I spoke separately with Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, and composer Alan Menken about Tony best-musical nominee Aladdin, which has taken over the company’s Times Square flagship, the New Amsterdam Theatre. Back in the day, the New Amsterdam was home to the Ziegfeld Follies, and there’s more than a dash of Busby Berkeley spectacle in the new show, which earned mostly damned-faint-praise from critics but which is doing great business and has an obvious future in various Disney iterations. It may not be The Lion King (really, what is?), but it ain’t The Little Mermaid, either.
With former Disney Studios chief Peter Schneider (now an independent producer), Schumacher — who started his career in L.A. working with such game-changers as director Peter Sellars and CalArts’s Bob Fitzpatrick — oversaw Disney’s animation renaissance beginning in the late 1980s and went exclusively to the theater division in 2002. The company now has three shows running on Broadway (with The Lion King and Newsies) and though he wouldn’t at all mind heading to the stage of Radio City Music Hall on June 8 to pick up a Tony, he’s pragmatic about the value of the nomination.
“The important period is the time between the nominations and the awards,” he said of the Tonys. “That’s the opportunity to sell our show to the audience, and our team is at the top of its game.” Disney doesn’t release figures but Schumacher said that Aladdin was produced on the “same scale as Mary Poppins,” the previous New Amsterdam tenant, which, all told, is probably in the $20 million range. Of course, few producers have either Disney’s pockets or it’s cross-platforming advantages (Mary Poppins has done big business in Australia, among other markets). He hasn’t lost his taste for the offbeat: “I cried twice during Here Lies Love,” Schumacher told me.
Menken, speaking by phone from his Northern Westchester home and studio, said that Aladdin had brought him back to his earliest collaborations with the late lyricist Howard Ashman. “Going back, the first chapter really started when Howard met with Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney,” he recalled. “They discussed a number of projects, one of which was The Thief of Baghdad. It was already planted in his head. Right after Mermaid came Aladdin. Our original approach contained songs we were finally able to do in the stage version.
“The original idea was to do a Hope-and Crosby road comedy crossed with a Fleischer cartoon [i.e. Betty Boop, Popeye] and given an original edge. A lot of edge remained in the movie, but the sidekicks were lost, the mom was eliminated, I’m Proud Of Your Boy went out the window, I thought it was gone. But then Tom said `We want to bring Aladdin to Broadway. The script was expansion of the movie. I wanted to get more of Howard’s original Arabian Nights — in the movie it’s a one-minute song, this version has all the original lyrics.”
Because I lack shame, I asked Menken if he talks to his creative partner, who died of AIDS in March, 1991, age 40 — which doesn’t even seem possible, especially given the volume of extraordinary work they turned out together, from Little Shop Of Horrors to Beauty And The Beast and The Little Mermaid.
“There is a visceral sensibility about Howard and his mix of cleverness and wink and warmth,” Menken said, measuring his words thoughfully, as if in a reverie. “He was the best. Emotionally I communicate with him. At times I’ll just get blindsided by hearing a song. And in my dreams, I’ll think, Oh my God, it’s Howard.
“Last summer I did a concert at Disneyland, and I wanted to include a Howard and Marvin Hamlisch song written for Smile,” he said. “Marvin’s music, Howard’s lyric -– it was the first time I sat down with a Howard Ashman lyric in 23 years. It was blubberfest.”
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