The Disney brand is known worldwide for its family-friendly entertainment with a flair for magic, music and spectacle, but when its adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” hit Broadway in 1994, success wasn’t guaranteed. Variety’s positive review by Jeremy Gerard noted, “It will almost certainly be met with varying levels of derision by Broadway traditionalists.”
A quarter-century later, however, Disney has become a Broadway institution with an ever-expanding roster of critical and box office hits adapted from beloved films, including “The Lion King,” “Newsies,” “Mary Poppins,” “Aladdin” and “Frozen.”
Each production, be it Broadway, national or international tours, also adds to Disney’s growing family of theater artists.
“That’s exactly what it is, it’s a family,” says Adam Jacobs, who has played both Simba on Broadway and in the national tour of “The Lion King” and originated the title role in “Aladdin” on Broadway. “The whole Disney Theatrical company has always been making sure we’re taken care of, always in a position to be able to do our best because of their strong support and care.”
While most audience members are adults, many of Disney’s classic films throughout its history are aimed at young minds, so the studio has influenced a number of artists, some of whom now collaborate with the company.
As a youngster less than five years old, “I was obsessed with Mary Poppins,” says six-time Tony nominee Chad Beguelin, who wrote the book and additional lyrics for “Aladdin” on Broadway and is Tony-nominated this year for book and original score of “The Prom.”
“It sort of formed my mind to think about telling stories through songs,” Beguelin adds. “I think it’s a big part of what led me to want to go into musical theater.”
Beguelin isn’t alone in crediting Disney as a formative influence that led to a career in musical theater. Long before landing the role of Anna in the stage version of “Frozen,” Patti Murin had a solid background in everything Disney.
“My parents, they love Disney, I grew up with it in my life, the entire time,” Murin says. “They also raised us going to see Broadway shows, so this is essentially the culmination of everything that they raised me to appreciate and to love.”
Disney followed up the success of the traditionally staged “Beauty and the Beast” with 1997’s “The Lion King,” featuring intricate puppetry and actors in animal costumes.
With a worldwide gross bigger than that of any Broadway show or film, the Tony for musical and the first one ever awarded to a female director of a musical (Julie Taymor), “The Lion King” was and continues to be a success, having run for more than 20 years.
When a show has a run as long as “The Lion King,” there’s naturally going to be quite a bit of turnover with the performers, but Lindiwe Dlamini has been with the cast since its tryout run in Minneapolis in 1997, playing a menagerie of birds and beasts as well as ensemble singer.
After decades with the show (approaching 9,000 performances and counting), she knows it inside and out, but initially the challenges were more about puppetry and costumes than singing.
“Just trying on the different puppets, you don’t know how it’s going to work,” she says, describing the costumes worn and puppets manipulated by the cast entering through the aisles at the top of the show. “The first time we did it for the audience, you got chills. You could feel the audience, you could feel it, so I knew then that ‘OK, this is something great.’ ”
The power of the show on audiences resonates for Dlamini at each performance.
“You’ll be walking down there, and see people in tears — grown men, children, everybody — when you’re coming down the aisles singing ‘Circle of Life.’ ”
Disney Theatrical continued expanding its footprint on Broadway and elsewhere with adaptations of “The Little Mermaid,” “Tarzan” and “Aladdin” alongside “Aida,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and more.
With a strong infrastructure for adapting and developing shows, the company is able to set a lot of development in motion, sometimes moving quicker than expected.
Beguelin remembers taking a general meeting where he was shown a list of Disney titles the company was interested in adapting. “Aladdin” was one of the titles, and he was allowed to put together a script. After a reading, he was left alone for a moment while the creative executives discussed it in the next room. When they returned, they informed him that the project was headed to Broadway.
“I was completely bowled over,” Beguelin says. “Because what went from just a very good, fun, small project turned into a Broadway project in a matter of seconds.”
The synergy and reach of Disney means there’s a deep bench of talent to draw from. As Beguelin’s life was changing in an instant, Jacobs was playing Simba in Chicago for the national tour of “The Lion King.” He got word that “Aladdin’s” producers had seen his performance and that he’d be flying to New York for a week to read for the title role.
“Because it’s Disney, they can do that,” says Jacobs. “I’m in a Disney show already, so it wouldn’t be like breaking my contract. I was thrilled, like ‘No way, Aladdin, amazing!’ ”
After an intense development process, and out of town tryouts in Seattle and Toronto, “Aladdin” made its Broadway debut in 2014.
“The amazing thing is that they have such great resources,” Beguelin says. “So when you’re faced with a problem like making a flying carpet work onstage, nobody beats Disney when it comes to doing stage magic.”
While the shows are designed to appeal to audiences of all ages, but seeing the reactions of children is always fun for actors. When meeting young fans after performances, Murin notes that there are two reactions she sees most often.
“Kids of all ages, when they come to talk to you, they kind of just sort of stare at you,” she says. “They get overwhelmed, especially for their first theater experience. So you either have that or you have the ones that come in and tell you exactly what they think about it.”
Because the shows are aimed for viewers of all ages, the actors and creative artists are keenly aware that what they do impacts the next generation of theatergoers and theatre artists.
“The thing that I appreciate so much about Disney Theatrical is that it’s so important to get young audiences in to live theater,” adds Beguelin. “I think once they see that first show, we are creating, hopefully, musical theatre fans for life.”
The camaraderie within the Disney family extends beyond individual shows, as the company encourages and coordinates opportunities for mutual support between shows and creative teams.
“One of the first things that we [the ‘Frozen’ company] got to do, when were between Denver and opening on Broadway, was the 20th anniversary of ‘The ‘Lion King,’” says Murin. “That was a very special experience for sure.”
The proverbial slipper was later on the other foot, when Disney gave tickets to “Frozen” to “The Lion King’”s cast and family.
With 25 years on Broadway, Disney Theatrical is now a veteran presence, having come a long way since bringing a beauty and a beast to the stage in 1994.