NEW YORK — When the Walt Disney Co. rolled its massive entertainment resources onto Broadway 25 years ago with the unveiling of a stage version of the animated movie musical “Beauty and the Beast,” the advance felt to some in the industry like the start of an occupation.
The artistic doomsday scenarios, though, have proved overblown. As demonstrated by the latest revival of the Disney-spawned musical “Newsies” — beginning performances Nov. 1 at Arena Stage — the impact of the animation and theme-park giant has taken more nuanced turns than anyone could have predicted.
For one thing, that occupation has not generated the complete corporate takeover of the musical-theater business that some imagined. Yes, costs have gone skyscraper-high, and more musicals than ever are spun (numbingly, uninspiringly) from well-known movies. But the important, Tony-winning musicals of the “Dear Evan Hansen”/“The Band’s Visit”/“Hadestown” variety still emerge from the dominions of personal vision and nonprofit theater.
Instead of a takeover, a kind of uneasy, symbiotic relationship has taken hold. As the only major entertainment company that has managed to break through in a sustained way, Disney is now as entrenched in Broadway lore as any of the storied producers of yore. With 10 musicals under his belt, from durably dazzling “The Lion King” to quirkily human-scale “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Thomas Schumacher, longtime head of Disney Theatrical Group, has earned the vaunted moniker “impresario.” The Disney offerings have collectively run — on Broadway alone — for nearly 25,000 performances.
“Out of the box, we had two hits,” Schumacher said as he sat in his glass cube of an office in the penthouse of Disney’s own theater on West 42nd Street, the refurbished New Amsterdam. The initial one-two punch of “Beauty” in 1994 and “Lion King” three years later sealed the company’s pact with Broadway’s burgeoning family and tourist markets. And, in the case of director Julie Taymor’s puppet-enhanced “Lion King” (now at more than 9,000 performances), it made inroads with doubters of Disney’s interest in being innovation-forward.
“The first is probably more in line with what you might have expected this company to do; and the second one is probably a surprise, although if you knew the players, me and Peter [Schneider, with whom he once ran the theatrical division], you wouldn’t think that was so surprising at all,” he said.
The quarter-century mark, a point at which Disney continues to explore new outlets for its stage productions around the globe, seemed a fitting time to sit down with the 61-year-old Schumacher to talk about the vast theatrical groundwork the company has laid, and where it might head next. Over the course of Schumacher’s founding tenure at Disney Theatrical, where he presides over a workforce of 120, there have been numerous popular successes; the blockbuster of late being 2014’s “Aladdin,” which seems on course to be Disney’s No. 2 hit, behind “The Lion King.” But there have been notable Broadway misses, too, the worst being a ghastly “Tarzan” adaptation in 2006, and a wackadoo short-lived “The Little Mermaid” in 2008, with the actors playing underwater creatures in sneakers with wheels.
Schumacher said “Starcatcher” earned the most exuberant critical plaudits, while early notices for “The Lion King” were not stellar. “I would say every one’s a surprise. But if they don’t work, you’re like, ‘What the hell happened?’ And if they really work you still go, ‘What the hell happened?’”
Still, a corporation’s ability to scale up can be a boon even when Broadway fortunes, or the critics, or both, are unkind. “The Little Mermaid” may have been ungainly in its initial form. “By the time we built it, everything became stiff and heavy. It was like watching furniture move,” Schumacher says.
But Disney Theatrical’s history of sticking with and reworking projects often paves the way to a happier financial ending — as has been the case with “The Little Mermaid.” “It’s been playing in Japan forever — there are two productions there.” he says. “We’ve played it all over Europe. . . . It’s paid itself back and, no harm no foul, it lives on.”
The company’s staying power in the theater can also be traced to a flexibility in how and where it finds markets for its shows. Schumacher, a San Francisco Bay-area native who helped the stage visionary Peter Brook bring his 1985, nine-hour adaptation of “The Mahabharata” to Los Angeles, has tried to pair Disney’s film-to-stage productions with unlikely creative partners. There’s Taymor, of course, with “The Lion King”; Goodman Theatre’s longtime artistic director Robert Falls, tapped for “Aida”; and the British director Michael Grandage, who helmed “Frozen.” Similarly, he’s found paths for his titles that may not even include Broadway.
“Freaky Friday,” for instance, with a score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, Pulitzer Prize winners for “Next to Normal,” premiered three years ago at Arlington’s Signature Theatre as a family-friendly show destined for licensing by other companies. It ended up also being filmed for the Disney Channel.
And, just last month, 1997’s animated “Hercules” debuted in Central Park as a live production under the auspices of the Public Theater and rising off-Broadway director Lear deBessonet. With the absorption into the project of 200 amateur actors from around New York in the theater’s Public Works initiative, it set in motion yet another model by which Disney could develop material.
According to Schumacher, these notions of injecting patience into the task of finding and grooming audiences began with Walt Disney himself.
“Movies that were not successful in their time became successful over time,” he said. He mentioned “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” which didn’t make money initially but found their place in the American popular consciousness though theatrical rerelease and, eventually, the arrival of videocassettes.
“Newsies” at Arena Stage seems as if it’s yet another permutation of the formula. The convergence in this case is one of the nation’s oldest and best-known nonprofit theaters, reviving a musical by the biggest commercial entity in the theater business. Molly Smith, who is directing the show — about a group of newsboys and girls who rise up against their exploitation by newspaper owners in turn-of-the-20th-century New York — says it was the theme, not the corporate pedigree, that attracted her.
“For almost 20 years, I’ve been directing the big gold-standard musicals, and now I wanted to shift to newer musicals that I think will stand the test of time,” she says. “What I love about the project is that it’s about a children’s crusade and we’re in the middle of two children’s crusades, with the Parkland students [on gun control] and Greta Thunberg with climate change.”
As for placing corporation-bred entertainment on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, she adds: “Look, we grew up on Disney, so it’s very much part of the culture and who we are as Americans.”
To Schumacher, “Newsies” is the ideal example of how a Disney show finds its own way. It started as a relatively modest venture at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. “We designed a set that could be broken down quickly, and be rented by people who might want to do it,” he recalled. The notices were good, a New York theater suddenly became open, the audiences kept coming and a national tour set records. “And now it’s being done everywhere,” he said.
Among the many productions Schumacher has in development, there’s a musical based on “The Princess Bride,” the much obsessed-over 1987 movie. There’s also a revival of the 2000 “Aida,” to be directed by Schele Williams, one of the show’s original cast members, and another incarnation of “Beauty and the Beast,” slated for Britain. The $71 billion acquisition by Disney of 21st Century Fox’s film and TV properties also provides a new source for potential material. Some of the films in that library, such as “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” are already licensed by outside producers for musicals.
That is more than wishing upon a star. That is good business.
Newsies, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Molly Smith. $66-$133. Nov. 1-Dec. 22 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.