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Disney Looks Beyond the Magic Kingdom for Broadway Prospects

Legit arm ventures outside its core properties as it becomes a more substantial producer of Rialto fare

It’s easy to imagine Disney Theatrical Prods. following a pretty simple checklist: 1) Take a well-known musical title, probably an animated one, from the Disney catalog. 2) Adapt it into a splashy Broadway musical, a la “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” (now playing in Toronto ahead of a New York transfer this spring). 3) Repeat.

But as underscored by the recent movement on a couple of projects — including a developing stage version of “The Princess Bride” and a play adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” gearing up for a 2014 West End bow — the company’s legit slate is showing the kind of broad range that matches up philosophically with the increasing diversity of the larger Disney portfolio.

Reaching outside the traditional back catalog isn’t exactly new for Disney Theatrical, but that’s been easy to forget with its highest-profile hits — and even some of its less-successful Main Stem outings, “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid” —sitting so squarely in what would seem to be the company wheelhouse.

SEE ALSO: PHOTOS: A History of Disney Theatrical’s Productions

Disney Theatrical’s third Broadway offering, “Aida” (2000), was entirely new, but the company had kicked that one around as a possible animated title prior to steering it to the stage.

Not even 2012 Tony winner “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a new play music based on a children’s book published by Disney’s lit division Hyperion, seemed to be too much of a stretch, since it’s a prequel to “Peter Pan,” a tale that’s so closely associated with the studio’s animated version.

But “Princess Bride,” now on the lookout for a legit creative team, was a 20th Century Fox film. “Shakespeare in Love,” which Disney Theatrical co-produces with transatlantic stage production house Sonia Friedman Prods., originated at Miramax, and even if that independent outfit was formerly owned by Disney, the tale skews older and a bit higher-brow than the brand’s family-friendly target demographic.

Disney is also at work on a brewing musical incarnation of “Father of the Bride,” based on the novel and the 1950 MGM movie, in an adaptation that doesn’t make use of the rights elements that Disney actually owns — the contempo update from the 1991 redux from Disney-owned Buena Vista Pictures.

Past projects the legit arm has explored for development have included a musical version of Jules Feiffer’s novel “The Man in the Ceiling” and “Hoopz,” a Harlem Globetrotters tuner. It all goes to show that Disney Theatrical isn’t bound to draw properties from its most obvious well: its deep catalog of beloved, musical animated classics.

“If you don’t mix up the portfolio, it can cannibalize your ability to market and position your own shows,” says Thomas Schumacher, prexy and producer at Disney Theatrical. “I don’t think our business model should ever be: There’s just one model.”

Within the theatrical arm, the free-roaming exploration of creative properties matches up with a notable flexibility of the organization’s business strategy, with a significant presence in Broadway, regional, international and licensing markets.

The approach seems to mesh with the overall corporate strategy, with the addition of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm bringing a host of new types of characters and stories into the fold.

Still, there’s no denying that Disney Theatrical’s Broadway bread and butter is the big-name, familiar properties with wide potential appeal — like “Aladdin” or the recent, successful regional co-production of “The Jungle Book” or, hypothetically, a future project that might one day be spawned by upcoming animated film release “Frozen.” In that sense, the basic plan is the same as it is on the studio side.

As Schumacher says, “In a business like ours, you’ve got to have a tentpole.”

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