Disney is fleshing out a new musical for the road, but with a twist: It features only a floor microphone, four big booms and more than 60 songs from the Mouse House archives.
“On the Record,” which will open its national tour Nov. 8 in Cleveland at the Palace Theater, is a concept show that is set in a recording studio where inanimate objects come alive during a recording session and, without benefit of formal book or dialogue, interact in magical ways with four singers, a small session ensemble and nine studio musicians.
Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Prods., had a personal hand in this offbeat show, which was designed to showcase the Mouse House’s archival musical material in a fresh, compact format that could travel light and cover maximum ground. (The touring schedule for the first year lists one- and two-week bookings in more than 30 cities, with a single, luxurious three-week sitdown in Detroit in February.)
While acknowledging the show’s modest size compared to the “gigantic scale” of Mouse House musicals like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the company exec envisions the vest-pocket revue as “a companion piece to every other show we’ve got out there.
“I wanted to create a show that celebrated the fantastic quality of the music,” says Schumacher, who serves as producer, “something that could move very quickly and go to every market in America.”
The challenge of inventing an original way to streamline the vast amount of material in the Disney music catalog was put to director-choreographer Robert Longbottom (“Side Show,” “Flower Drum Song”), who applied Disney’s own signature animation techniques to the staging task. Instead of re-creating a movie scene to support a song from, say, “The Little Mermaid,” the helmer used the song itself as the inspiration for the singer’s microphone to emit bubbles and the mike cord to snake around her arm like some underwater sea creature.
“It’s a big show in a little package,” says Longbottom, who achieved the staging effects by enlisting the technical skills of Broadway pros Natasha Katz (lighting), Robert Brill (scenery), Gregg Barnes (costumes) and ACME Sound Partners (sound). “But Tom (Schumacher) was very clear about the agenda: The star is the music and the lyrics. This is a backstage show about cutting the definitive Disney album.”
Both producer and director report that they were overwhelmed when they first opened the vaults of Disney’s musical archives, which date back 70 years and include hundreds upon hundreds of songs.
Although he had personally supervised the development and production of more than 20 features at Disney Animation, Schumacher declares himself dazzled by fantastic stuff like “I Wanna Be Like You” (from “The Jungle Book”) and “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” (from “The Aristocats”). He also was charmed by songs like “Let’s Get Together” (from “The Parent Trap”), whose provenance had long been forgotten. “The fun of discovery was a very big thing,” he says.
Longbottom looked for songs that offered unusual staging opportunities — like “Be Our Guest” (“Beauty and the Beast”), which the singers in the show acknowledge as a global hit by dubbing it into a dozen different languages.
Because the show’s characters are supposed to react to the music on a personal level, he needed songs capable of triggering emotions powerful enough to orchestrate change and rediscovery. Although he went to the obvious sources, from “Cinderella” to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” for such material, he was surprised to find untapped veins of gold in “Dumbo.”
“We’re doing a whole section in which we tip our hats to ‘Dumbo,’ which is a wonderful movie,” he says, mentioning a special song, “Baby Mine,” sung by a mother to a child who is unhappy about being different from other children. “What amazes me is this undercurrent in so many of these movies about the outsider who feels different and just wants to fit in. We all want to be something we aren’t, and what we learn in these songs is that who we are is not so bad after all.”
Which is a pretty big theme for such a nice little show.