‘King’ and Queen of the Road

Disney dominates while 'Mamma!' gambles in Las Vegas

New York — Disney’s theatrical division may be a tiny slice from the company’s worldwide revenue pie of $15 billion, but these days, it’s a tasty one in the troubled House of Mouse.

“If your division contributes $50 (million) to $90 million (annually), you can’t move the needle,” laments Disney animation prexy Thomas Schumacher. “When I started here (in 1988), if I made a hit movie, it would move the stock.”

Today, Schumacher’s theatrical division has three hit tuners that generated $260 million domestically and $190 million internationally last year. While those numbers may not send the Disney share price spinning, they sure do drive the road.

While last season’s Broadway B.O. took a dip for the first time in a decade, down 3.4% to $642.5 million, the road made something of a recovery, up 2.36% for the 2001-02 session. Last season, road grosses totaled just over $630 million, with about 40% of those dollars coming from Disney’s “Aida,” “Beauty and the Beast” and three companies of “The Lion King.” During some weeks in July and August, Disney’s share jumped to 44%, with another abnormally big slice of 22% from three companies of “Mamma Mia!”

Unfortunately, overall B.O. this summer hasn’t kept pace with last year’s first quarter, when total receipts came in at $134,683,869, down $2.25 million from 2001.

In their peak year of 1993, the Cameron Mackintosh shows (“Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon” and “Five Guys Named Moe”) accounted for 40% of the road and 35% of Broadway’s gross receipts in any given week. (Mackintosh essentially licensed “Cats” to the Shuberts.) In Gotham, Disney’s current cut is about 20%.

The road and Broadway presented a radically different equation back in 1993: It was nearly two to one, the road’s $687.7 million to Broadway’s $356 million. Road presenters thought the Big Mack juggernaut would go on forever.

Until it didn’t.

The road stalled. Biz has begun to pick up with the Mouse shows and “Mamma Mia!” now generating around two-thirds of gross receipts.

If Disney’s percentages in the road and Broadway categories aren’t quite up to the heyday of Cameron Mackintosh, there is the very real promise that “Hoopz,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Pinocchio,” “Tarzan” and “When You Wish” will not only get them there but take the numbers into the record books.

To date, Disney has parceled out one show every three years.

“We certainly don’t have a rule about timing, it has just sort of worked out that way,” says Schumacher. “‘Mermaid’ is certainly the most advanced, and is expected as a Broadway property.”

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which recently closed in Germany, has been mentioned as a possible touring show for the States. Schumacher says it is on hold. There’s an ABC movie based on the Hugo classic, and Disney is waiting to put enough distance between it and the stage production. “It could certainly tour, as would our music of Disney project (aka ‘When You Wish’). ‘Tarzan’ would be a unique property all unto itself.”

Schumacher speaks of the apeman tuner as an “environmental piece” that could possibly go into “a converted space.” He’s just not sure what that space is, but adds, “I know how to convert soundstages. We’re focusing on the original production and then figuring out how to tour it.”

Despite the Disney-family imprimatur, Schumacher doesn’t rule out a sit-down production for Las Vegas..

“We’ve had lots of conversations with Las Vegas,” he says. “I find it interesting. It needs to be the right opportunity for a show.” He will be watching with great interest the “Mamma Mia!” entry there in 2003.

“There has not yet been a hit with a book musical with two acts,” he points out. “They’re not rewriting the show. I’m very intrigued how it will go.”

As for his present slate, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” perform with little variance from city to city. “But let’s talk in two years with Fort Worth and Dallas,” he cautions.

The prexy admits, ” ‘Aida’ fluctuates. In Washington, it has been astounding,” with biz in the South much softer. The bigger the city, the bigger the box office, with slower biz in smaller markets.

“It’s not an old-fashioned set,” he says of Bob Crowley’s spare, sophisticated design. “Certain audiences wonder, ‘What is that swimming pool all about?’ ” Also, most people don’t know how to pronounce “Aida,” and those who do don’t usually like Verdi.

Overall, Schumacher gets philosophical with any comparisons to Mackintosh: “Nothing lasts forever. He developed a bunch of stuff, but I think we still think of the major (productions) and not the various things like ‘Martin Guerre’ or ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ that just didn’t work or his revivals that are lovely but don’t change the landscape. Then again, perhaps a Big Mack/Disney combo juggernaut is what’s coming next.”

Wouldn’t that just be supercalifragilistic for Broadway and the road?

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