Broadway was in a funk. In the 1980s, New York’s Times Square was notorious for its seediness, the crumbling center of a city on the rocks. The once-glamorous Theater District was decaying. Broadway’s “Golden Age” was officially over and the so-called “British Invasion” of mega-musicals from across the pond was starting to sour. Both the neighborhood and the creative options it featured were spiraling down.
Around the same time, the Walt Disney Company was also struggling to find its feet. Since the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the company had been in a prolonged transition period, desperately trying to find its new identity in a quickly evolving entertainment landscape. Disney was looking to diversify their offerings and solidify their brand.
The founding of Disney Theatrical Productions in 1993 was, at the time, an extremely risky endeavor. Disney was not known for live performance events. And the Times Square of that era was decidedly adult. Would the Mouse’s brand of wholesome, heart warming family entertainment translate to the stage? And specifically, would audiences brave Times Square to see child-friendly musicals? How would audiences react? How would critics respond? Would it be a success?
Disney Theatrical Productions’ first show was a stage adaptation of their hit animated film Beauty and the Beast.
When the Broadway spectacle opened in 1994 the critics were decidedly mixed, but the audience ate it up. Beauty and the Beast would go on to run for 13 years and holds the title of the 10th longest running production in Broadway history.
In the 1990s, Disney’s animation department was having a renaissance, producing a string of exceptional modern classics that were critically adored and commercially lucrative. Disney wanted to replicate this golden age of film on stage but it was no longer enough to simply duplicate their films on a Broadway stage. The literalness of the stage musical Beauty and the Beast limited its appeal to fans of the original film. Disney wanted a cross-over smash that would excite not only hardcore Disney-holics but also New York theatergoers.
The Lion King changed everything. Choosing experimental director Julie Taymor to helm the massive production was a risky bet, but boy did it pay off. Disney’s theatrical version of The Lion King opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street in 1997 (Disney had recently signed a 99-year lease on the theater itself and completed massive renovations to the building). Taymor’s vision was arresting, spiritual, transcendent, and unabashedly theatrical. Unlike Disney’s previous theatrical offerings, The Lion King became a must-see theatrical event. The show was different enough from its source material to not feel redundant. It appealed to both kids and adults. Its use of puppetry, mask, and diverse performance styles was revolutionary.
It quickly became a Broadway blockbuster and is still running at the time of writing. The Lion King is the third longest running show (as well as the most financially successful show) in the history of Broadway; it also won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Disney’s theatrical department had officially arrived!
In the time since The Lion King, the phenomenon of Disney on Broadway has expanded, evolved, and solidified into the dominant theatrical force behind successful family musicals. Disney Theatrical Productions has had a string of long-running stage blockbusters, plus a few misfires (looking at you Tarzan). They had a surprise hit with Newsies, a dance-heavy crowd-pleaser based on the cult favorite live-action film.
Disney has perfected a formula for success, fine-tuning their proprietary blend of film nostalgia and theatrical spectacle. Their shows are then licensed for regional and school productions around the world.
Disney has torn through their catalog of films, turning many of the popular movies in their arsenal into Broadway musicals. From Aladdin to Mary Poppins to Frozen, these shows have forever changed the shape, style, and cultural impact of Broadway. Some critics decry the “Disney-ification” of New York’s theater district, complaining that the once gritty and vibrant neighborhood is being gentrified by the Mouse into a homogenized theme park. But no one can argue that Disney’s shows have helped usher the Time Square area into a must-visit NYC attraction. Disney Theatrical Productions is no longer the outlier or the risky new kid, but rather the gold standard, a powerful theater-making juggernaut creating productions of unrivaled scale, spectacle, and ambition.