Disney Theatricals will shake up the long-running Broadway landscape this year as the company ushers out "Beauty and the Beast" in July after its 13-year run to make way for its next toon-to-tuner adaptation, "The Little Mermaid," in the fall.
Rialto insiders have been speculating for months about whether Disney would try to maintain five productions running simultaneously on Broadway, all pitched toward the same core family audience. "The Lion King" is still holding strong after nine years, newcomer "Mary Poppins" got off to a promising start in the fall, and spring 2006 opener "Tarzan" has weathered downbeat reviews to become a steady if not quite stellar performer.
However, Disney Theatrical Prods. chief Thomas Schumacher insists the decision to close "Beauty and the Beast" July 29 was dictated not by fear of stretching the company too thin with audiences but by the desirability of the 1,500-seat Lunt-Fontanne Theater as the ideal house for its newest production.
" 'Beauty and the Beast' has been a massive piece of business for us, with productions all over the world and thousands of licensed productions around the country," Schumacher told Daily Variety
. "But the Broadway production now just kind of breaks even so it makes sense to begin a closing campaign and hopefully do as much business in the next six months as we would have done in a year or more."
Directed by international opera helmer Francesca Zambello in her Broadway debut, "The Little Mermaid" is set to start previews Nov. 3 in New York with an official opening Dec. 6. Prior to that, the show will world-preem in a tryout run at Denver Center Attractions' Ellie Caulkins Opera House, starting previews July 27 for an official Aug. 23 opening.
The Broadway handover represents a neat symmetry between two musicals with songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, developed from the two toon features that kick-started the renaissance of Disney's animation division.
The closing of "Beauty and the Beast" also marks the end of the pre-Schumacher era of Disney theatrical ventures, which had more in common with old-school theme-park shows than with the more inventive stage spectacles that began with Julie Taymor's "The Lion King."
Adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a magical underwater kingdom as told in Disney's 1989 animated film, "The Little Mermaid" features a book by Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright Doug Wright ("I Am My Own Wife," "Grey Gardens") and music by Menken and Ashman, with nine additional new songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. The film grossed $229 million worldwide and won two Oscars in 1990, for original score and song ("Under the Sea").
The creative team will include Stephen Mear (choreography), George Tsypin (sets), Tatiana Noginova (costumes) and Natasha Katz (lighting). No casting has been announced but the Broadway rumor mill has been buzzing about Sherie Rene Scott ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") in the villainess role of Ursula the Sea Witch.
Schumacher is reluctant to discuss how the show's underwater world will be conjured onstage, hinting only that low-tech creative solutions will be sought. "Francesca always says 'No water, no wire'," he explained. "There'll be a lot of choreography and a lot of music but they won't be swimming through the air on this one."
"Beauty and the Beast" opened at the Palace Theater April 18, 1994, transferring to the Lunt-Fontanne five years later. It will have played 46 previews and 5,464 regular performances when it closes on Broadway, with an estimated final gross close to $450 million. Worldwide gross has exceeded $1.4 billion.
"This is the longest running show in the history of both the Palace and the Lunt," Schumacher said. "I love that the kids who saw 'Beauty and the Beast' when they were 7 or 10 are now out of college and I hope a lot of them are the same ones going to see 'Spring Awakening.' We've definitely been a part of creating new Broadway audiences."
During the coming weeks, in addition to monitoring rehearsals for the first international production of "Tarzan" opening in April in Amsterdam, Schumacher will be looking in on the first of six productions by professional companies of the stage version of Disney's newest franchise, "High School Musical." Starting this month with Children's Theater Company in Minneapolis and Theater of the Stars at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, those productions will serve as a prelude to licensed high school and community theater stagings across the country.
"We'll be doing over 5,000 performances by professional companies for kids this year but these are mostly to chum the waters for the licensing property," Schumacher said. "But you can bet if one of these professional productions turns out to be great, we'll think about moving it. I'm not looking at New York but every option is open for 'High School Musical' right now.