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Theater: Disney musicals make money

Gotham Edition 10th Anniversary

Whatever your opinion about the artistic achievements of Disney Theatrical Prods. — and legiters have a wide array of them — it’s undeniable that over the last decade the org has cemented its status as a major force on Broadway.

For the first months of 2008, three of the five top-grossing shows on the Rialto were the current trio of Disney offerings: “The Lion King,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Little Mermaid.” Over the last 10 years, the company has grown to a staff of about 120, encompassing Broadway fare, a robust road biz, an expanding global reach and an active licensing trade.

“We’re more like an institutional theater than a producing office,” says Thomas Schumacher, producer and prexy of Disney’s legit arm. “We run our own merchandising, we run our own international and domestic booking, and we maintain all of our own lawyers.”

Ten years ago, Disney Theatrical came the closest it ever has to dispelling its rep among many traditionally minded legiters as a purveyor of theme-park tuners.

The org’s initial outing culled from the company’s library of animated pics, the 1994 incarnation of “Beauty and the Beast,” proved popular, especially with families, but didn’t win over any skeptics.

But then helmer Julie Taymor’s unexpectedly artsy staging of “The Lion King” went on to nab six Tonys in 1998, proving Disney’s stage output could impress even the toughest industry denizens.

Since then, not every show has grown into a B.O. powerhouse along the lines of “Beauty,” which ended a 13-year run in 2007, and “Lion King.”

The 2000 Elton John reimagining of “Aida” took four years to turn a profit, and the 2006 staging of “Tarzan” failed to recoup. Press for the 2006 Gotham incarnation of “Mary Poppins” was mixed, while the company’s latest offering, this season’s “The Little Mermaid,” took serious hits from the New York papers (although critics for pubs outside the city proved more welcoming).

Still, it’s hard to argue with the receipts of the three Disney musicals currently on the boards.

“Lion King” is a perennial top performer. “Poppins” has occasionally wavered but remains strong overall, and “Mermaid,” which opened in January, quickly rose through the top 10 to catch up with the weekly sales of its sister shows.

On the road, “Lion King” is still raking in coin, and a national tour of “Poppins” — an in-demand property in regional markets — will kick off in Chicago in 2009. Also in the Disney Theatrical portfolio is the successful touring adaptation of “High School Musical” plus the ice shows and Disney Live fare co-produced with Feld Entertainment.

The org’s overall success can be credited with encouraging other Hollywood studios (Universal with “Wicked” and DreamWorks with the upcoming “Shrek”) to get into legit production.

Disney execs also tout the org’s expansion of the Broadway audience in general, citing inhouse studies that indicate at least 25% of Disney Theatrical auds are seeing a Rialto show for the first time.

Meanwhile, development of new tuners continues. Properties being explored or developed for legit treatment include Jules Pfeiffer’s’ book “The Man in the Ceiling,” Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s “Peter Pan” prequel “Peter and the Starcatchers” and the 1992 tuner pic “Newsies.”

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