I Really Really Don’t Like The Disneyfication Of Broadway

Ken AshfordTheatre8 Comments

Transferring a popular family-friendly Disney film into a stage musical is usually a box-office guarantee (Tarzan being an exception), but the result is usually quite crappy (The Lion King being an exception). 

But what are theatregoers actually paying $200-plus bucks to see?

Special effects.  I mean, let’s be honest: that’s what it’s all about.  Lights, huge moving sets, etc.  What is often missing (or relegated to second/third tier status)?  Great performances.  Interesting writing.

In short, the Broadway stages are going from razzle-dazzle with substance to razzle-dazzle without it.

Honestly — it’s like the trend of taking a popular movie and turning it into an amusement park ride.  And most of these shows coast on the success of the movie — not on their internal merits.  For example, would anyone go see The Little Mermaid if the movie hadn’t been made?  I suspect not.

Now, it’s true that most musicals — even the non-Disney ones — are based on something else: a book, a movie, etc..  But in most of those cases, the original material lent itself to the musical format.  So, Hairspray, yes.  Mermaid, no.

It’s also true that mounting an original Broadway musical is a risky proposition, and it helps to have the show "pre-sold" by it popularity in the film world.  And I wouldn’t have a problem with many of these shows being stage at Disneyworld or Disneyland, or even on a Disney cruise.  They just don’t belong in the center of the theatrical world.  Not so many of them, anyway.  The net effect is to squeeze out innovative "new" material.  Or even good material.  We shouldn’t have to wait fourteen years for a Rent or a Spring Awakening to come along.

The counterargument is that Disney theatrical shows bring new audiences (particularly young people) to the musical theatre.  But I don’t believe that.  I don’t think it creates any more theatrelovers than Weird Al Yankocvich’s "Another One Rides The Bus" creates Queen fans. 

What happens instead is this:  Joe and Jane Sixpack of Bumbleville, Kansas take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New York City.  They feel that, while there, they must see a Broadway show.  But what show?  They peruse the listings.  Grey Gardens?  What’s that?  Well , if they’re going to plop down $400 for a night at theatre, they’re not going to risk it on something which they might not like.  "Hey!  It’s The Little Mermaid.  I liked that movie!"  And they go and are wowed by all the color and lights (what the New York Times calls "more parade than narrative", which encapsulates my chief complaint with most of these Disney shows).  "It’s just like the entertainment on Carnival Cruise lines, only with more production values!".  Do they enjoy the show?  Let’s say they do.  But have they become theatrelovers?  No!  They’ve just become bigger fans of the movie (and the songs) that they enjoyed before they entered the theater.  It’s not like they’re more like to see Grey Gardens (or something unfamiliar to them) after having seen The Little Mermaid.

Anyway …what got me on this soapbox?  This:


Coming to Broadway in the fall of 2008.

And yes, I know Shrek isn’t a "Disney" movie.  But it runs with the same crowd.  Here’s my nightmare vision of the top-grossing bland touristy Broadway musicals of the 2010-2011 season: 

  • Mary Poppins
  • Shrek: The Musical
  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Lion King
  • Toy Story: The Musical
  • Cars: The Musical
  • Aladdin: The Musical
  • Pochahantas
  • Finding Nemo: The Musical
  • Beauty and the Beast (Revival)
  • A Bug’s Life
  • Ratatouille: The Musical
  • Lady and the Tramp

with Toy Story 2: The Musical in out-of-town headed-for-Broadway runs.

Half of these musicals will require actors to use rollerskates.

And people will flock to them.  And noone will mourn the Wickeds.