Disney + Broadway = How to Succeed in Business

Who knew that 58 words could carry so much weight?

Surely not Frank Rich, the New York Times critic, who wrote them in 1991. A little over a month after the release of Beauty in the Beast in theaters, Rich declared the animated film “the hit that got away” and “the best Broadway musical score” of the year in a theater wrap-up article. This was before the film became the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, or before it ended up winning both Best Song and Best Score. In that quick blurb, Rich became a trendsetter, planted a seed, and quietly issued a challenge.

He also spotlighted the musical pair integral to the rebirth of Disney’s flourishing animation department back in the 90s. This pair was THE Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who made their Disney debut in 1989 with their work in The Little Mermaid (without Ashman, Sebastian may never have been Trinidadian). But they actually go way back.

In New York, Menken and Ashman collaborated on two off-Broadway productions. Little Shop of Horrors, which opened in 1982, garnered much acclaim and even flirted with Broadway opening. (Ashman actually thought the production was better suited for OB.)

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A small connection during Little Shop turned into a fated circumstance. Peter Schneider, who would later become VP of Disney Animation and studio president, served as the company manager during Little Shop. In 1985, Schneider would begin his career at Disney.

In 1986, back in New York, Ashman was ready for a change. Smile, a musical he had directed and written the book and lyrics for, closed after 48 performances on Broadway. Ashman reconnected with Schneider who told him about The Little Mermaid, and soon, Ashman and Menken were on their way to California to begin writing songs.

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After many flops, The Little Mermaid later made an astonishing $84 million at the box office, and Ashman and Menken were honored with two Academy Awards for their musical contributions. Disney had won the jackpot, and as Frank Rich noted the hits just kept on coming with the pair.

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Journalist Patrick Pacheco said it best: Menken and Ashman were “like Rodgers and Hammerstein, a songwriting team that came along, had a special chemistry with each other and used that chemistry and opportunity by luck or by chance or by ambition to change the artforms — the American musical in theater and the American film musical.”

Peter Schneider admitted live theater had never crossed their minds during the production of any of their animated films. But no one could deny the commercial success of Beauty and the Beast, not to mention Menken and Ashman’s memorable music. Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg couldn’t help but approach CEO Michael Eisner and urge him to give live theater a shot.

It took some convincing.

Katzenberg was able to get President Frank Wells on board, and he persuaded Eisner to reconsider. Eisner finally agreed as long as the production was done entirely by Disney so they could maintain creative control; he wanted people who already worked for Disney to be involved with every element. And, he wanted to personally be a part of every aspect. Unsurprisingly, this condition exacerbated the ongoing power struggle between Eisner and Katzenberg that characterized their tenure together. Katzenberg was confused by Eisner’s demand to be so involved. He had plenty of experience handling the production of animated features with the same budget that the theatrical production of Beauty and the Beast would require, but in order to get the ball rolling, Katzenberg agreed.

And so the journey to Broadway began.

Even though they already had the story, a screenplay-turned-book written by Linda Woolverton, the company faced some challenges. Sadly, Ashman passed away before the film had been finished. Tim Rice, who stepped in to help Menken with Aladdin, was hired to fill Ashman’s shoes with any musical challenges they would face while mounting their Broadway debut. Luckily, they had some cut songs from the film they were able to use, as well as the involvement of Ashman’s partner, Bill Lauch, at the urging of Katzenberg. Lauch was especially pleased that the live action production would be utilizing “Human Again”, a song that Ashman had enjoyed very much.

Director Robert Jess Roth was having problems wrapping his head around the entire concept in the first place. “Initially, I couldn’t see how it could be transferred to the stage. There was a candelabra, a clock and a talking teapot – how could you achieve all of that in the theatre?”

But with the teamwork of choreographer Tom West and Ann Hould-Ward’s costuming, the production became a reality and two years later, it began its tryout run in Houston, Texas at Theater Under the Stars in December of 1993. Variety critic Jerome Weeks gave the production high praise: “Despite the glitz and the occasional glitch, Beauty and the Beast could well be the big new musical hit this Broadway season has been waiting for.”

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Disney Theatrical Productions officially pulled off the band-aid in April of 1994, when Beauty and the Beast opened at the Palace Theater, starring Susan Egan (the future Megara) as Belle and Terrance Mann as the Beast. The show didn’t receive the warmest welcome, as opinions of Disney coming to Broadway were not completely favorable. The Broadway community felt “shunned” because the company assembled a creative team from their own ranks. “We produce in the U.S. more live entertainment and spend more on our attractions than all of Broadway put together… It seemed to me to do Broadway and not do it with our own people, people who worked with us, was unfair. It would be inappropriate,” said Eisner to the Los Angeles Times. They also didn’t have to go through the efforts most do for a first show. By financing the show themselves, they didn’t have to do the leg work and scout out producers.

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Theatre critics weren’t exactly singing its praises either, but audiences were.  Why shouldn’t they be? Sure, Beauty and the Beast was the quintessential Broadway show with grand sets and elaborate costumes, one that pulled out all the stops (a.k.a. tourist trap). The story was not exactly deep, and except for the addition of a few new songs, every element was familiar. Heck, most knew the ending of the story before the curtain went up. But, for audience members, it was about the three-dimensional experience. Seeing the cartoons they loved as live people dancing and singing about on stage – that was enough.

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The day after opening night, Beauty and the Beast sold $700,000 in advanced sales – a Broadway record. The production was nominated for 9 Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical, Direction, Book, and Original Score. Out of nine, Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes were the only element recognized walking away with a much-deserved award.

For 13 years, audiences flocked to the Palace Theater, and later when it moved, to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Schneider believes it was so successful because it brought a brand new audience back to Broadway. Angela Lansbury, stage veteran and the lovable Mrs. Potts agreed, “Beauty and the Beast “opened the doors again for children to come back to the theater. Big time. No question about it.”

Throughout its run, the show boasted such stars as Toni Braxton, Keri Butler, Christy Carlson Romano (Even Stevens/voice of Kim Possible), Donny Osmond, Debbie Gibson, Anneliese van der Pol (Chelsea on That’s So Raven), Nick Jonas, and Jacob Young (General Hospital), and Jonathan Freeman (voice of Jafar in Aladdin). As you can see there was no shortage of Disney-ites amongst the cast.

Christy Carlson Romano as Belle. (Source)

It’s been twenty years since the film release of Beautyand the Beast. That same year, Michael Eisner wrote to shareholders about how “a single creative act can change everything… I know ‘Snow White’ did it for Walt. Well, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is doing it for us…. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is one of the great movies of all time. And it will be around forever.”

He was right.

DVDs. Blu-ray discs. Youtube. Soundtracks. And because of a tiny blurb in the New York Times, touring productions. Audiences across the world have the opportunity to experience this living and breathing show. It’s just another way for Disney to touch guests who may not have the accessibility to the theme parks, and find a bit of the magic closer to home.

And impressively enough, the show will remain in the record books for quite some time too. As of August 2011, Beauty and the Beast is the seventh longest running show on Broadway.

How’s that for a first time production?

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