“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance….When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life” — Mufasa, The Lion King
Whether you grew up enchanted by a tale as old as time, or if, today, you incessantly inquire “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” it’s a sure bet that, in one way or another, you’ve been impacted by the mysticism of the Disney on Broadway canon.
Be it through glancing at the rising sun against the Serengeti or hearing the mysteriously haunting chords that first invite us into the serene world of the London chimney sweeps, the magnetizing magic of this theatrical institution is enough to evoke nostalgia, joy and tears in both critics and audiences alike.
Established in 1993 in response to then-company President Michael Eisner’s desire to create a live musical out of the animated Beauty and the Beast, Disney Theatrical Productions officially launched in 1994 with that very title, and Broadway has never been the same.
A quarter-century later and they’re still going strong, with ten full-scale productions on the boards over the years, 21 professional productions currently playing throughout nine countries, and a host of even more adaptations playing in high schools, community theaters, and regional venues worldwide. (In fact, with over 10,000 entertainment professionals employed by the company since its inception, Disney is the largest employer of Equity cast members in the English-speaking world).
The year-long celebration of this monumental anniversary milestone is set to culminate with a star-studded bash, benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In honor of the festive occasion — held November 4th at the New Amsterdam Theatre — we’ve, appropriately, compiled a list of 25 “shining, shimmering, splendid” facts, figures, and anecdotes that dive deep into the Disney archives and reveal secrets and surprises from across the entire Disney on Broadway catalogue and, where applicable, their original animated counterparts.
Longing to be a larger “part of the Disney on Broadway world”? Read on, and let us share this whole new list with you!
1. The first Beauty and the Beast preview was over four hours long.
“It took three 12-hour days to get through ‘Be Our Guest’ one time,” details original Belle Susan Egan, of the weeks spent in tech rehearsal leading up to the big debut. “Disney was doing what they always do so well, which was finding new and innovative ways of [presenting] things. But it was all-new technology at the time… and they [needed time] to figure it out. But the Houston [TX preview] audiences were so kind, and it obviously all worked out in the end.”
2. Disney Theatrical Productions operates on hallowed ground.
Following their pivotal, transformative purchase and restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1995, Disney decides to convert the upper floors into their offices. Formerly the site of the Rooftop Theatre, where Ziegfeld would present his Midnight Frolics, a late-night cabaret which followed his famed Follies act, the space was also used to rehearse My Fair Lady with Julie Andrews, Nine with Tommy Tune, and Gypsy with Ethel Merman after the impresario eventually moved out.
3. ABBA was originally attached to score The Lion King.
With Alan Menken unavailable, lyricist Tim Rice sought out Elton John, after a deal with the Swedish pop group fell through due to singer Benny Anderson’s commitment to the musical Kristina från Duvemåla. And to think, the film, now revered for introducing that iconic John-penned anthem, was never intended to be a movie musical in the first place!
4. Elton John walked out of an Aida preview.
Infuriated with a decision to use canned music for Amneris’ high-octane number, “My Strongest Suit,” the show’s composer abruptly left the theatre after only fifteen minutes. “It was pre-recorded and at that particular moment in the show when the song was to play, someone would just hit PLAY,” relays original cast member Adam Pascal. “It was the only number in the show that was like that, but Elton hated it, and was very vocal about how he felt, telling the director and the producers and several people involved that he wanted it played live by the live orchestra.”
For reasons unknown to Pascal (or anyone else), John’s requests were ignored. “So, he comes to our second preview on Broadway, and we get to that number… he hears this canned music and he gets up and storms out,” 20+-person entourage in tow. “And of course, everyone in the house is watching him — as if they weren’t already watching him to begin with. The next day, it’s a headline in the Post, and it becomes this whole, big to-do. It was wild.” Fortunately, all turned out right in the end; producers let up on the techno-pop orchestration, and John offered a personal apology to leads Pascal, Heather Headley and Amneris portrayer Sherie Rene Scott for his “egregiously boorish behavior.” Forgiveness has always been his strongest suit.
5. Jenn Gambatese encountered a surprise guest at her initial Tarzan audition.
“I can’t even believe I booked that show,” Gambatese admits, of her tryout for the singular Disney botanist. Detailing how her song, “Waiting for this Moment,” contained “all that Latin [set to] those funky Phil Collins rhythms,” she learned the number in a matter of days and entered the room “never expecting for Phil Collins to be present for that first audition.” But, as these stories often go, he was. “I sang the song, and it was mediocre at best,” she continues, with a laugh. “And so I laughed and nervously blurted out, ‘I can’t believe I just bit it in front of Phil Collins!’” Later in the rehearsal process, Collins approached the actress and revealed it was with that off-kilter remark that he knew he had found his Jane. Like no (wo)man he’d ever seen!
6. Mary Poppins nearly lost her lunch mid-flight.
Seems like she needed a bit more than a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine stay down at this particular performance. “It was really early in the run,” says the inaugural magical nanny Ashley Brown. “I woke up one morning and was like, ‘Oh, no. Something’s wrong.’” A pre-show visit to the doctor confirmed she had a virus — but again, with only three previews under their belt, the company hadn’t yet prepared understudies to go on. Brown had no choice. “Mary Poppins was breaking down that night,” she laughs, describing herself as “sweaty, peaked, and green” when she looked in the mirror. Though she, luckily, got through her first number one word at a time — thinking all the while “this isn’t going to end well” — things took a turn at the end of Act I, when she was hoisted up for her first onstage flight. “I could feel it coming up,” she says, regrettably. “I remember looking down from above, thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? Where’s this going to go?” She narrowly avoided upchucking on the set — and steered clear of her can of Mary umbrellas — but successfully made it to a trash can just in time. What’s more? True to form, “I hurled completely in character; full beat, in first position, my hat never even moved.” Welp… no wonder that it’s Mary that we love!
7. The Little Mermaid’s Sebastian was originally conceived as a stuffy, stuck-up English crab.
Originally named Clarence, the decision to go the Caribbean route — and brand the crustacean with his now-famous name — was fueled by Howard Ashman’s desire to write “Under the Sea.”
8. Jeremy Jordan sings “Santa Fe” at every concert.
“I started realizing that with singing it at every show, it brought me back to that place where I was just on the brink of achieving something great,” the Newsies Tony nominee says, of his decision. “[When I sing it now], I see it as a reminder to be grateful and to remember how far I’ve come, but also to keep in mind all the places that I still dream of going.” He’s nothing if he ain’t got… well, you know.
9. Aladdin’s iconic songs were written in the middle of the night.
Amid a bout of insomnia, spurred on by his impending meeting with Tim Rice to begin work on the picture, Alan Menken composed drafts of “One Jump Ahead,” “Why Me?” (a scrapped song originally intended for Jafar) and the eventual Oscar-winning “A Whole New World” all in one sitting…. at 3:00 in the morning. An unbelievable, indescribable feat indeed!
10. Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez “Let it Go” in a Meeting with the Mouse
Right before a meeting with Disney bigwigs to discuss development of the 2014 film, Anderson-Lopez approached her husband with the potential hook for their snowy new spectacle. Lopez agreed to sleep on it, but when the topic arose during the meeting, Anderson-Lopez swiftly took charge. “It’s called ‘let it go,’” she explained, of the doubly powerful message. “She’s having to let go of everything she’s known, but she’s also, finally, after all this time, able to let her powers go, and that’s liberating.”
Needless to say, the execs were immediately on board. Lopez had no choice but to concede. But considering the motif ultimately not only earned him an Oscar, but landed him a place in the feted EGOT club — and the youngest member of the club at that — regarding any grudges he may have held, he’s been forced to... you know... let it go.
11. Watch Your Weight
The hoop skirt Jane Porter wore in Tarzan weighed 26 pounds, while Belle’s iconic yellow dress topped the 40-pound mark.
12. James Monroe Iglehart uses “Me” in his auditions…
“To. This. Day,” the OG Genie proudly admits, of Gaston’s ROFL musical plea. “I’ll sing it everywhere. I love that tune. That’s my jam.”
13. …while Christian Borle performed “If I Can’t Love Her” at a college cabaret.
“It was senior year, and we were all finally feeling good about ourselves, after having been broken down for four years,” the Peter and the Starcatcher Tony winner explains. “We could pick whatever song we wanted to sing, and I chose ‘If I Can’t Love Her.’” Justifying his choice, the actor unashamedly admits to being a lifetime Beauty fan. “My buddies and I used to skip college classes to watch it on VHS. No joke. For me, it’s one of the top three movies of all time. And all I wanted to do was to play the Beast, and I still do.”
14. At one point, Disney Theatricals had a Muppet musical in the works.
“It was a test of concept,” says company President Thomas Schumacher, of the bare-bones developmental presentation held in May 2013. Helmed by Beetlejuice visionary Alex Timbers (natch), the showcase featured over 85 Muppet characters against a handful of colorful sets, singing a host of pre-existing musical material. Extensive and somewhat far-fetched technical requirements put the concept on an indefinite hold, but you never know when it could be time to play the music and light the lights in the future.
15. Aladdin’s Jonathan Freeman auditioned for each preceding Disney on Broadway production... and didn’t make the cut.
In response, the original Broadway Jafar, who also voiced the vizier in the 1992 animated film, kept, understandably, asking, “When are they going to do Aladdin?” It’s no secret that Disney held off for quite a while, but over 20 years later, when it finally came time to mount the shining, shimmering production for the stage — and specifically, to cast their villain — they knew there was only one man for the job.
“To me, it’s the only way you can do a show,” says Schumacher, on the subject of non-traditional casting. “You need to reflect who the audience is. Whether you look at how Aladdin was cast, or even, frankly, how Mary Poppins was cast... this is how we’ve always done it.” Speaking specifically to the backlash that surrounded the Frozen casting announcement, he says, “We were, and are, telling a specific Nordic story and perhaps there was a traditional expectation of what this company might look like.” But he, rightfully, pays it no mind, stating, “We want the composition of this cast to represent who’s in the theatre, who’s in the audience, and who we are today. There’s value in that, and I’m proud to be part of a company who embraces it.”
17. Howard Ashman was skeptical about “Belle”….
“He didn’t want to send it out,” writing partner Menken recalls, stating the famed lyricist would constantly complain, “‘Who asked for a six-and-a-half-minute opening number? It’s terrible! They’re going to laugh at us!’”
18. …and Thomas Schumacher didn’t think The Lion King had a chance at the Tonys.
“People today act like it was somehow manifest destiny,” the DTP President shares. “But in reality, none of the predictions were [leaning in] that direction.”
Obviously, pundits were proven wrong, as the show walked away with six awards, including the coveted Best Musical prize, and continues to defy the odds even still… 22 years after its debut. In fact, in 2013, The Lion King became the first show in the history of Broadway to ever gross $1 billion.
“It does what Broadway does best,” explains theatre critic Michael Reidel, who famously prepared to pan the show in previews. “It is as a commercial a show as you can find, but it also an incredible artistic triumph, and it completely changed the perception of what Disney on Broadway was or could be. They were now showing us, ‘We’re not doing theme park shows. We’re going to hire the best theatre artists, and we’re going to [mount] thrilling and exciting new stuff.’”
19. Frozen’s Anna pads up before a performance.
“To start the show, I have on three costumes and two wigs. I have ten wigs in total and I have multiple wigs at a time,” says Patti Murin, original portrayer of the eventual Princess of Arendelle. “During ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ — you can’t really tell from the house — I look like a high school linebacker... very muscly and super flat. It’s really something.”
20. Sebastian took a leap from sea to the shore.
It wasn’t just Ariel who made the sea-to-land transformation. Samuel E. Wright, who voiced the crabby crab in the film version of The Little Mermaid, was cast as the original Mufasa when The Lion King first opened on Broadway in 1997.
21. Susan Egan hadn’t seen Beauty and the Beast at the time of her audition.
Having been through several callbacks steering clear of the musical’s source material, the original bookish heroine finally watched the animated film in celebration of her winning the premier princess role. “I went down the street to Blockbuster, picked up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, and popped [the film] into my VCR,” Egan recalls. “And then, as I was watching, I went, ‘Holy crap! Oh my God! That’s a huge role!’” Guess she saw something there she didn’t see before.
22. The inspiration for Genie’s iconic song came from an unlikely source.
According to the original Aladdin legend, which the creators consulted in development, there existed two Genies who palled around with the titular prince: the Genie of the Lamp and the Genie of the Ring. The latter, originally conceived for the film but nixed in favor of expanding the anthropomorphic magic carpet, was described – at least by today’s standards – as “hipster-esque”: big-boned, large-and-in-charge, with an earring in his ear. That detail, paired with Menken’s affinity for Fats Waller and Harlem Renaissance Jazz, instilled in him at a young age by his father, who played the music around the house, ultimately served as the inspiration for “Friend Like Me.” Bona fide and certified if ever we’ve heard it before!
23. Disney left their name off of their tenth Broadway property, Peter and the Starcatcher.
As a result, “Ben Brantley actually thought someone else produced it,” Schumacher says, with a laugh. The decision subsequently — and, perhaps, unsurprisingly — yielded “the most glowing reviews we ever got.”
24. Wiggin’ Out!
There are 66 wigs worn in Frozen nightly, and 80 of Aladdin’s turbans appear in the “Prince Ali” number alone.
25. Going the Distance… and Beyond
“The wonderful thing when a show clicks like [ours] have, is that you can’t sit back on your laurels,” Schumacher explains. “You have to create more of them. You have to chase the next thing.”
With their Herculean accomplishment in Central Park this past summer, and planned revivals of both the inaugural Beauty and the Beast and Aida on the way, it’s clear it’s not just talk — the company undoubtedly has its wheels in motion.
“We have more coming, absolutely,” Menken teases. “Mostly things I can’t talk about just yet. But yes… we’re working on lots of different things together.” When asked what it is that compels him to come back to Disney, project after project, year after year, Menken replies, “It’s just a vibrant, very exciting place to be… and it’s unimaginable what they’ve become. I’m very, very proud to be part of it all.”
That obviously includes being part of the Disney on Broadway branch, whose strong presence has done wonders for the industry on the whole. “Disney, because it’s such a family-orientated company as it is, has definitely brought thousands and thousands of more families to Broadway,” says original Mary Poppins player Gavin Lee. “Perhaps first, [they come] to see Disney shows, but then maybe to see other shows after that.” In fact, Broadway attendance has increased overall by 65% from the 1994-95 season in which the inaugural Beauty and the Beast first opened.
As for the key to the legacy’s lasting endurance as a whole — not to mention its continually meteoric worldwide appeal? The answer is similarly simple.
“The Disney canon is such a commonality among so many different people,” explains Josh Strickland, Broadway’s original Tarzan. “So many people grew up with these genius works… it’s so cool to be a part of that [legacy]. And then, with Disney on Broadway specifically, you’ve got the aspect of live theatre, which is so awe-inspiring (and [can] potentially [be] life-changing) for so many people. To be able to reach over 160 million people collectively throughout the last 25 years — on a scale of that magnitude and on such a deeply personal level — there’s just nothing like it.”
Sources consulted for this piece include the “Disney Theatricals at 25: The Stars Align” panel from BroadwayCon 2019 and Onstage on NY1’s Disney on Broadway coverage, among others. The star-studded 25th anniversary concert, Celebrating 25 Magical Years of Disney on Broadway, will kick off at the New Amsterdam Theatre (214 W. 42nd Street) on Monday, November 4th at 8PM. For tickets and/or more information, please visit www.broadwaycares.org or www.disneyonbroadway.com.