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Friday, 29 September 2017

Disney Theatrical - The Advantages and Disadvantages of Adapting Disney for the Stage

On October 1st, Frozen: The Musical, the stage adaptation of Disney’s 2013 megahit Frozen, concludes its seven-week tryout at Denver’s Buell Theatre. After this, the cast and crew will begin preparing for the move to Broadway’s prestigious St. James Theatre. Performances there will begin on February 22nd, with the play officially opening four weeks later. Anna and Elsa’s stage debut is the latest in a long line of projects from Disney Theatrical Productions Limited (known as Disney Theatrical for short), the flagship division of the Disney Theatrical Group. Established in 1993, they are responsible for turning the likes of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin into acclaimed and long-running stage musicals. Frozen is Disney’s highest-grossing animated film, and is just as popular and prominent today as it was when it was released almost four years ago. Thus, it goes without saying that Frozen: The Musical will enjoy a long and successful run on Broadway. However, if Disney Theatrical want it to become as iconic as the original film, there is still considerable work to do.

A couple of weeks ago, critics representing America’s most prominent newspapers and magazines were allowed to see Frozen: The Musical in Denver and publish their reviews. Variety provided near-total praise, even speculating that the play might be better than the movie, but other reviewers were quick to point out flaws in the highly-anticipated musical. The Denver Post accused it of being “derivative” and sending mixed messages, whilst The New York Times claimed that Anna had been reduced to “a more conventional Disney girl” and wondered if there was too much focus on Elsa’s emotional turmoil. The harshest criticism came from The Chicago Tribune, who claimed that Anna and Elsa’s relationship (which should be the heart and soul of any retelling of Frozen) was underdeveloped and called the show “cautious and emotionally underwhelming”. In spite of these important complaints, these early reviews for Frozen: The Musical have generally been positive, with the acting and singing mostly acclaimed across the board, and enthusiastic praise for a number of special effects. However, there is too much at stake for the production to merely be a long-running success. If the aim is for Frozen: The Musical to emulate The Lion King and become a great theatrical phenomenon for decades to come, the relatively mixed reviews for the Denver tryout probably represent a bit of a disappointment for Disney Theatrical’s president, Thomas Schumacher.

That said, Frozen: The Musical is as critic-proof as any play can be. Audiences seem to be reacting to it with great enthusiasm, coming dressed as their favourite characters and singing along to ‘Let It Go’. Their support for the production means that the changes made between Denver and Broadway are likely to be relatively minor. However, even if you think that the critics are being excessively harsh at this early stage, they are not to be ignored. After all, they have exactly the same desire as the general public and the creatives at Disney Theatrical – they want to enjoy the best stage version of Frozen possible. If the issues they raise regarding the story and the portrayal of Anna and Elsa remain unfixed when the play starts its official run on Broadway, they could affect its reputation and undermine its financial prospects in the long-term.* Furthermore, underwhelming reviews on Broadway could undermine the Frozen brand as a whole, which would have a negative impact on the forthcoming Frozen 2. Thus, the comments of the critics in Denver are worth taking into account if Disney Theatrical want an adaptation of Frozen which endures even after the excitement of the Frozen fandom cools down and it has to be judged primarily on its own merits.

The pressure surrounding Frozen: The Musical is so intense that even early reviews which would be welcomed for any other production can create anxiety for Disney. These vastly increased expectations prove that bringing a Disney film to life on stage is not an easy task. For every The Lion King (still going strong almost 20 years after it arrived on Broadway), there’s a relative critical and commercial disappointment like the stage adaptations of Tarzan and The Little Mermaid. There are a number of things which need to be taken into account when discussing the work of Disney Theatrical, as their strategy has advantages and disadvantages. First of all, the issues with translating an animated film to stage can make it harder to maintain the wonder and excitement associated with the original movie. However, the plays can take unique and creative approaches which make them truly distinct from Disney’s cinematic output. They can get upstaged by Disney’s live-action remakes, which can deliver a greater spectacle and contribute far more to the Disney Corporation’s Quarter earnings, but reach a wide audience through regional and amateur productions, engaging and inspiring theatregoers all over the globe. Overall, Disney Theatrical’s work is generally minor compared to Disney’s films and TV shows, but the influence of theatre and the ability to do something new with much-loved stories and characters make their endeavours worthwhile.

Constraints of the Stage

Disney Theatrical spend substantial sums of money on bringing Disney films to life on stage. Frozen: The Musical is reported to have a budget of between $25 million and $30 million. This doesn’t seem like much (It is only a fraction of the $150 million budget of the original animated movie), but it makes Frozen: The Musical one of the most expensive Broadway musicals of all time. Given the popularity of the original movies and the need to provide audiences with a unique and spectacular experience, Disney Theatrical are willing to spend considerably more than other theatrical producers. However, this focus on blockbusters is a high-risk strategy. Disney Theatrical’s greatest flop, Tarzan, was performed on Broadway for 14 months. This would be a fairly good run for a smaller musical, but as Tarzan cost up to $16 million to make, it did not last long enough to recoup its budget. In order to be considered a financial success, Disney’s stage musicals have to bring audiences in for years. This means that they have to appeal on their own terms, and be more than just an entertaining night out for fans of the original films. The financial pressures affecting Disney Theatrical are exacerbated by the fact that, for all the talent working behind the scenes, and the plethora of cutting-edge resources they use, there are some things which are very difficult to accomplish on stage.

The most important quality in the world of theatre is ‘suspension of disbelief’ – audiences are willing to accept almost anything they see as long as the effects are impressive enough and do not distract from the story or characters. However, Disney films contain a number of unique aspects which are hard to portray outside of animation and if it is too difficult and expensive to bring them to life on stage, they can be cut. Action sequences are often removed in the theatrical adaptations, and prominent animal characters (such as Abu the monkey from Aladdin and Tantor the elephant from Tarzan) can sometimes be edited out as well. In the case of The Little Mermaid, a key element of the plot (Ursula’s attempt to hypnotise Eric into marrying her) was removed relatively late in development and replaced with a storyline involving a singing contest. Done well, these changes can easily be overlooked by the fandom, but if the new additions are inferior to the old material, it can encourage the perception that the stage version cannot capture the magic of the film.  Another limitation affecting theatrical adaptations of Disney films is the fact that many of them are epic narratives, and it can be difficult to portray these properly on stage. This is not a problem with a story like Beauty and the Beast, which is predominantly set inside the Beast’s castle, but it has a far greater effect on Frozen, which relies on a quest-based storyline. Anna spends a substantial amount of the story travelling from her kingdom to Elsa’s ice castle on the North Mountain and back again, but her long journey needs to be depicted on a single stage with only a few moving elements. The size and scope of Disney movies is one of their main selling points, but their focus on adventure and discovery is not always compatible with a form which primarily requires more static characters and a narrative focused on a few key locations.

The one Disney Theatrical musical which was most affected by the constraints of theatre was The Little Mermaid. On paper, bringing an underwater kingdom to life on a stage should not be difficult – after all, the Hans Christian Andersen story which inspired Disney’s film has been adapted into numerous ballets and operas. However, these smaller productions have the freedom to adopt a more minimalist approach, whilst The Little Mermaid had to focus on spectacle to justify the $16.6 million budget. As a result, the diverse range of sea creatures from the movie were depicted using rather garish and over-the-top costumes (“heelie” shoes were infamously used to stimulate swimming), which ultimately felt unconvincing. The problems caused by the need to translate Ariel’s story to stage were most apparent at the climax. The original film ended with an epic sea battle, in which the Ursula turns into a giant and tries to finish off Ariel and Eric. As such a scene would be impossible to depict effectively in theatre, even in a grand production like this, it was replaced with one where Ariel has to save King Triton from Ursula by destroying her magical shell. Though this new conclusion solves a major problem with the climax of the original by focusing on Ariel’s character growth and making her the one to defeat Ursula, it lacks the danger and excitement of the film. This is crucial, as higher stakes would mean that Ariel’s decisions would carry a greater weight and make the happy ending all the more satisfying. Ultimately, adapting a Disney film to the stage is harder than many people think, as the limits of theatre mean that the fantasy offered by cinema has to be toned down, which can easily result in a play which lacks the excitement and entertainment value of the source material.

The Advantages of Theatre

However, whilst there are difficulties with translating a big story to a relatively tiny stage, the more confined and intimate nature of theatre has some vital advantages, as it forces Disney Theatrical to focus on the story and the characters inhabiting it. As a result, the songs which are central to most Disney films assume an even greater level of importance, because they advance the plot and develop the characters in a lively and memorable way. Disney Theatrical musicals add a wide array of extra songs to the original ones used in the film. Whilst Frozen had around 8 songs (including reprises), Frozen: The Musical currently features 25, although a couple of minor numbers might be cut by the time it gets to Broadway. Most of the songs added when translating Disney films to stage are written especially for the new version, but the updated song list can also include numbers which were intended for the original movie but cut during the production process. Generally, the sheer volume of new songs means that they have a tendency to fade from memory when taken outside the context of the play, but several (including Human Again from Beauty and the Beast, Shadowlands from The Lion King, If Only from The Little Mermaid and Proud of Your Boy from Aladdin) have stood out to become fan favourites in their own right. The stage versions also make changes to the story which can inspire future retellings in different mediums. In the stage version of Beauty and the Beast, the curse on the castle is gradually causing the castle staff to lose their humanity and become increasingly like the objects they have been transformed into. If Belle doesn’t admit her love for the Beast in time, than the castle staff will be turned into inanimate antiques permanently. This addition to the story was so effective that it was also used in the recent live-action remake. Done well, changes made by the stage versions can add depth to the characters and increase tension, allowing the story to be compelling in its own right.

However, no Disney production has turned the limits of the stage into strengths quite as effectively as The Lion King. With its giant cast populated entirely by animals (consisting of both the anthropomorphised main characters and large crowds of entirely lifelike animal “extras”), The Lion King seemed like a far more unusual choice for Broadway than Beauty and the Beast. However, Disney Theatrical made the inspired decision to hire Julie Taymor to direct the project. Drawing on Asian theatrical techniques and puppetry designs, Taymor came up with creative and expressive visuals which were entirely unique to the theatrical environment. The costumes used in The Lion King (referred to as “double events”) provide detailed likenesses of the animals whilst fully showing off the faces and bodies of the human actors playing them. This allows audiences to appreciate both the beauty and authenticity of the animal designs and the skill of the actors, dancers and puppeteers bringing the numerous species to life. Furthermore, imaginative and striking physical effects are used to depict the spectacular African settings of the movie, with ribbons standing in for water and dancers with elaborate headdresses being used to represent growing grass. As theatre gains most of its distinctive atmosphere from the interaction between actors and the audience, showing the humans who were bringing the Savannahs and Jungles to life made it easier for Taymor to directly engage theatregoers in the production. However, as amazing as the visuals are, they do not distract from The Lion King’s timeless coming-of-age story. The powerful themes and messages of the original film remain fully intact, whilst many of its weaknesses are rectified. Notably, the lack of representation for female characters is addressed by changing the gender of Rafiki and giving the lionesses Nala and Sarabi a much more prominent role. With her version of The Lion King, Julie Taymor took a story which many believed could only be told through animation, and turned it into a spectacular and unique theatrical production which quickly became a phenomenon. This gave Disney Theatrical a greater degree of credibility, as they had produced a play which managed to be far more than a mere retelling of a well-known tale.

Aside from the artistic merits of theatre, another reason for the “highbrow” reputation of the medium is the time and effort needed to see it. Theatre tickets are much more expensive than cinema tickets, and cinemas vastly outnumber theatres. Furthermore, there are numerous opportunities to see a film without having to leave the house, but theatre generally lacks the same reach, as plays are always best when seen in person. However, the difficulties accessing theatre can sometimes allow Disney Theatrical to ‘select’ their audience and make more adult plays. Whilst their films have to appeal primarily to children, the older average age of theatre audiences gives them the freedom to create productions which are darker and take more risks. This is most apparent with Aida, which premiered on Broadway in 2000 and enjoyed a healthy four-year run. Based on the iconic Verdi opera of the same name, it is one of the few Disney Theatrical productions not adapted from an existing Disney film. During the 1990s, Disney attempted to create an animated adaptation of Aida, but this fell through for a variety of reasons, with one of the most significant being the fact that the source material, dealing with the doomed romance between the Egyptian captain Ramades and Nubian princess-turned-slave Aida, was too dark for younger audiences. A particularly notable aspect of the opera is the ending, where Ramades is buried alive for treason and Aida chooses to join him in the tomb and die with him. If Disney had retained this ending for an animated film, it would have upset the younger viewers interested in pretty animation and catchy songs, but if they had dropped it, they would have alienated those who did not want to see a classic story get “Disneyfied” too much. As the stage version was able to focus on pleasing a more mature audience, it was able to retain the tragic conclusion of the opera, although it added a reincarnation-themed epilogue to make it a bit more upbeat. None of Disney’s feature-length films have ended with the permanent death of the primary protagonists, so the decision to make a play which finished with this happening was a great way of proving that Disney Theatrical’s work is more adult-orientated and mature than the Disney films are allowed to be.

Stage Musicals Vs. Live-Action

Adapting a Disney film for stage is not the only way to translate it to a new medium. Over the last few years, Disney have placed increased emphasis on making live-action adaptations of their beloved animated films. With the recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s live-action and theatrical work has begun to overlap, and there are about to be more instances of films which were already adapted into plays becoming live-action films. The live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King are due in a couple of years, and a live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid is also in the pipeline. Comparing the stage and live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast highlights the similarities and differences between the two forms. Both adaptations extend the original 90-minute film into an extravagant spectacle lasting over two hours, adding even more songs and providing extra material to further develop the characters. Although the stage musical features far more new songs (It added 14 new songs, compared to the three new songs created for the live-action film) the live-action version possesses a number of more significant advantages. It can make use of vaster and more extravagant sets, and incorporate CGI to bring the characters to life and pull off special effects which are completely impossible in the world of theatre. This encourages more spectacular action sequences and fantastical moments of magic, but also allows for a greater degree of realism. CGI and motion-capture can be used to depict animals in impressively lifelike fashion, whilst elaborate sets and soundstages can make bustling villages and marvellous ballrooms feel completely authentic. It’s far easier to immerse yourself in such a grand world, and this enhances the epic escapism which Disney aim to provide in almost all their works.

However, for a giant corporation like Disney, the biggest advantage with live-action films is the fact that they are far more profitable. The Lion King is the highest-grossing musical of all time, earning $1.37 billion in America alone (as of 2016), but it has taken 19 years to gain this amount of money. In contrast, the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast gained $1.26 billion worldwide inside a mere 17 weeks. The greater number of cinemas showing the same product all throughout the day means that films can make a large amount of money in a far shorter period of time, meaning that they are a more lucrative prospect. The live-action remakes have frequently been subject to criticism from those who regard them as unnecessary and a sign of Disney’s creative bankruptcy, but there are valid artistic reasons for adapting the animated films into live-action, just as there are for adapting them into theatre. Live-action versions of Disney properties have many of the same advantages as stage versions, but also have a few additional ones. Combined with their higher profile, this means that they can easily overshadow Disney’s theatrical work.

Productions Outside Broadway

In spite of the higher profile of Disney’s live-action remakes, the financial value of projects from Disney Theatrical is often underestimated. So far, when discussing the relative success and failure of Disney’s stage musicals, this article has focused on their popularity on Broadway. However, this fails to take into account the importance of international markets. Major productions of The Lion King has been performed in over 100 cities in 19 countries. The productions based in Broadway, The West End, Hamburg and Tokyo are ‘flagship’ versions, housed in a single theatre continuously since their premiere. For those unable or unwilling to travel to these theatrical hubs, there are national and international tours which take the play to a wide variety of locations for a short run. The numerous productions being performed at any one time all bring a consistent stream of revenue, which can generate billions of dollars for Disney Theatrical over the long haul. On the occasions when a production fails to connect with audiences in a certain territory (The Korean version of The Lion King only lasted a year) the greater success of the other versions ensures that these disappointments have a minimal impact. Even stage musicals which underwhelmed on Broadway can gain a new lease of life through international productions. After Tarzan closed on Broadway, Disney Theatrical quickly retooled it for productions in Germany and The Netherlands. Most importantly, the “physical world” of the show was expanded, with sets which went beyond the stage and into the auditorium, and a number of scenes were added in which acrobatic and aerial stunts were performed over the heads of the audience. There were also a handful of minor changes to the story, with the romance between Tarzan and Jane becoming increasingly prominent. This improved version ran for two years in The Netherlands, and gained audiences of 1.6 million there (equivalent to one-tenth of the population), but its success in Germany was even more remarkable. It premiered in Hamburg in 2008, making $224 million there during a five-year run, and has been a hit at theatres throughout that country ever since, proving that the length of a Broadway run is no longer the only way of assessing the popularity of a major stage musical. Tarzan had initially provided Disney Theatrical with significant losses, but the decision to change it for the Netherlands and Germany turned out to be a very wise idea. It allowed a stage musical which had failed to impress American critics and theatregoers during its Broadway run to become a unique spectacle and gain the attention of an enthusiastic new audience.

The international productions mentioned above are all made by professionals. However, one of the main advantages of theatre is how easy it is to involve the general public in the art form. In contrast to the expensive equipment required for making live-action films, and the extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming processes behind animated movies, it is possible to create a great play with just a script, a stage and a few props. Non-commercial or “amateur” productions are put on for fun rather than profit in schools, small towns, and other places which want to provide an evening of enjoyable, family-friendly entertainment in spite of their incredibly limited budget and resources. Musicals are the sort of appealing, well-known plays which attract audiences to these performances, but you need a license in order to perform them without violating copyright law. In order to aid non-commercial theatre groups who would like to perform versions of their musicals, the Disney Theatrical Group have created a division called Disney Theatrical Licensing. They open up most of the Disney Theatrical plays for licensing, and provide theatre groups with the materials (including scripts and songbooks) necessary to bring their productions to life. In addition to licensing former Broadway musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, Aida and The Little Mermaid, Disney Theatrical Licensing distributes licenses to perform stage plays specifically created for regional and non-commercial theatre, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is far closer to Victor Hugo’s iconic gothic tragedy than Disney’s 1996 animated film was allowed to be. Disney Theatrical Licensing have also established a range of ‘Disney Junior’ plays to be performed by younger children participating in school plays and youth theatre groups. At approximately half the length of an average Broadway musical, the ‘Disney Junior’ plays include abridged versions of Disney Theatrical’s Broadway productions (e.g. Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King) as well as stage adaptations of films (including Peter Pan and Mulan) which have yet to be turned into full-length theatrical musicals. By giving children the opportunity to play their favourite characters and sing their favourite songs, ‘Disney Junior’ productions can inspire them to take a lasting interest in theatre whilst also giving them a new level of appreciation for the films they know and love. The smaller, simpler, licensed productions may seem relatively trivial, but they have sometimes had a major impact on Disney Theatrical. The stage version of Aladdin was originally intended to be exclusively for licensing, with a “pilot” production in Seattle to promote it. However, the Seattle production proved so popular that further national and international productions were quickly greenlit. Aladdin eventually arrived on Broadway in 2014, almost 3 years after the Seattle production started. Although it had changed significantly during its long journey to Broadway, the original “pilot” show had encouraged Disney to realise that a stage adaptation of Aladdin had the potential to become a major theatrical success. Newsies, based on a widely forgotten live-action Disney film from 1992, was also upgraded from licensing-only to Broadway on the strength of a limited run in New Jersey. Given the obscurity of the original film in comparison to the likes of Aladdin, the fact that Newsies managed to make it to Broadway at all demonstrates how seemingly minor regional productions intended to promote Disney Theatrical Licensing can build the positive word-of-mouth which leads to a major hit for the Disney Theatrical Group as a whole.


Disney’s motivations for translating their films to stage are both artistic and financial in nature. The producers, writers and directors behind the Disney Theatrical plays are excited by the challenge of moving the big blockbuster films into a smaller and more intimate medium without sacrificing the spectacle and sense of wonder central to the original movies. The stage versions of Disney films aim to emphasise elements of the source material that remain impressive in any medium, such as the universally compelling stories, the memorable characters, and the catchy songs, but even the popularity of the source material cannot guarantee complete success. Meanwhile, Disney’s recent live-action remakes use cutting-edge CGI, beautiful locations and energetic action sequences to provide a greater level of adventure and excitement, highlighting the limitations of the stage. However, the success of distinctive and high-quality productions such as The Lion King justifies Disney’s decision to expand into theatre. With The Lion King, Disney Theatrical gave audiences a must-see spectacle which took full advantage of theatre’s focus on physical effects and abstract imagery, and won over those concerned that Disney’s plays would be too conventional and commercialised. Disney Theatrical also have the creative freedom to produce darker, more adult plays such as Aida and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, demonstrating that they are committed to providing something more than the upbeat and optimistic family entertainment which has traditionally defined the Disney brand. Overall, Disney Theatrical are able to distinguish themselves from Disney’s filmmaking divisions and provide plays which can tell familiar stories in a new and creative way, providing something for Disney fans, theatregoers and more casual audiences.  

Due to the size and status of The Walt Disney Company, financial concerns also exert a major influence on their handling of stage musicals. Although they are relatively cheap to make compared to their films, and can provide enormous profits in the long run, these productions need to be sold out for many months in order to justify the time and money spent on bringing them to life, and cannot provide the rapid return on investment of the animated and live-action films. However, Disney Theatrical generate a far greater amount of revenue for The Walt Disney Company than people realise, especially when you take into account the numerous productions of their musicals occurring all over the globe. These run for months or even years on end, with some equalling and occasionally surpassing the success of the Broadway originals. Disney Theatrical also make money by licensing their plays for regional and non-commercial theatre, and their willingness to create new plays exclusively for this small-scale category of theatre can sometimes lead to the unexpected creation of a new hit such as Newsies or Aladdin. Ultimately, Disney Theatrical have consistently proved that it is possible to turn animated movies into popular and well-received stage musicals, and Frozen: The Musical will undoubtedly provide yet another success for them when it arrives on Broadway.

(*Note – I would like to address concerns that this article is being too pessimistic about Frozen: The Musical. After all, it is guaranteed to have a long run on Broadway, and there is a strong possibility that it will equal or surpass Beauty and the Beast’s 13-year stay there – an impressive achievement by any standards. It is also certain to do well internationally, and will probably gain even more money through licensing and 'Disney Junior' productions further down the line. However, many theatre analysts are going to compare its performance to that of The Lion King, just as cinema analysts compared the box-office takes of Big Hero 6 and Moana to the money raised by Frozen. In spite of the vast sums of money raised by Big Hero 6 and Moana, some considered them financial disappointments for not emulating the success of Frozen. Similar unrealistically high expectations could be used to portray Frozen: The Musical as a relative failure for Disney Theatrical if it fails to match the records set by The Lion King. After all, Frozen managed to earn more than the original version of The Lion King at cinemas.  This is incredibly unfair, but it’s one of the major risks faced when adapting such a popular property into a blockbuster play.)