The Walt Disney Company has had shows on Broadway for twenty-five years. It's hard to believe that a quarter of a century ago, the first Disney Theatricals production, Beauty and the Beast, opened on Broadway in 1994. Belle, the Beast, and Gaston took Broadway by storm, and started a tradition of adapting animated and live action musicals to the stage.
After Beauty and the Beast, Broadway saw productions of The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Newsies, Aladdin, and Frozen. Disney also created a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which opened in Germany and has also played regional theatres on this side of the Atlantic. In London, a production of Pinocchio opened in 2017. Original shows such as Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, Peter and the Starcatcher, and On the Record also opened on Broadway or on tour.
Upcoming productions include Hercules, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Disney also planned revivals of Beauty and the Beast and Aida, both of which I personally can't wait to see, since I never saw them on Broadway.
As of this writing, The Lion King, Aladdin, and Frozen are still running on Broadway.
Disney on Broadway has launched the careers of many of the stars of these musicals, such as Susan Egan (Belle in Beauty and the Beast), Sierra Boggess (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, which was also her Broadway debut), James Monroe Iglehart (the Genie in Aladdin, which earned him a Tony Award), Laura Michelle Kelly (London's original Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins), Jeremy Jordan (Jack in Newsies), and Kara Lindsay (Katherine in Newsies).
Like many of these established musical theatre stars who got their start on Broadway in Disney musicals, for many audiences a Disney musical is their first Broadway show, or for young artists a Disney musical gives them the inspiration to go after their theatrical dreams, or it's the first show they are in.
A Disney show was not my first Broadway show, or the first show I was in, but Broadway's production of Mary Poppins did inspire me to return to my theatre aspirations, and over the years I was able to see it many times at the New Amsterdam Theatre (current home of Aladdin) and on tour. Through Mary Poppins, I met many friends and many of the cast members, and for a while, the theatre felt like home. I ended up seeing six Marys and six Berts between Broadway and the tour, and then later got to see the Marys that I'd missed in other productions. I also took my friends to see Mary Poppins on Broadway, who were curious about it after I'd raved about for months. It was only their second show in New York, and their first had been a matinee that day!
I feel that Disney on Broadway is important to our art form for those reasons, and because it's incredible to see these timeless stories and characters come to life. Disney Theatricals pushes the boundaries of set design, special effects, choreography, and costume design to create a truly visually stunning experience that brings these often fairy tale and fantasy worlds to stunning reality. The Beast's transformation to human, Elsa's ice magic and incredible costume change from coronation gown to iconic blue ice dress, Bert tap dancing on the proscenium, Mary Poppins flying over the audience, a magic carpet ride, a cast of animals on stage brought to life through puppetry...Disney always delivers the magic. Then there is the choreography: the stunning spelling of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”; tap dancing chimney sweeps; “Under the Sea” fish and sea creatures; cutlery, plates, and furniture dancing to “Be Our Guest”; and the incredibly energetic dancing newsboys.
Disney often gets criticism from critics and Broadway purists for being too touristy, too kid-oriented – but because of this artistry and the inspiration these stories and performances give, I believe that these shows belong on Broadway. The stories are timeless, the designs are top-notch, the music is iconic, and the performances are great. There is a reason these shows are popular, and a reason that amateur theatres do them for years to come – not just because of the name, but because of the shows themselves. The shows have inspired a generation of young artists, performers, and audiences, and made many dreams come true. I had the chance to talk to several Disney fans who were impacted in some way by these musicals, whether on stage or in the audience.
Olivia saw Beauty and the Beast when she was only five years old. Imagine being five and seeing your favorite characters live on stage! Imagine, according to her, “feeling so drawn to what was happening on stage. [She] couldn’t look away the entire show. It excited [her] so much and it made [her] want to perform.” She said it's the reason she's studying musical theatre to this day. She was later cast as Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. She said, “I think Disney on Broadway opens up the live theatre to every single age group. It has stories that every single person can connect to and enjoy. Disney on Broadway is important because it can open the door and be the reason someone so young decides they want to do theatre.”
Becky loves Newsies and said that “Newsies inspired me to dream for a better life.” Winchelle also connected to Newsies and said, “they pretty much left me speechless, with tears falling down my cheeks; it was spectacular.” She also wrote that Disney is “very important because it inspires a lot of people. It has the ability to spark some light to that theater-loving person that was hidden behind a dark closet within ourselves.”
Kim was lucky enough to see Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins. She wrote, “I remember being absolutely in awe the entire time. The costumes, the actors, and the music that I loved! It was all right there in front of me…LIVE! I had to try really hard not to sing along. The movie had always been my favorite...I saved all my pennies over the next few months and took my first trip to New York City. The first night I was there I saw Mary Poppins. I had a seat in the very first row of the balcony. It took a lot of self-control not to reach out and touch Mary Poppins’s feet as she flew by. She was so close; I felt the breeze from her dress!”
Emelie wrote, “I think they bring a lot of magic to Broadway that other shows can’t bring. Where else can you see mermaids, a woman with ice powers (and a dress that is literally magic), a flying carpet, and the king of Pride Rock?” She also said, “They are the go-to shows for families with young children. These are the kind of productions, that I think, have the biggest potential to show young children just how magical, and powerful Broadway is. Imagine being that young, and watching your favorite Disney Princess dancing across the stage! That could be the exact moment they find their passion. Disney on Broadway is far from inferior.”
Sarah was in a production of The Little Mermaid while in school and told me about her experience playing Flounder (the fish). “I was lucky enough to get to play Flounder in my first show ever, and I think that being able to play a Disney character really enhanced my love for theater. Of course I would have been happy enough to have just been in the ensemble, but being able to take such a well known, loved character and bring it to life on stage was such a life-changing moment.” She then wrote, “When I got to 8th grade we did another Disney show, Beauty and the Beast, and that is where I met two of my closest friends. I played Cogsworth, and once again getting to step into the role of such a well known character reminded me of why I still did it...”
As far as how Disney shows can inspire new performers, Sarah wrote, “I think especially for younger actors, Disney is such a great way to get involved in theater, as we are often at the age where we aren't really sure how to start developing a character, so going in with a solid outline of what is expected of the character, it becomes so much easier to fill in the gaps and adapt it to yourself...Ensemble or lead, nothing beats getting to sing the iconic songs knowing the crowd won't be able to help but love it.”
Amanda has connected to two Disney shows throughout her theatre-going life: Newsies and Frozen. She wrote to me about how two of the cast members inspired her through their performing and beyond, Kara Lindsay and Patti Murin. “Two ladies who have been involved in Disney Theatrical Productions have inspired me. First, is Kara Lindsay (Katherine in Newsies). The first time I saw Newsies, I didn’t know who she was. I was so incredibly inspired by her and her performance as Katherine. That performance right then and there is what inspired me to get back into musical theater. Patti Murin (current Anna in Frozen) is the other person who has inspired me not only as an actress, but as a person. I am constantly inspired by Patti and everything she does for the mental health community.”
Amanda is passionate about Disney and its impact on audiences. “I think Disney on Broadway is important to our art because it’s timeless. It’s something that everyone, no matter how young or old, knows. People get to see these movies that they grew up watching come to life right in front of their eyes. Disney on Broadway is also important because many kids’ first Broadway shows are Disney productions. I just recently took my 4-year-old cousin to Frozen for her very first Broadway show and it was such a magical experience. Getting to see the excitement on her face as we approached the theater, and the looks on her face while watching the show, was priceless. I hope that she will remember that experience forever and want to keep going back to Broadway shows. Disney on Broadway shows are fun for ALL ages and it’s super important that there are Broadway shows that families can attend together.”
Disney has something for everyone – for a young actor who simply loves Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid and wants to play one of their favorite characters on stage. For a five-year-old girl who's never seen a musical before and sees Mary Poppins fly over the audience, or her favorite princess dancing in her ballgown, or Elsa actually use her ice magic in person. For a family of tourists in New York City who want to see a show but isn't familiar with strictly Broadway musicals and chooses The Lion King or Frozen because they know the story already and know it'll be a good night of entertainment. Perhaps the child in the audience will one day want to perform as well because they got to see Newsies, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, or any of the other of these magical shows. As they say in Frozen, “love is an open door,” and maybe in this case, that love is musical theatre, found through a Disney show. As Mary Poppins says, “anything can happen if you let it”.
** Thank you to Amanda, Becky, Emelie, Sarah, Winchelle, Olivia, and Kim for your time and your stories. **