It was a feel-good evening full of smiles, hugs, and Disney songs. But this wasn’t a child’s sleepover, this was the New Victory Theater in Times Square, a space devoted to educating school children as young as four months in the ways of live performance and music. The party, hosted by The New 42nd Street and Thomson Reuters at the New Victory and New Amsterdam Theaters, honored former Disney CEO Michael Eisner for his work both in helping restore 42nd street from the crime ridden avenue it was in the early 90s to the theater mecca it is today, and in subsequently bringing two major Disney productions — “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” — to Broadway stages.
Prior to a dinner held on the stage of the New Amsterdam theater where “The Lion King” ran until 2006 before moving to the Minskoff, the audience was treated to a musical revue of the songs Disney has brought to Broadway. In between musical performances of excerpts from “Aida,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and of course, “The Lion King,” performed by current and former Disney Broadway stars, friends and colleagues of Eisner spoke with warmth and gusto about Eisner’s devotion to theater, his creativity, and occasionally his questionable sanity.
“Michael’s a mad man,” said Disney Theatrical Group prexy Thomas Schumacher with great affection. As the emcee for the evening, he recounted when Eisner first approached him about putting “Lion King” on the stage. “‘Michael,’ I said, ‘that’s the worst idea in the world!'” Schumacher remembered. “It took me a few months to realize he wasn’t asking my opinion.”
Julie Taymor, the director of “The Lion King” stage show, credited Eisner with her break into the big-time. She recounted Eisner encouraging her to go with her original costume designs, featuring the actors in large masks, instead of smaller masks or just makeup. “There was this support to do a real experiment,” Taymor recalled. “He said, ‘I know it’s a bigger risk, but it’ll be a bigger reward.’ That’s something that has stuck with me in my years in this industry.”
Eisner remembered the beginning of “The Lion King” slightly differently than Schumacher did: Schumacher, he said, had been the only one in the room to not poo-poo the idea right off the bat. In his acceptance speech for the award, Eisner recalled the phenomenal efforts to get the abandoned New Amsterdam Theater, which apparently had dead bodies in it, and the New Victory Theater, which was a porn theater, back up on their feet. “New York is in me,” said Eisner, a native New Yorker. “I remember 42nd street was just this road from the Lincoln Tunnel to the rest of Manhattan. It was always an appealing complex mix of light and dark, good and bad.”
Other attendees at the party included Michael’s son Eric Eisner and designer wife Stacey Bendet; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, of whom Eisner spoke with admiration for his role in helping clear 42nd street of its former unsavory denizens; composer Alan Menken, who both spoke and sang a medley of his own “Beauty and the Beast” songs; former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel; and Broadway performers Ashley Brown, who starred as Mary Poppins on Broadway, Alton Fitzgerald White, “The Lion King’s” current Mufasa, Heather Headley, who originated the role of Aida in Elton John’s production, and Josh Strickland, who played Tarzan.