This year is the twentieth anniversary of the debut of Disney’s Broadway musical, The Lion King. The show is significant for its use of puppetry, movement, and beautiful costumes designed by visionary director Julie Taymor. To celebrate the occasion on November 5, the show’s composer, Elton John, treated the audience to a curtain-call performance. That sort of fanfare makes sense for a show that holds an all-time earnings record for Broadway: $7.9 billion in worldwide box-office receipts.
Even before The Lion King premiered, its importance reached beyond the theater walls to spur a revitalization of the Theater District and Times Square that made Midtown Manhattan a safer, pricier, more family-friendly place. Times Square had essentially become a red-light district with sex for sale and a potential mugging around every corner. When Disney decided to renovate and reopen the New Amsterdam Theater as the home of The Lion King, the company gave other mainstream brands the confidence to set up shop nearby.
You’ll often hear artsy New Yorkers and hipster tourists bemoan the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, as if smut shops and crime were preferable to family-fun and affluence. But there really have been negative consequences to Disney’s success on Broadway—and they extend well beyond New York City.
Broadway used to be a source of real creativity, which was then exported to the rest of the culture through touring shows, albums and film adaptations. The 1980s brought the world Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, Cats, Miss Saigon, Sunday in the Park with George, and on and on…. Though the core story for many of these shows was taken from history or other works of art, the shows themselves—their scenes and their songs—started on stage, and only then made their way to the rest of the culture.
But since the wild success of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mary Poppins, Broadway producers have adopted a new strategy: pick a story that already has lots of name recognition—which usually means adapting a movie into a musical. Since the premiere of The Lion King, Broadway has featured Billy Elliot the Musical and The Full Monty, both based on British movies about dancing (of two very different kinds). Spamalot is based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then there’s Legally Blonde: The Musical, Young Frankenstein, The Producers, High Fidelity. And this is not even close to an exhaustive list.
Right now, the New York theater scene is offering a musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is based as much on the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder as it is on Roald Dahl’s book. The new musical Anastasia is based on not one but two films: the 1997 animated version by Fox Studios and the 1956 Ingrid Bergman vehicle. While the Off-Broadway production of A Clockwork Orange is reportedly reimagined as “an allegory of gay life,” it is roughly based on Anthony Burgess’s book and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film.
Not all the recycled material is bad. And not all fresh material is good. But it takes something away from the theater when so many of the shows on offer are just rehashes of old movies.
Hollywood has been moving away from original, character-driven movies for a long time. As Americans turn to alternate forms of entertainment like social media and video-on-demand services, Hollywood has been trying to make up the lost business with international box office sales. That means remakes, sequels, and lots of special effects. Since New York City is a major international tourist destination, some of the same economic pressures are at work there. Having a built-in audience is now as necessary a pre-requisite for Broadway musicals as it is for Hollywood blockbusters.
The theater still can serve as a creative force that influences Hollywood and the larger culture. The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has shown that. But it’s not as common as it used to be. While the new Disneyfied Broadway is effectively exploiting the most popular pieces in our cultural canon, it’s sadly doing less than it once did to expand and enrich our cultural heritage.
Image: By Rob Young from United Kingdom (Minskoff Theater, Broadway) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons