Disney embarks on new stage in entertainment by bringing 'Beauty' to


The Walt Disney Co. has already taken over the world. What does it want with the theater?

Speculation is high as the entertainment giant makes its first foray into legitimate theater with "Beauty and the Beast." The stage version of the hugely popular 1991 film premiered in Houston recently and will brave Broadway in April when it opens at the Palace Theater.

A big question involves the formation of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions. Depending on your perspective, the Disney presence in theater is either promising or alarming.

Disney executives stress their earnest commitment to theater. With their vast popularity, Disney properties transplanted to the stage might encourage families to disconnect their videos and re-engage live entertainment. That could be a key to developing future audiences for theater of all stripes.

Then again, theater might be just another outlet for familiar Disney properties, from "Snow White" to "Aladdin." One can anticipate the formula: cinematic re-issue every seven years, video release the year after, stage version two years later.

Will Disney Theatrical be seen as a Broadway savior? Or a carpetbagging opportunist? "We are committed to getting families out of the house as well as entertaining them at home," says Disney CEO Michael Eisner. "You have to understand the nature of this company," says Bob McTyre, producer of "Beauty" and vice president of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions. "We're in business trying to make a profit. . . . But we're also a creatively driven company constantly looking for new challenges, new ways to employ our creative people."

Mr. McTyre says Disney executives have wanted to have a theatrical presence for years. And many independent producers have approached the company seeking the rights to Disney properties for stage adaptation. No one at Disney counts such efforts as the 1979 Radio City Music Hall staging of "Snow White," which was more a "spectacle" than a legitimate stage production.

But for many years, the company's feeling was that theater could be risky in both money and reputation. The recent Euro Disney fiasco demonstrates that despite expectations, not everything Disney touches turns to gold -- especially when Mickey and his cartoon pals venture beyond their native habitat.

The catalyst for Disney's braving the stage was an article by New York Times theater critic Frank Rich that praised "Beauty and the Beast" as 1991's best musical. This was Mr. Rich's backhanded slap at the year's stage musicals -- "The Will Rogers Follies" and "The Secret Garden" -- which he was not enthusiastic about, though other critics and audiences were.

That article prompted Mr. Eisner and Disney Studio President Jeffrey Katzenberg to think about "Beauty" in theatrical terms. At first they weren't sure it would work as a stage show. So they had Disney artists do a storyboard treatment, as they would for an animated film, demonstrating how the story could be converted to the stage. The Disney chiefs approved, and with the announcement of the first project earlier this year, Disney Theatrical was born.

The stage "Beauty" is different from the film, yet retains enough so that fans will recognize it.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton expanded on the book, with more character development. In a significant change, the enchanted characters that became teapot, teacup, clock and candelabrum in the film are under a spell that transforms them gradually onstage.

"It makes a big difference," says Mr. McTyre. "As they gradually turn into the clock and candelabra and so forth, the characters are more desperate for the Beast to break the spell, because the castle sees its humanity slipping away."

The stage show keeps the film's Oscar-winning score of six songs and adds six more. "Human Again" was written for the film by composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman but not used. The five other new songs are by Mr. Menken and Tim ("Evita") Rice, who completed the lyrics for "Aladdin" after Ashman's death.

Disney joined forces with Houston's Theater Under the Stars to produce the monthlong Houston run of "Beauty." TUTS' involvement ends, however, with the final Houston performance late this month. On Broadway, "Beauty" will be a 100 percent Disney operation.

John Holly, TUTS' executive producer, says TUTS has been involved from "Day 1."

"We've had input on auditions and casting, assisted in technical and administrative areas," he says.

What are Disney Theatrical's plans beyond "Beauty?" Will it stick to stage versions of familiar Disney properties? Or might the company commission brand-new works for the stage? "It's not automatic that all our pieces will work in the theater," says Mr. McTyre. "We are looking at several, including 'Aladdin,' 'Little Mermaid' and 'Mary Poppins.' "

Mr. Eisner says the company is negotiating to lease New York's historic New Amsterdam Theater, once the home of the Ziegfeld Follies but now in urgent need of renovation.

"The theater can be restored," says Mr. Eisner. "And if the revitalization . . . works out, we may be using the New Amsterdam as our venue for . . . shows in New York.

"And not necessarily just Disney products. We are considering new works that we could originate onstage and, if they are successful, might later adapt to the screen. A lot depends upon how 'Beauty and the Beast' is received."

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