Alliance theater home to developing works

NEW YORK — The Elton John-Tim Rice musical formerly known as “Aida” will make its debut at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater next season under the new title “Elaborate Lives.”

The musical, based on Verdi’s opera about an Egyptian soldier and his taboo love for a Nubian slave, marks the first-ever collaboration between the Walt Disney Co. and a non-profit resident theater company.

The 800-seat Alliance will open its 30th anniversary season Sept. 11 with previews of the production, which will eventually move to Broadway as Disney’s followup to the smash John-Rice musical “The Lion King.”

Theater is racially mixed

Disney chose the well-regarded Alliance in part because of the racial mix of the theater’s 18,000-member subscriber base and its history of staging works that explore racial themes.

Kenny Leon, the Alliance’s artistic director, is one of the resident circuit’s few black creative execs.

“Elaborate Lives” will be directed in Atlanta and on Broadway by Robert Jess Roth and feature a book by Linda Woolverton.

A return to simplicity

Although both Roth and Woolverton worked on Disney’s first stage musical, “Beauty and the Beast,” “Lives” won’t follow in the spectacle mode of either “Beauty” or “Lion King.”

The musical, subtitled “The Legend of Aida,” features a comparatively small cast of 23-26, and although the set includes a pyramid, the physical production will not be on the elaborate and costly scale of Disney’s first two stage efforts.

The use of non-profit resident theaters as developing grounds for commercial producers has become commonplace in recent years, with such notable examples as “Tommy” (developed at the La Jolla Playhouse in California) and “Jekyll & Hyde” (originally developed at Houston’s Alley Theater).

The process is less costly than commercial try-outs, yet allows producers the chance to stage and develop their works in front of paying audiences.

Disney would not disclose the cost of “Elaborate Lives,” but the investment is thought to be much, much less than the $20 million-plus pricetag on “Lion King.”

Broadway bound

The new musical is intended for Broadway, but whether the show receives further development or additional productions between Atlanta and New York has not been determined.

(Broadway theater availability also will play a part: Disney’s sole Gotham venue, the New Amsterdam Theater, will likely be booked with “Lion King” for years to come.)

Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Theatrical Prods., says Disney began talks with the Alliance’s Leon two years ago, a year after pop star John (who has a home in Atlanta) had expressed interest in the “Aida” project.

“The regional theater in America has dedicated most of its career to the development of new work,” Schneider said, “and we wanted to find a space that has a diversity in its audience and had developed new work before.”

Disney has never developed an original work for the stage — both “Lion King” and “Beauty” were adapted from successful films — and the Alliance has built a solid reputation on doing just that.

Alliance in the limelight

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” developed at the Alliance, will become the longest-running play currently on Broadway when it celebrates its first anniversary Feb. 27, and black-themed “Blues for an Alabama Sky” has become one of the hotter new plays on the resident circuit.

The Alliance also is known for its non-traditional casting and explorations of racial themes in its works. This season the company is staging a production of “Medea” starring Phylicia Rashad.

The mixed-race cast has not been announced yet, and neither Schneider nor Leon would comment on speculation that John Barrowman, a star of the British musical stage, will take the lead role of the Egyptian officer.

The Disney premiere almost certainly will prove a financial boon to the Alliance as the theater company gears up for its annual subscription drive.

Although the Alliance is thought to have an ongoing financial interest in the musical, details were not disclosed.

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