The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused the worlds of film and theatre to grind to a near-total standstill. Of the various fairy-tale related entertainments mentioned in the Fairy Tale Fanboy 2020 preview, several have been delayed to later in the year (the live-action Mulan) moved to 2021 (Raya and The Last Dragon) or cancelled entirely (The UK Premiere of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Manchester). Out of all the sectors of the arts and entertainment, theatre is probably the worst affected by the COVID-19 Crisis for a variety of reasons. Major theatres have a reputation for being cramped and crowded, the high running costs of plays and musicals mean it is financially impossible to perform to a reduced capacity, and actors are arguably in even greater danger of contracting the disease than audience members. With Broadway theatres left closed for months as a result, several major productions were bound to shut down permanently and yesterday, Disney Theatrical head producer Thomas Schumacher announced that the Broadway production of Frozen would not return when Broadway reopened. The production, based on Disney’s 2013 hit of the same name, had been playing at the St James Theatre for two years, completing 825 performances and 26 previews by the time it closed. Frozen adapted the story of Anna and Elsa for the stage, with the classic songs from the film (Including 'For The First Time In Forever' and 'Let It Go') joined by new songs such as 'Monster' and 'What Do You Know About Love?'. Though it was probably not Disney Theatrical’s strongest production, the news that Frozen was closing still feels like a devastating blow. It is the first major Broadway musical to close permanently because of the COVID-19 pandemic (Beetlejuice was forced to shut three months earlier than planned, but its closure had been announced months before lockdown) highlighting how precarious the theatre industry truly is. With all theatre producers having to tighten their belts, Schumacher has decided to focus on preserving the long-running Broadway adaptations of The Lion King and Aladdin, ensuring that those two will be able to survive months (and possibly years) of instability for New York’s major theatres.
From a financial perspective, the decision to close Frozen is probably the correct one. To tell the truth, Frozen would have probably announced its closure by the end of the year, even if Broadway was operating normally. Of the three Disney productions on Broadway, it was the lowest earner by some distance, and its long-term prospects were looking fragile for months. Despite being a big hit in its first year, the mixed reviews and underwhelming performance during the 2018 awards season (it only received three Tony nominations in a very weak year) took their toll on Frozen, and it was falling to earnings as low as $800,000 – a huge problem for a family blockbuster based on a relatively recent hit movie. The production recently made several updates (including more colourful staging and a new song called “I Can’t Lose You”) to bring it in line with the better-received touring adaptation, but it is unlikely those would have raised interest enough to draw casual audiences. The musical relied heavily on the summer tourism to generate most of its profits, but the recent confirmation that Broadway theatres would be closed until at least September (and probably later) meant that this major period was lost. Ultimately, Broadway is a business, and decisions are governed by what will make the most money and lose the least. In this context, it is no surprise that Schumacher chose to cancel Frozen, which was unlikely to recover from the losses caused by lockdown.
However, it still feels crushingly unfair. The new cast (including Ciara Renee as Elsa and McKenzie Kurtz as Anna) had been in their roles for only three weeks when lockdown begun, and they have been told that they are unable to return to their roles because of a disaster entirely outside their control. Ryan McCarthan, who had just taken over in the thankless role of Prince Hans, recently hosted the online screening of last year’s Disney On Broadway concert, and dismissing him after his hard work there feels like an extra cruel insult. In addition, Frozen’s status as the only female-led Disney adaptation on Broadway (in contrast to the very masculine worlds of The Lion King and Aladdin) means that cutting it so quickly feels a little regressive in an age where theatre is striving for greater diversity and representation. The closure also feels insulting for the Frozen fandom, which is famously passionate and loyal. Elsa and Anna are icons for many (such as those struggling with mental health issues) and these fans deserve respect and recognition. It would be good if Disney Theatrical and the Frozen Broadway team provided these fans with a parting gift, such as a reunion concert for the lost cast or a filmed version of the production for streaming.
Cancelling its run on Broadway does not mean the end for Frozen on stage. The touring production may be currently suspended, but it will certainly resume when things get better for theatres. No longer having to compete with the Broadway version gives the touring production to enjoy the advantage of being the “definitive” version of the Frozen musical, and we should not rule out the possibility that the newer Frozen Broadway cast members will join it on future stops. International productions in Germany, Australia and Japan are opening in the next year, but the main attraction for Frozen fans will probably be the West End production, which will open in the prestigious Theatre Royal Drury Lane. In fact, it is likely that Schumacher closed Frozen on Broadway in order to focus on these productions, as he announced that the early closure would allow the sets and costumes to be used elsewhere. In the longer term, the closure of Frozen means that it could be opened up for regional and amateur productions, joining the abridged versions Frozen Jr and Frozen Kids in the MTI Shows stable. The Little Mermaid and Tarzan were even less successful than Frozen but have proven popular in licensing. Combined, the touring, international and licensed versions of Frozen will make more money for Disney Theatrical than the Broadway production ever could.
With Frozen’s run on Broadway now over, discussions will turn to which productions come next for Disney. The St James Theatre is not owned by Disney, so the owners will not necessarily replace Frozen with a Disney production. However, Schumacher has revealed that several other Disney Theatrical projects are in the pipeline. At the moment, we aren’t sure which of these (If any) will make it all the way to New York, but they will certainly provide more entertainment for Disney fans.
During summer 2019, Disney teamed up with Public Works NY to stage an adaptation of their 1997 animated film Hercules at the open-air Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. The production blended Disney pizazz with community theatre charm, with several Broadway big names in the lead roles (Jelani Aladdin as Hercules, Roger Bart as Hades, James Monroe Iglehart as Phil) and dozens of ordinary New Yorkers in the supporting cast. The production proved a huge success and was one of Disney Theatrical’s most acclaimed musicals in years. It is therefore no surprise that Disney Theatrical have confirmed plans for an expanded two-act version.
Alan Menken and David Zippel are returning to write for this production – having added five extra songs for the Delacorte Theatre production, they could expand the soundtrack further and make it even stronger. Robert Horn, who wrote the Tony-Award winning book to the musical Tootsie, has been added to the writing team. This is a good appointment – Horn’s witty script was one of the most acclaimed aspects of Tootsie (“I live in an apartment so small I count the litter box as a guest bathroom. My phone no longer recognizes my face ID unless I’m crying.”) and he is perfectly suited to the task of bringing one of Disney’s most comedic films to a wider audience. Lear DeBessonet, who directed the original production, will return to direct the new one, hopefully allowing Disney to maintain the balance between professional spectacle and amateur charm which made the Delacorte Theatre run so successful.
Beauty and the Beast
Opening on Broadway in 1994, Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney Theatrical production and ran for an impressive 13 years. The 2017 live-action adaptation renewed interest in the story, and it will now become the second Disney Theatrical musical (after Mary Poppins) to enjoy a major revival production. The original creative team (screenwriter Linda Woolverton, composers Alan Menken and Tim Rice) will return, but we don’t know whether they will make any changes. Will they stick to the romantic approach of the original Broadway production, adopt the more lavish style of the live-action version, or do something different with the “Tale as old as Time”?. The production will premiere at a major “overseas” venue before returning to America, and it could demonstrate that the stage version of Beauty and the Beast can be considered an iconic musical in its own right.
Something of a cult favourite, Aida is the only major Disney theatrical musical not based on a pre-existing Disney film. Adapted from the Verdi opera of the same name, it allowed Disney Theatrical to take a darker and more dramatic approach, winning four Tony Awards and running for a solid four years. After several touring and regional productions, it is no surprise that Disney Theatrical want to create a major new take on Aida. David Henry Hwang, who co-wrote the original book, has revised the script to consider new research about the lives of ancient Egyptian rulers. The original plan was that this version would premiere in New Jersey’s Paper Mill Theatre in January 2021 and tour the USA, but Disney Theatrical have postponed it, and are instead planning to stage the production in Germany.
The Princess Bride
An adaptation of this classic 1987 film has been in development for a while, but it is closer to Broadway than ever, with David Yazbeck (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) writing the songs and Bob Martin (The Prom) co-writing the script. A workshop for The Princess Bride was due to take place this spring but has presumably been delayed. However, we can still expect it to reach the stage soon – iconic characters like Princess Buttercup, Inigo Montoya and Vizzini are perfectly suited to the world of theatre…
The Jungle Book
Given the enduring popularity of the 1967 animated film and the Rudyard Kipling novel it is based on, it is no surprise Disney are interested in bringing The Jungle Book to the stage. They sponsored a 2013 stage adaptation in Chicago, directed by Mary Zimmerman and choreographed by Christopher Gatelli (Newsies) With Hadestown legend Andre De Shields in the cast, the production was well-received and played in Boston, but did not go any further. However, after the 2016 live-action adaptation proved a success, Disney are going to take a second shot at bringing The Jungle Book to the stage. Gatelli is returning to direct this new version, with Rajiv Joseph writing the script. The iconic Sherman Brothers songs (Including “The Bear Necessities”) will remain, with Richard Sherman adding new ones.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Disney's 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks followed the same winning formula as Mary Poppins seven years earlier (right down to the Sherman Brothers songs and featuring David Tomlinson as one of the main protagonists) but has a family-friendly charm of its own and deserves to find a wider audience. Blending magic, fantasy and wartime adventure, it can easily be updated for modern sensibilities without losing its classic feel. A musical adaptation of Bedknobs and Broomsticks was meant to premiere in Chicago in 2019, but the production was cancelled after director Rachel Rockwell suddenly died. However, the project will now premiere in Britain, with Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison directing it.
Night At The Museum
Acquired by Disney in their purchase of 20th Century Fox, 2006 family film Night At The Museum is an odd choice for a theatrical production, but could work pretty well. With an all-star cast headed by Ben Stiller, Night At The Museum did not quite live up to the promise of its fascinating concept (Items in a museum come to life when the doors are closed) but it spawned two sequels and retains a fanbase. Disney legend Alan Menken (also working on Beauty and the Beast, Hercules and the live-action The Little Mermaid) announced this project a few months ago, but no other members of the creative team have been revealed. This project is still pretty far away, but the idea of bringing a museum to life on stage is full of promise, and it would be great if Disney Theatrical go through with this adaptation.