romance set in Ancient Egypt. This classical piece is reinterpreted, along with a slightly lighter tone and the hint of a happier ending, with the music of songwriting duo Elton John and Tim Rice.
Certainly an unusual choice for Disney to make, but Elton John’s music, much like his other big Disney hit, is diverse and eclectic, giving almost every song a unique sound and energy. Combine that with a classical love story, and Aida creates a special Disney experiment.
Three wishes. Two dreamers. One Genie and a lot of sparkles. Aladdin strikes the perfect balance between following the film while carving out its own identity. The musical uses several songs from Howard Ashman’s original version, including Aladdin’s three (human) best friends and his hope for his deceased mother to become proud of her boy.
The Genie himself is the perfect fourth-wall-breaking character for the stage, referencing other Broadway musicals and Disney songs. Put it together with a genuinely breathtaking flying carpet effect, and it’s a magical night out for the whole family.
‘Peter and the Starcatcher’
Based on the book of the same name, this tells the story of a ship, mysterious stardust that makes your dream come true, a crew of vicious and well-mustachioed pirates, and an orphaned boy who learns to fly.
It’s a minimalist reimagining of the Neverland mythos with a small cast playing multiple characters and set pieces consisting of boxes, ropes, and wood beams, relying on the viewer’s imagination as much as anything else. More of a straight play than a musical, the songs present do follow set the tone and scene for an epic adventure.
This is one of few times when the stage version may be better than the original film. In 1899, NYC newspaper boy Jack Kelly dreams of heading out west, but before he can get there, he needs to lead a group of newsboys on strike against Joseph Pulitzer.
The show is the only Disney musical specifically based on a true story, and while light and fun, it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker realities of the period. Another aspect that leaves this piece distinct from other musicals is the utterly pulse-pounding choreography that will move any audience out of their seats.
‘Beauty and the Beast’
This was the first Disney movie made into a musical and it set the tone for all the company’s future theatrical productions. The musical brought the film to life with dazzling visuals, prosthetic makeup, and elaborate set pieces. In addition, the songs that come from the film are masterfully performed, while the newly written songs fit in perfectly with the original tone.
Perhaps the production’s greatest strength is the way it enhances the Beast’s character, showing his growth from an ignorant monster to a compassionate friend step by step. It shows the agony of what he is going through and his happiness at his chance of redemption.
‘The Lion King’
While Beauty and the Beast began Disney’s reputation on Broadway, The Lion King cemented it. Not only is this the third longest-running production in Broadway history, but it is also the most profitable venture in the company’s history.
Director Julie Taymor transforms the film into a masterpiece of artistic merit that expands on the film’s characters, visualizes them with beautiful puppets and costumes, and deceptively simple set pieces that become the grandest of canvases. It’s little wonder why it is among the most successful musicals in history.
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