In the early 80s, Disney’s movies were constantly declining in viewership and to revitalize the brand in the late 1980s, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were hired to compose the music and lyrics for the new animated movie, The Little Mermaid. The pair had moderate success with their stage version of Little Shop of Horrors and Disney was hoping for a movie with a Broadway feel. The partnership between these two and Disney, ushered in what is called the Disney Renaissance, and with the music being composed by stage composers, it is no wonder that the studio also decided to venture into the Broadway arena. This article will look at three of the films from this era that also made the leap to the live action stage. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and finally the movie that started the renaissance, The Little Mermaid.
Beauty and the Beast (1994): The plot remained the same, the beautiful but odd Belle offers herself as a prisoner to the cursed Beast in order to save her father’s life. The Beast is a prince that was transformed into a hideous creature by an enchantress and the only way to break the curse is to have someone fall in love with him. After Belle and the Beast initially clash, the two find a tenderness grows between them, but just when the castle and its inhabitants believe the end to their suffering is in sight, Beast lets Belle go, to once again save her father. This triggers the towns ultra-masculine hero to set out to kill the Beast. In the end, Belle does confess her love for the cursed prince, but is it in time to save his life?
After the movie was released in 1991, critics instantly noted its Broadway potential which convinced Disney CEO Michael Eisner to greenlight the project. All eight of the original songs from the movie were included in the stage production, but additional material was needed. Menken was asked to compose new material and Tim Rice was brought in to replace Howard Ashman who had passed away in 1991. The new songs offered to expand on character development and enhance the story, since closeups and montages wouldn’t translate from film to stage. The show became the longest running production at the Palace Theatre where it opened in April of 1994 and also at the Lunt-Fontanne theatre where the initial Broadway run finally closed in July of 2007. It ran for 46 previews and 5461 performances. It was also the costliest Broadway musical at the time with conservative estimates putting the cost at $12 million, but analysists believe it is closer to $20 million. Beauty and the Beast only closed to make way for the new stage production of The Little Mermaid. They feared that having two shows running simultaneously with Disney Princesses as leads would split the audience numbers. Also at the time of closure, Disney had several other shows on Broadway, with the The Lion King, Tarzan and Mary Poppins all on stage.
The Lion King (1997): Based on the 1994 film with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, the movie departs from the other Disney animated films during the Renaissance with a more pop feel to the music. The plot remains consistent between the live action and movie versions and is a retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy of Hamlet. King Mufasa is killed by his brother scar and blames it on Mufasa’s son Simba. Simba leaves and finds new friends Pumba and Timon. As the years pass and under the rule of Scar and the hyenas the pride lands suffer, and food grows short. A young lioness, Nala, leaves the pride to search for help and finds Simba and with the help of Rafiki and a vision of his dead father, Simba returns home and confronts and defeats Scar.
The amazing thing about converting this animated movie to a live action stage production, is how to display the various animals of Africa, without it looking campy or silly. Julie Taymor did an amazing job of having the actors in stylized animal costumes and the use of large hollow puppets. The end result was a stunning visual extravaganza the wowed audiences. The show opened in the New Amsterdam theatre in 1997 and stayed there until 2006, where it moved to the Minskoff Theatre where it is still running after more than 9000 performances and has become the third longest running show in Broadway history grossing more than $1 billion in sales. Like other movies that move from screen to stage. Additional songs were added to expand on character development and to compensate for limitations of live action performances versus filmed.
The Little Mermaid (2007): although the first show to usher in the Disney Renaissance, it is one of the newer shows to get the Broadway treatment as well as a new live action adaption coming out later this year. As with the others in this series, the basic plot does remain the same, but unlike the others, there are some vast changes that needed to be made and some updates that were originally cut out of the original film were added back in. Ariel is enthralled by the surface world and when Prince Eric falls overboard from his ship, Ariel falls madly in love with him. In order to be with Eric, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula, who gives her legs, but takes away her voice. She has three days to win a kiss from Eric or her soul will be forfeited to Ursula. Ariel makes it back to Eric and the two begin to fall in love, but Ursula’s henchmen foil each plan. In the end, Ariel must battle Ursula for her very soul.
This is the shortest running of the three musicals discussed in this article. Opening for previews in late 2007 and closing in August of 2009. It ran for 50 previews and 685 performances. To give the illusion of swimming the actors wore wheeled footwear called “Heelys” with tails that were attached to the actor’s hips. Although this does have a smoot swimming effect, it still leaves the staging rather two dimensional for a show that has many scenes taking place underwater. After its closure, director Glenn Casale reinvented the musical for the Dutch production and removed the “Heelys” and added ariel effects and flying harnesses creating a much better illusion of being underwater. There were also changes to the story and a few song replacements. Disney has now added these changes into the licensed version of the show. An interesting addition to the stage production was a plot point cut from the original movie. Ursula and Triton are siblings and use to each rule half the oceans. But Ursula’s cruelty lead Triton to over through her and take full control of the oceans. This is why Ursula wants revenge. In addition, the ending is changed quite a bit, since it would be nearly impossible to have Ursula become a giant on stage.
I am a huge Disney fan and love all of these films, and honestly love seeing them on stage. The connection that a live performance can make with an audience only heightens the emotional impact that the characters and story can have.