Musical Theatre Historian, Kristin Pressley, will lead a discussion before each show to help you view the show from another perspective.
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Once upon a time …
… New York’s Times Square was a dark and frightening place. Many visitors to the city were scared away by the area’s reputation for seedy characters and shady locations.
The heart of New York’s Theatre District beat to a different drum almost from its inception. As early as the late 19th Century, Times Square was overrun with gamblers, prostitutes, and other criminals. This condition only worsened as time went by. By 1960, The New York Times called stretches of 42nd Street “the worst block in town.”
To see the area now, that’s hard to imagine. The brightest lights in the big city shine down on today’s Times Square. Travelers flock to its theatres, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The area once avoided by tourists has become the center of the City’s tourism industry.
It’s very likely that such a transformation would never have occurred had the Walt Disney Company not stepped in, and the Walt Disney Company might never have stepped in were it not for a musical called Beauty and the Beast.
Based on an 18th century French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast premiered in the form of a 1991 animated film. It was a box office smash—the first animated film to earn more than $100 million—but it was also a critical success, gaining acclaim in some unexpected places.
One of those places was 1991’s “The Year in the Arts: Theater” column written by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich. Rich wrote ironically that the Oscar-nominated film showcased “the best Broadway musical score of 1991.” These critical and commercial accolades caught the attention of Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The two began to explore ways in which Disney might translate its success from the screen to the stage. By 1993, Walt Disney Theatrical Productions (now Disney on Broadway) was up and running. The stakes were incredibly high. Not only was the team they assembled attempting to make Beauty and the Beast as big a success on stage as it had been in film, but they were also tasked with establishing Walt Disney Theatrical Productions as a Broadway producing force.
Opening night came a year later. Though not beloved by critics, audiences adored it. David Richards, in his New York Times review of the show, predicted Beauty and the Beast would be “a whale of a tourist attraction.”
As it turned out, that was putting it mildly.
Beauty and the Beast ran on Broadway from April 1994 until July 2007. Playing nearly 5,500 performances, the show remains the 9th longest-running musical in Broadway history, and, with New York box office receipts of nearly a half billion dollars, the show is number seven on The Fiscal Times’ “10 Top-Grossing Broadway Musicals” list, compiled in 2014.
Needless to say, this success wet the Disney whistle for more. Company executives pursued ways to bring more of Mickey Mouse’s magic to the heart of Manhattan.
Prodded by the success of Beauty and the Beast, Eisner finalized ongoing plans with the city of New York to buy and renovate the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre. In its heyday, the New Amsterdam had been a show palace. It was the glamorous home of the famed Ziegfeld Follies and an anchor of 42nd Street throughout the Jazz Age.
Fallen since then into a state of dismal disrepair, the theatre’s renovations would be as monumental a task as mounting a Broadway production. But if it meant a place to peddle its wares, then Disney was up to the challenge.
For its $29 million investment, Disney would get a dedicated theatre in which management anticipated opening a new show each year. In return, New York would get a chance to breathe new life into a long-dead district in the center of the city.
The arrangement was risky for both parties involved. Disney put its reputation for family friendly entertainment on the line by taking up residence in an area synonymous with the unsavory.
New York, on the other hand, was accused of selling out to Disney’s brand of commercialism. Critics on both sides of the issue were very vocal in their disapproval.
It’s hard to argue, though, with the results of the partnership.
The renovated New Amsterdam re-opened in November of 1997 with the world premiere of The Lion King. Adapted from the 1994 Disney film of the same name, The Lion King was as immediate a stage success as Beauty and the Beast had been, and the new New Amsterdam was as breathtaking a building as ever.
It quickly became clear that the gamble had paid off.
The success of The Lion King—now in its 18th year, the show has brought in over $1 billion at its Broadway box office—has meant great things for Disney but also for New York. With the renaissance of the New Amsterdam came the rebirth of the surrounding area, as well. Disney was among the first tenants to return but many others soon followed its lead.
Today, that section of the city is once again alive and—maybe for the first time in over a century—well. According to Business Insider magazine, Times Square is now the second most visited tourist attraction in the world, welcoming more than 39 million visitors per year.
And, in some ways, all that change was facilitated by the success of tonight’s “tale as old as time.”
By Kristin Pressley
2,799 miles separate Broadway and Hollywood.
To fans of both stage and film, the distance doesn’t seem that far.
Take, for instance, the list of shows currently running on Broadway. Among them are An American in Paris, Chicago, Finding Neverland, The King and I, and School of Rock. All of these musicals—and dozens others now playing in New York—can also be seen in a movie format.
So is this relationship between New York and L.A. something new?
Not at all.
America’s two entertainment Meccas have been stealing storylines from each other for as long as they’ve each existed. What is a relatively new phenomenon is the taking of Hollywood films and turning them into Broadway musicals.
This is the trend that gave birth to tonight’s bill. Before taking off on its National Tour, before opening on Broadway, Bullets Over Broadway was a non-musical film.
The new normal of film-to-stage translation is the opposite of the way things went for most of the twentieth century. Historically-speaking, Hollywood more often borrowed from Broadway. Those shows that were successful on stage - think My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Hello, Dolly! - were rewarded with film forms.
These days, the relationship works, more often, in reverse. In fact, more than half of this century’s Tony Award winners for Best Musical have been shows that are based on movies.
There are a number of reasons. First, fewer and fewer songwriters are creating new work for the stage. In days gone by, there were brothers George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, not to mention Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein or Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. This crew and a hand full of others were the masterminds behind what is today considered the “canon” of musical theatre.
Secondly, while there are a few writers generating work written exclusively for the stage—Jeanine Tesori, composer of 2015’s Fun Home, the most notable among them—there are fewer producers willing to risk their money to stage an unknown work. Three out of four Broadway shows never turn a profit. With upfront budgets climbing into the tens of millions, most producers feel that a well-known title with a familiar storyline will sell better than something that is totally unknown.
It’s a logic that can be hard to argue with.
Consider the case of 2001’s The Producers. An adaptation of Mel Brooks’ beloved 1968 film, the musical Producers was not the first movie-turned-musical (the first film-to-stage adaptation to win a Tony Award was actually 1970’s Applause, based on the 1950 film All About Eve). Its stage success was, however, a wake-up call to those in the business of Broadway. The show grossed nearly $1 million a week for much of its six year run. Suddenly, studios and screenwriters started searching their bodies of work to see what might transition well from the screen to the stage.
Enter Bullets Over Broadway.
The 1994 film, with script by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath, was a critical success and a cult favorite. A non-musical, “backstage” story set in the 1920s, Bullets Over Broadway was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Dianne Wiest took home the statue for her turn as Helen Sinclair.
For years, producers had tried to entice Allen with the idea of bringing a musical Bullets to Broadway. In fact, a few years after the movie was released, a songwriting team began work on music for a proposed stage adaptation. Allen disliked the songs they wrote. As a result, the transfer was shut down.
In the years to follow, Allen remained resistant to adapting the film to the stage, primarily because of his dislike for modern show music. When his producer sister suggested they could fill the show with music written in the 1920s, Allen began to change his tune.
If deciding to adapt the show for Broadway was a tough call, selecting a director was just as easy. Susan Stroman, who’d helmed The Producers musical, was an obvious choice. A veteran dancer and choreographer, “Stro,” as she’s known in theatre circles, had since made a name for herself as a director. Her specialty is capturing the sort of razz-mattazz, glitzy glamour synonymous with the films made by her hero Fred Astaire. Work-wise, his motto has become her own: “Do it big; do it right; and do it with style.”
Stro’s style is precisely what attracted Allen to her work. He’d heard she was easy to work with, and he knew she was no stranger to success - particularly when guiding big-screen gold to the silver stage (see: Producers). Together, Allen and Stroman began the work of readying Bullets for Broadway. The pair worked for two years, and the show opened in April of 2014.
When it did, it became the next in a long line of Hollywood exports to Broadway.
Next up? Frozen, The Princess Bride, Mean Girls and many others, all of which prove that the distance from the screen to the stage is not that far at all.
In a sense, Broadway bookends the career of writer / director / comedic genius Mel Brooks.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1926, Melvin Kaminsky — he changed his name to “Brooks” later — saw his first Broadway musical at eight years old. His Uncle Joe, a New York City cab driver, came into tickets for Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” just days after the Ethel Merman vehicle had opened at the Alvin Theatre. Young Melvin went along. Not sure what to expect, the boy was hooked from the opening number.
“I think I went a little crazy. I think I went nuts. I kept singing all the songs,” Brooks said in a 2013 interview with Public Radio International’s Kurt Andersen. “… the spirit, the joy that emanated from that stage, that filled the audience with craziness and love and happiness and comedy and bounce. I said, ‘This is it.’”
He knew then what his life’s work would be.
“There’s one life,” he said, “and I’m gonna live it on that stage.”
Beginning as a sketch writer for the television variety show “Your Show of Shows,” Brooks went on to co-create sketches like “The 2000 Year Old Man” and shows like “Get Smart.”
He is probably best known, however, as a filmmaker. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Brooks wrote and directed a myriad of films, three of which are listed on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 Comedy Films of All-Time.
One of those three films is “The Producers.”
“The Producers” was Brooks’ first film and one of his favorite creations. Though it didn’t premiere until 1968, he’d been living with the idea for it, since he was sixteen. At the time, he worked for a Max Bialystock-kind of producer. Known more for romancing elderly dowagers than developing a hit show, this particular producer made a very big impact on young Brooks who knew that his shady ways would make a great story.
Years later, Brooks attempted to jumpstart his career by toying with the story he then called “Springtime for Hitler.” This provocative title was inspired by an off-the-cuff response Brooks had given to a reporter at a press conference for the 1962 musical “All American.” Brooks had written the libretto for the show that starred Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”). When asked what he was going write next, Brooks responded with the most un-“All American” retort he could muster: “Springtime for Hitler,” he said.
In the mid-1960s, Brooks knew it was time to make good on his promise to write it.
When he’d completed a 30 page treatment for the story, Brooks began to pass it around to different producers. Not surprisingly, most major studios passed on a film with such an outrageous title. But Brooks persisted in his search for a film studio and ultimately found Sidney Glazier. Glazier, a producer of independent films, was immediately taken with the script and vowed to get the film made.
The film did, of course, get made. It starred Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom and premiered in 1968. When it did, “Springtime for Hitler” had been changed to “The Producers,” as many theatre operators were unwilling to put the name of a dictator on their marquees.
The film was critically—and sometimes painfully—panned. Still, it developed a cult following, and in so doing, it did what Brooks had hoped that it would do. It launched his film career. Just over a decade later, renowned film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert grouped Brooks with Woody Allen, calling the pair “America’s two funniest filmmakers.”
With a body of work that grew to include “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” “The Producers” stands out for many as one of Brooks’ best works. Many suggested over the years that the story, which Brooks had attempted in both novel and play form before making it as a movie, would be perfect fodder for a musical comedy. Brooks didn’t agree — until, one day, he did.
In 1998, Brooks got a call from media mogul David Geffen. Geffen, founder of DreamWorks Studios, pitched the idea of “The Producers” as a musical. For the first time, Brooks didn’t resist. After decades in show business - and with about eleven years since his last big hit (1987’s “Spaceballs”) - Brooks was finally willing to try something new.
The musical form, though, wasn’t new to Brooks. He remembered so fondly all those years ago when he’d seen “Anything Goes” with his uncle. He also knew that there was nothing like that big, splashy sort of show on the Great White Way at the time. He began to feel it was his duty to help resurrect the form that had started him down his career path.
Once he decided to adapt “The Producers,” Brooks brought in his frequent collaborator Thomas Meehan to help him write the script. Meehan had written the libretto for “Annie,” so the musical form was a familiar one to him. Brooks himself would write the music.
But whom to direct?
That choice was easy. Mike Ockrent, a British film director, had had great success with a razzmatazz musical of his own. He’d developed 1992’s smash hit Gershwin revue “Crazy for You.” His wife, who’d choreographed “Crazy for You,” had since directed the Tony Award winning musical “Contact.” They were the perfect tandem to spearhead the show.
One night, the unsuspecting couple were at home in New York when they received a call from a Brooks assistant. Mel Brooks wanted to meet with them — in an hour. When he arrived, Brooks didn’t say a word, just broke into song as they opened the door.
That was that. Ockrent and Stroman accepted Brooks’ proposal and got to work on “The Producers.”
Sadly, Ockrent passed away not long after. Stroman, who has since directed “Bullets Over Broadway,” which appeared at the Classic Center last November, was overcome with grief. She stepped away from all work for two months. Then, Brooks and Meehan enticed her back to the work. She would take over her husbands’s role as director. In so doing, they believed, her grief would be made more manageable by laughter.
“The Producers” opened on April 19, 2001. The next day, its box office took in a record $3 million in ticket sales. A resounding and unparalleled success both critically and commercially, the show continuously broke records for ticket sales, ticket prices ($480 for VIP Dress Circle Seats), and Tony nominations (15; the show won 12, one for each category in which it was nominated).
Brooks had jumpstarted his stage career with the same story that had jumpstarted his film career.
And he did it in the venue that’d made him pursue show business in the first place.
A passionate fan of musical theatre, Kristin Stultz Pressley is a frequent lecturer on Broadway shows, their creators, and their histories. She earned a PHD in Theatre from the University of Georgia. Learn more at http://www.DrBroadway.com or by following @DrBway on Twitter and Instagram.
Mel Brooks is one of only 14 people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
After the success of “The Producers,” Brooks and director Susan Stroman collaborated again on a musical version of “Young Frankenstein.” It opened on Broadway in 2007.Brooks hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adapting his film “Blazing Saddles” for Broadway.
By Kristin Pressley
To musical theatre lovers, it feels as if the show has been around forever. In a lot of ways, it has. Based on a 1933 film of the same name, the musical adaptation premiered on Broadway in 1980. It tells the oft-told backstage story of a small town girl whose big city dreams come true right before the audience’s eyes.
By Kristin Pressley
“Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me?”
If it weren’t for 1940’s “Fantasia” film, the answer to that question might have been “Donald Duck!”
Or even “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.”
Oswald was the first of the Walt Disney’s animated creations to be successful. He made his premiere in 1927 and continued to star in cartoon shorts created by the Disney Bros. Studio and distributed by Universal Studios.
After Oswald’s early successes - his debut “performance” was in “Trolley Trouble” - Walt Disney asked his Universal managers for a bigger production budget. Not only did Universal deny him the increase, they instead decreased his funding and promised to lure the majority of Disney’s animators away from Disney Bros. Studios.
Disney was livid. Along with animator Ub Iwerks, he parted ways with Universal, Oswald, and the defecting cartoonists. Disney and Iwerks immediately set out to create another character that could become just as beloved as their animated rabbit.
Enter a mouse named … Mortimer.
That was the moniker originally given to Disney and Iwerks' new creation. For some unknown reason - most believe Mrs. Disney hated the name “Mortimer” and suggested “Mickey” instead - Mortimer’s name became Mickey.
A star was born.
Though he’d previously appeared in an unfinished short called “Plane Crazy,” Mickey’s official debut was in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie.” A parody of that year’s Buster Keaton vehicle “Steamboat Bill, Jr., “ “Steamboat Willie” was the first animated film to use synchronized music and sound effects.
The formula worked.
Before long, Mickey Mouse was not only a beloved cartoon character featured in about twelve animated shorts a year, he was also the star of his own merchandise line and the head of that beloved club “that’s made for you and me.” His success quickly surpassed that of silent cartoon superstar Felix the Cat.
Naturally, Disney and Iwerks added supporting characters to Mickey’s menagerie of pals. Among others, there was Minnie Mouse, Mickey’s dog Pluto and Mickey’s foil (and almost his undoing) Donald Duck.
About a decade after Mickey’s debut, audiences began to tire of the anthropomorphic mouse. Donald Duck, whose distinctive personality often overshadowed that of the more even-keel mouse, was becoming increasingly more popular than Mickey.
This bothered Walt Disney. He saw Mickey as his own alter-ego. So he concocted a comeback. Disney planned to create a role as iconic as his star. In so doing, he would revive Mickey’s career.
What Disney envisioned was an interpretation of Paul Dukas’ symphonic poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It would be presented in animated short form with Mickey, of course, starring as the apprentice (though both Donald Duck and Dopey of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were at one time said to be considered for the role).
The idea began to take shape when Disney ran into Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, outside of a Hollywood restaurant. When Disney told Stokowski of his plans, the conductor offered his services for the short film.
Work was begun.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” proved to be a budget-buster. With production costs reaching $125,000 more than expected, the film would have to be scrapped - or, Disney thought - expanded and released as a feature film in order to recoup its astronomical costs.
He chose the latter.
With Stokowski’s musical input, Disney chose to include cartoon takes on other musical classics, like “The Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The resulting film - “Fantasia” - was Walt Disney’s third full-length feature. It was released in 1940.
Though “Fantasia” garnered generally warm reviews, it did not receive commercial success - at least not initially. For starters, Disney’s RKO distributor wasn’t keen on placing the film in theaters. As a result, it only appeared in twelve cinemas on its first release.
Secondly, “Fantasia” was the first film to be shown in stereo. The Disney team created a special sound system that required 90 speakers be placed throughout each auditorium before the film could be aired. As a result, a team of engineers had to travel around, installing speakers into each theatre in which the piece played. This, of course, was both labor and cost intensive.
Finally, World War II kept “Fantasia” from playing overseas.
With these factors working against it, the film only grossed $1.3 million in its initial release. Its losses - greater even than those of Disney’s second feature film “Pinocchio” - meant an even smaller budget for Disney’s fourth planned film, “Dumbo.”
Walt Disney Studios nonetheless remained committed to the project. Considered a marvel of animation and, thereby, a jewel in the Disney crown, “Fantasia” went through several re-releases, each one a tweaked variation of the 1940 original. Through these re-releases - the most recent being in 2000 - the film has grossed more than $76 million. Adjusted for inflation, this makes “Fantasia” one of the most successful films of all time.
Disney’s plan to jumpstart Mickey’s “career” with “Fantasia” was also successful. The World’s Most Famous Mouse went on to receive ten Oscar nominations (for Best Animated Short Film) and have four animated shorts included in “The 50 Greatest Cartoons” book. He was also the first animated character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.Those are accolades Donald Duck can only dream of.