Broadway's Been Captivated by Disney Magic for 25 Years. Now's the Time to See Why
Twenty-five years ago, Disney made its Broadway debut with Beauty and the Beast. More than a blockbuster (though it was certainly that), the production was a game-changer, staking a claim to a whole new kind of theater experience. Little wonder Belle and her crew went on to become the longest-standing occupants of both the Palace Theater, where they debuted—and the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where they moved five years later.
Since then, Disney's magic touch has brought so many productions to life—with everyone from Mary Poppins to Aladdin hitting the stage—the brand has become an integral part of New York's cultural landscape. Not to mention the world's: Every three seconds, a ticket is sold to a Disney Theatrical performance somewhere on earth, with more than 200 million fans having seen a show. In the unlikely event that you're not (yet) one of them, here's the stat that may surprise you even more: Adults make up a full 75 percent of the audience—couples on dates, girls'-night-out groups, grandparents showing the whole family a good time, and the list goes on.
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And this is a banner year to experience some of that age-defying magic for yourself: There are no fewer than three Disney productions to choose from on Broadway (or the ultimate trifecta, if you don’t want to have to choose): Frozen, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But even beyond the selection, there are lots of good reasons to celebrate Disney’s 25th anniversary on Broadway. Read on for five of our favorites.
The shows reflect the moods of the moment
With #throwbacks dominating the pop culture scene—and the '90s being the decade of the moment (see: the return of Friends and high-waisted jeans, for starters)—two out of three Disney on Broadway productions play perfectly into that zeitgeist. Aladdin takes us right back to the early '90s (odds are it takes you back, too, given that it was the highest-grossing film of 1992). Same for The Lion King (perhaps not surprisingly, the highest-grossing film of 1994). None of which is to say that either Broadway production rests on its nostalgia laurels. Particularly if you consider how each reflects the very of-the-moment movement towards diversity.
The Broadway version of The Lion King turns the film's cartoon backdrop into a culturally-specific South African wonderland, and has starred more than 250 South Africans over the decades. Meanwhile, Aladdin has become its own leader in diversity, with actors Adam Jacobs, Telly Leung, Ainsley Melham and Clinton Greenspan having donned the iconic vest.
Of course, Frozen reflects an entirely different aspect of the zeitgeist: girl power. Anna and Elsa have so revolutionized the princess paradigm that they've been the subjects of countless scholarly papers, professional panels and feminist theory syllabi. Seriously, could there be a better sister act for 2019?
The stories are as timeless as they are timely
With the very first words of its very first theme song, Disney on Broadway revealed a key component of the secret sauce: a tale as old as time. Because as relevant as the shows are today, they're equally rooted in traditional, centuries-old stories—the kind we instinctively respond to from generation to generation.
Think you've never come across the The Lion King story before? Rewind to the first lit course that had you reading Hamlet. The fatherless prince? The villainous uncle? Starting to sound familiar? Though the show's creators say that The Lion King isn't based on Hamlet, they certainly took inspiration from the Danish royal—and, for that matter, from the Old Testament's Joseph and Moses: Simba, like his biblical counterparts, is born into privilege, exiled, and left to strategize a big comeback.
Aladdin, for its part, dates back to the 10th century—specifically, The Thousand and One Nights folktale rooted in Arabic, North African, Turkish, Persian, Indian and other cultures. The stories are bound together by Scherherazade, whose husband is known to off his wives a day after marrying them. Her survival solution? Ending every story with a cliffhanger—among them, Aladdin.
Frozen, of course, descends from Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved classic, The Snow Queen. And here's a fun fact: If you read four of the Frozen characters' names aloud—Hans Kristoff Anna Sven—you get something really close to the Danish author’s name. Point is, there's an element of serious tradition to these stories that audiences take comfort in, even as the productions pull some decidedly 2019 stunts (see below).
The spectacle aspect has gone truly next-level
There’s a moment in Frozen when Elsa’s cape is suddenly whisked away into nothingness, and the audience unfailingly gasps. And a carpet ride so mind-blowing in Aladdin, even the illustrious physicist Margaret Ebunoluwa Aderin-Pocock can't put her finger on how the whole thing works. Of course, she's hardly alone. The majority of any given Disney on Broadway audience is left wondering, “But how?!”
Much of the answer depends on unprecedented technology in addition to good, old-fashioned stage magic. When the Aladdin team started out, the mission was to break new ground in musical theater technology. (See: the stumped physicist.) The result includes computerized "toaster lifts" that shoot dancers into the air from below the stage, 45 machines that can transform the stage in seconds and 14 distinct, precise audio zones.
And for Frozen, the chasing of technological advances continues. The current Broadway show has a nearly 9,000-pound video wall with seven million LED lights, 19 laser projectors and 32 computers, all of which work in tandem to make the castle turn to ice—elements that couldn't have existed even a few years ago, according to costume and set designer Christopher Oram, who absolutely won't disclose how Elsa's cape flies off.
And as for Aladdin and Jasmine’s flight around the stage: That secret’s also locked up in Genie’s lamp, but the carpet has floated a total of 63 miles on Broadway so far.
Today's top vocalists are belting out songs you already know and love
Circle of Life. A Whole New World. Hakuna Matata. Can You Feel the Love Tonight. Friend Like Me. Do You Want to Build a Snowman. We could go on forever, or should we just...Let it Go?
Yes, Disney's responsible for a disproportionate number of anthemic icons that we all know and love. So you'll go into any of these Broadway shows with preexisting warm fuzzies. But once you factor in the fresh talents of the moment's biggest powerhouse vocalists, you'll feel like you're experiencing your old favorites in a whole new way.
But there are new, stage-exclusive numbers to look forward to as well. The Lion King and Aladdin include significantly more songs than their big screen predecessors—and Frozen heats things up with a whopping 12 additional musical numbers, including oh-so of-the-moment Hygge.
Disney has become an iconic part of New York—and the world's—cultural scene
Disney on Broadway has become so much a part of the landscape in New York, you can see the The Lion King every day in the Times Square backdrop of Good Morning America.
But one of the latest (and we think greatest) ways that Disney has transcended the theater walls is the Disney on Broadway: 25th Anniversary exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology (Sept. 19 - Oct. 6), where you'll find reimagined versions of the costumes of 10 female characters, from Tarzan’s Jane to Newsies’ original-for-Broadway female reporter, Katherine. There's also a blowout anniversary concert scheduled for Nov. 4 at the New Amsterdam Theater: Celebrating 25 Magical Years of Disney on Broadway. The show will star Whoopi Goldberg, among other A-Listers, who'll perform a decades-spanning array of Disney on Broadway hits to benefit the iconic Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organization.
Disney on Broadway's influence goes far beyond the island of Manhattan. Each of the three Broadway shows is also represented across the U.S. with touring productions (right now, Aladdin is in North Carolina while The Lion King is in Boston and Frozen is premiering in L.A.). And with 19 productions in seven countries, there’s a show in progress almost every hour of the day.
Indeed, what started as a single production a quarter of a century ago has turned into an epic global phenomenon. And as one generation of fandom brings the next into the fold, you'd be forgiven for thinking you can hear Circle of Life in the background.