Why Disney on Broadway…isn’t

The new commercials say it all: 55 million people have seen Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway. And as of Saturday night, my daughter is one of them. (I had already seen it.  This was my second torture time.)

Want to know what my 10 year old daughter thought? “It’s beautiful!  I love the puppets and the costumes.  But it was long.  And kind of boring. It was like the Avatar of Broadway.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

The Avatar of Broadway!! What a perfect analogy!  James Cameron’s Avatar was gorgeous to look at, technically spectacular, and ultimately predictable, cliched, moralistic and boring as hell.  At least it had a message – however obvious and simplistic: We must protect the planet.  Not exactly profound, but at least admirable.

What’s the message of The Lion King?  Disobey your father and it might end up killing him? Make fart jokes and people will laugh? Cast cruise-ship caliber performers, put them on a Broadway Stage – and it’ll be Broadway?  I think not.

To me, Broadway is about – or I guess I should say SHOULD be about – innovation, great acting, challenging story lines. It should be about the best quality theatre can offer.  If I want to see Disney – and I love Disney, really I do, I’ll go to Disney World. I love the shows at Disney World.  The How-di-Do Dinner Show was one of my favorites.  But that’s because my expectation was that I was going to see, well, a How-di-do Dinner Show at Walt Disney World.  When I go to a Broadway Show, I expect more.

True, Julie Taymor’s opening of Disney’s The Lion King is innovative, visually spectacular, and almost makes the sitting through the rest of the plodding show worthwhile.  There were some isolated moments of innovation and beauty – the animals running through the ‘grass,’ the Xhosa spoken by the Baboon. But did the rest of the show have to be such a direct translation of the movie?  Does the Scar character really have to do an imitation of Jeremy Iron’s line readings?  Does Timon have to try to sound like Nathan Lane? (Thank God Harvey Fierstein didn’t voice the movie.  Who could imitate that?) One of the things about true theatre is that it’s always changing.  I’ve seen both Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy in Death of a Salesman – and those actors gave performances so personal, it was like seeing two different plays. (You can bet I’m going to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role when director Mike Nicholls brings it to Broadway next Fall.)

Somehow, I doubt that The Lion King changes much from cast to cast.  It’s Disney, after all.  There’s no room for interpretation. The Disney Way or no way, is my guess.  And that’s not always a bad thing.  Inside the walls of Disney World, that makes sense.  Disney World is an alternate universe with it’s own rules for everything — even pointing out directions.  I can see how personal interpretations could spoil the fantasy.  That’s fine, in context.  But why teach a generation of young people that that’s what Broadway theater is, too?  That isn’t what it is.  Or at least not what it’s meant to be.

I know that financially speaking, Disney has helped Broadway a lot.  It has brought people to the theatre in great numbers.  But at what price?  What does it teach the countless children who have gone to see it about theatre?  That it’s essentially a commercial enterprise?  That it’s not really all that different from the movies?  That it doesn’t need to challenge or make you think? And it isn’t just the Lion King. Disney’s Mary Poppins on Broadway was – to my mind – a soulless bore.  It was impossible to imagine anyone loving the Mary Poppins character, because she wasn’t a character…she was a prop that they could make fly, and dance along rooftops.  Technically and visually speaking, it was impressive.  But so is “It’s a Small World”, and you don’t see Disney setting up little international cities inside a theatre on 42nd street, floating people through them in little boats and calling it Broadway Theatre, now do you?

Just because it’s on Broadway, doesn’t make it Broadway Theatre.

I think my feelings about The Lion King were only made worse by what I saw off-Broadway at The Vineyard Theatre the night before (and for a third of the price): a small spectacular performance piece (based on one by Spalding Gray) called Interviewing the Audience. Guess what it was?  A director, Zach Helm, interviewing, one at a time, three different people picked out of that night’s audience. That’s it.  The set was two chairs, a small area rug, and a few coffee tables.  There was water for the interviewees.  Nobody flew. Nobody (at least to my knowldge) farted. That night, Helm interviewed a middle-aged hotel concierge, a retired insurance consultant, and a recent college grad.  I can’t tell you exactly why it was wonderful – only that it was.  But I can tell you that for me, it embodied precisely what theatre is supposed to be: unexpected, entertaining, moving, profound, and open to interpretation. Also, that, as Helm pointed out, it was the only time the February 25th, 2011 performance of that show would ever occur.  There could never be another one like it.

If that isn’t a unique theatrical experience, I don’t know what is.

I know that with the price of mounting a Broadway show, most don’t meet the criterion I outlined above.  But wouldn’t it be nice if Disney – with all of it’s money – could produce a show that was all of those things? They have the power to make something spectacular. But I don’t think they even want to.  On each seat at the theatre where I saw The Lion King on Saturday Night was a survey:  How did you hear about the show?  How did you buy your tickets?  Have you seen any ads for the show?  Where did you see the ads? They didn’t ask what we thought of the show, if we liked it.  They only cared about the marketing.

And doesn’t that pretty much say it all?




  1. says

    I don’t think there’s one “right” way to do Broadway. I absolutely love The Lion King. I’ve seen it several times and would happily see it again. The costuming is gorgeous and innovative, I enjoy the music and I think they did a wonderful job of adapting an animated movie into a show that isn’t “cartoon-y”. The plot doesn’t send a negative message any more than other Broadway shows (it is, in fact, a nod to Shakespearean tragedy). Then again, I didn’t find Avatar to be boring (although it was a bit preachy). The cast when I saw it was fabulous… most of them had appeared in other Broadway shows, so I can’t imagine they had lost their talent in the transition.

    There’s something out there for everyone. The Lion King is for me, but shoot me if I ever have to sit through one of those cheesy dinner shows (did you mean the Hoop-Dee-Doo Review?).

    • says

      I guess I’m guilty of being a theatre snob. And I do acknowledge that there are a lot of visually spectacular moments in the show. But Carousel it ain’t! I think Disney has the talent, the clout and the money to make something that has it all: a real point to make, a deeper truth, memorable music AND flying nannies!

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