'Beauty' makes way for 'Mermaid'

NEW YORK — Ending weeks of speculation about how many shows Disney could simultaneously maintain on Broadway, the Mouse House last week announced it would shutter “Beauty and the Beast” in July after a record-breaking 13-year run, making way for another animated feature hit-turned-tuner, “The Little Mermaid.”

The reshuffle provides tidy symmetry with the exchange of one musical with songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman for another, both of them developed from features — respectively from 1989 and 1991 — that returned Disney’s animation division to powerhouse status.

The Broadway switch will add to a frenetic spring for Disney Theatrical Prods. chief Thomas Schumacher. While he launches a closing campaign to milk maximum business out of “Beauty” before it closes at the Lunt-Fontanne July 29, the producer will be closely overseeing preparations for the world-premiere tryout of “Mermaid” at Denver Center Attractions’ Ellie Caulkins Opera House, starting previews July 27. (Broadway bow is Dec. 6, following previews from Nov. 3.)

Schumacher starts his mornings these days watching rehearsals via Web cam from the Netherlands for the first international production of “Tarzan,” which will open in Amsterdam in April. A third production is planned for next year in Germany.

“Everybody thinks of our business as happening in an 8-block radius,” says Schumacher. “That’s the Broadway mentality. But it’s a huge international enterprise of which ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has been a big part.”

In addition to the Gotham production — the longest running show in the history of both the Palace Theater, where it opened in 1994, and the Lunt-Fontanne, where it transferred five years later — “Beauty” has been seen in two North American national tours, countless licensed productions across the country and 13 international productions in 115 cities. Global grosses are in excess of $1.4 billion. The New York total will be close to $450 million when the show closes after 5,464 perfs, the sixth-longest running show in Broadway history.

“That’s an important legacy,” Schumacher says.

Regional and high school productions of the show will be ongoing through Disney’s relationship with licensing org Music Theater Intl.

The diversified scale of Disney Theatrical’s business is evident in the development of its newest franchise property, “High School Musical.” The tuner adaptation of the phenomenally popular telepic and CD will be staged by six professional theater companies this year, starting with Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis and Theater of the Stars in Atlanta. But those productions will serve primarily to whet appetites for licensed school and community theater stagings to follow.

“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,” says Schumacher. “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.”

Directed by international opera helmer Francesca Zambello in her Broadway debut, “The Little Mermaid” will join “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins” and “Tarzan” in Disney’s Broadway ranks, keeping the status quo at four.

Adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a magical underwater kingdom as told in Disney’s 1989 animated film, “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 explains. “There’ll be a lot of choreography and a lot of music, but they won’t be swimming through the air on this one.”

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