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Disney Theatrical mixes it up

Not all roads lead to Broadway

NEW YORK — Neither of the two shows from Disney Theatrical Prods. hitting Broadway this season — “Peter and the Starcatcher,” beginning previews March 28, nor “Newsies,” opening a day later — was initially intended for the Main Stem.

That’s also true of “Aladdin,” the two-act stage version of the 1992 animated pic produced by Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater earlier this season. And “The Jungle Book,” helmer Mary Zimmerman’s brewing legit incarnation, is slated for June 2013 at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, not the Rialto.

Add all that together, and it starts to look like a new, more risk-averse strategy for Disney Theatrical, which most auds associate with break-the-bank Broadway spectacles like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as more recent, less successful outings “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid.”

But don’t call it a retrenchment. When viewed alongside the company’s roster of developing projects aimed at different markets, the confluence of “Newsies” and “Peter” underscores the unusual fluidity with which Disney — as a corporate stage division with access to a deep catalog of well-known titles — can custom-tailor a project’s legit path based on each individual title and its evolving needs.

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Disney’s still at work on large-scale Rialto-bound musicals, including a Stephen Daldry-led version of “Dumbo” and an “Alice in Wonderland” musical based on the 2010 Tim Burton pic. It has also partnered on a big-budget play version of “Shakespeare in Love,” initially targeted for the West End.

But then there are the shows being created solely to be licensed out: There’s a musical version of “Freaky Friday,” for instance, developing under the helm of Christopher Ashley and not yet set for a particular destination (although a developmental staging at La Jolla Playhouse, the Ashley-led regional where “Peter” had its first production, seems a strong possibility). A retooled stage version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” also is in the works.

To hear Disney execs tell it, a lot of projects find their way via a process of cultural Darwinism. “We can decide as we watch a project evolve what path it will take,” says Disney Theatrical producer Thomas Schumacher. “And we can move fluidly between those potential paths.”

Or, as Ashley says: “Disney will serve no wine before its time.”

Of course, the company benefits from the kind of resources and flexibility few on the Rialto share. Most solo producers, after all, can’t consistently raise money to fund multiple creative “explorations” of a project and its artistic potential. To get investors onboard, there needs to be a revenue-earning endgame that usually involves Broadway.

Besides, significant coin comes from Disney’s booming licensing business, making it feasible to generate solid returns on titles developed solely to be licensed out. Among such successes was the Disney-developed stage version of “High School Musical,” an uber-popular title among school theater groups that also generated cash via a professional U.S. tour and an arena tour that played internationally.

It’s a big help, too, that Disney owns most of the underlying rights to the properties it develops. “Since so often the ownership of the IP is with us, there aren’t option windows we have to stick to,” says David Schrader, Disney Theatrical’s exec VP and managing director. “The development process doesn’t have to be linear, and it can take its time.”

Projects don’t all originate from a single source or impulse.

The stage version of “Newsies,” for instance, was initiated by Disney because the multiple requests received from regional, stock and amateur groups indicated there was a marketplace demand for it. The show — with an augmented score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and a book by Harvey Fierstein — was created specifically, and solely, to licensed, the same was true of “Aladdin.”

Disney partnered with New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse for an initial production of “Newsies” that could serve as a template for subsequent producers of the title, and spied an additional opportunity for coin in creating a set that was built to be modular and movable, so that it too could be rented by companies licensing the tuner.

The critical and commercial success of the show at Paper Mill suggested “Newsies” might have some Broadway legs after all, and Disney Theatrical became the lead producer of the Rialto incarnation. Still, they’re not banking on a Main Stem bonanza: Despite strong advance sales that hit $7 million by the first preview, the musical is penciled in for a brand-enhancing limited run, with further dates to be added if demand keeps up.

Meanwhile, “Peter” — based on a book for which Disney holds the rights — was initially suggested for adaptation by an exec at Disney-owned publisher Hyperion, and then developed further in a conversation between Schumacher and co-director Roger Rees, imagining the play as low-tech “story theater” along the lines of the Rees topliner “Nicholas Nickleby.” “Peter” was first developed in work sessions at the Williamstown Theater Festival (where Rees was a.d.) and later in the staging at La Jolla.

That 2009 developmental run prompted further creative tinkering and shaping, after which “Peter” found a place in Gotham at Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop, which produced the show as part of its 2010-11 season.

The strong reviews earned there convinced another team of commercial producers, Nancy Nagel Gibbs and Greg Schaffert, that “Peter” deserved a Rialto life. The two serve as lead producers on the commercial Rialto run.

“Disney is onboard as producer, and we also have them as advocates,” Gibbs says. “I think they were helpful, for instance, in getting us a theater.” (“Peter” will play the Brooks Atkinson, owned by the Nederlander Org, with which Disney has a longstanding relationship.)

Although “Newsies” and “Peter” both made their way to Gotham, none of the Disney Theatrical execs expect the same from every project the org develops. Take “Jungle Book”: “Clearly it has certain overlaps with ‘Lion King,’?” Schumacher acknowledges. “There’s not a big hole in our Broadway catalog for a talking-animal show.”

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