Disney officials say the stoppage does not signify a failing enterprise: The show, directed by Michael Grandage, was bringing in about $1.5 million a week at the St. James Theatre, and grossed more than $150 million over its run. (Estimates put the show’s initial costs at $25 million to $30 million.) Rather, it was a belief that when Broadway comes back, the audiences to sustain multiple Disney productions will not be returning in sufficient numbers. Earlier this week, the Broadway League announced that Broadway’s 41 theaters will remain closed through Sept. 6, adding that “a date to resume performances is yet to be determined.”
“This difficult decision was made for several reasons, but primarily because we believe that three Disney productions will be one too many titles to run successfully in Broadway’s new landscape,” Thomas Schumacher, president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions, said in a letter to his staff. He added that closing the show permits the company to repurpose the sets and costumes for “Frozens” in London, Sydney, Tokyo and Hamburg over the next year.
Schumacher also used the letter to detail other projects in the works — notably, a stage musical version of the 1987 cult movie favorite “The Princess Bride,” with a book by Bob Martin and Rick Elice and a score by David Yazbek, and an expanded stage version of the “Hercules” that debuted last summer in Central Park. Book writer Robert Horn, a Tony winner for “Tootsie,” will be added to the songwriting team of Alan Menken and David Zippel.
“We remain committed to developing and producing stage musicals for a long time to come,” Schumacher said.
Nevertheless, “Frozen’s” Broadway demise may be a dismal prologue to a tale of unhappy endings for some productions with previously healthy prognoses. (Several plays that were to open, including a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” have been scuttled, too.) “I am heartbroken,” Schumacher wrote of “Frozen,” “that the entire company could not experience the closure of a final performance or a chance to say goodbye.”
These days, heartbreak pervades Broadway, and the theater world beyond, over the fate of an arts sector that generates an estimated $14 billion a year for New York City. (Broadway attendance exceeds that for all of New York pro sports teams combined.) The viability of a Broadway scaled down to accommodate social distancing is difficult for the industry to envision; privately, producers say they are waiting for the government to announce a treatment or vaccine.
One major Broadway producer summed up the prevailing mood in an email earlier this week in a single word: “despair.”
Disney, dependent on a family audience drawn from out-of-towners, is as vulnerable as any large entertainment entity on Broadway. (Tourism accounts for about two-thirds of Broadway ticket holders.) The parent company has been furloughing thousands of employees and shuffling offerings in response to the pandemic. For example, a film version of “Hamilton” that was to be released in theaters in October 2021 will now be available starting July 3 on the Disney Plus streaming service.
In his letter to the staff, Schumacher, who has been part of Disney Theatrical leadership since its beginnings in the 1990s with the Broadway version of “Beauty and the Beast,” conceded that the unknowns remain formidable.
“There’s no question of the appeal of live entertainment to audiences,” he wrote. “We know they’ll return, hungry for that spark of connection that only live theater can provide. But we also acknowledge that both we and our audiences will be returning to a changed world, and that we will all have to adapt.” Those who bought “Frozen” tickets through Ticketmaster will receive automatic refunds within 30 days; anyone who purchased tickets through other outlets are being advised to contact those sellers.
Schumacher noted that a North American tour of “Frozen,” with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and a book by Jennifer Lee, will proceed at a date to be announced. He also listed plans for a stage version of “Jungle Book,” with a book by Rajiv Joseph, as well as a revival of the musical “Aida,” directed by Schele Williams and debuting in Germany in spring 2022.
Still, Thursday’s announcement was a bitter pill for the cast of “Frozen.” “Nothing I say,” Schumacher wrote, “can soften that blow.”