All thanks to that Mickey Mouse outfit

Walt Disney isn't the most likely saviour of the musical. But, with a lavish 'Beauty and the Beast' set to open, and several other shows in the pipeline, the wonderful world has come to the stage.

The musical is dead. No one in their right minds would dream of describing the past 15 years as Broadway's finest. As Amanda McBroom's cabaret song puts it, "Everyone Wants to Be Sondheim", but his producers will tell you that his critically well-received musicals don't make money. (Well, Into the Woods did, but only on the tour.) On the flip-side are the populist works, transatlantic tourist attractions such as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera which, like Ol' Man River, keep on rolling along, but even their creators have had rough rides recently. All the stars in the Really Useful Group's sizeable Filofax couldn't turn Sunset Boulevard into worthwhile profit.

Yet, just when the snobs thought it was safe to go back into the theatre, the corpse has sat up grinning. Broadway is alive with product. In the past few years, producers have hit paydirt disinterring past glories like Damn Yankees (which opens in London next month), Matthew Broderick fronting How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the National Theatre's Carousel, or the current smash, Chicago, arriving here in the Autumn. Then, last season, change arrived in the successful shape of the La Boheme- meets-HIV-rock-musical, Rent, and the black-history-through-tap-dancing sensation Bring in da' noise, Bring in da' funk. The news this season is that, aside from Annie and Candide, there's a bumper crop of new musicals.

Yesterday, the Tony nominations were announced and Maury Yeston's gargantuan Titanic is up for five, including Best Musical; Steel Pier, about marathon dances in the 1930s, rather like They Shoot Horses, Don't They minus the politics, from Kander and Ebb (creators of Cabaret), has picked up 11; and The Life, the story of a couple who make money but lose out as a hooker and a pimp on Times Square in the Eighties (like a darker take on Cy Coleman's earlier Sweet Charity), has nabbed 12. Also-rans include a vast Jekyll and Hyde, the Twelfth Night-meets-Duke Ellington Play On! and the Johnny Mercer compilation Dream.

"There's a lot of product out there carving up the dollar," admits Candide's producer Garth Drabinsky, mindful of his $4.25m cost, chicken feed when compared with Titanic, which sailed in at $10m. Even that is dwarfed by the latest blockbuster to hit London after cloned productions in New York, LA, Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Vienna, Osaka and Tokyo. Beauty and the Beast, the theatrical version of the animated wonder, has cost Disney $13m, making it London's most expensive musical ever and, ironically, it's all the fault of "the butcher of Broadway", the legendary ex-New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich.

Reviewing the film on a classical music radio station back in 1991, Rich described composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman's movie songs as "the best Broadway score written this year". The pair of them were straddling the divide, the joke being that if we thought we'd seen the last gasp of the stage musical, the coffin of its movie counterpart was six feet under. Original Hollywood musicals had peaked in the Fifties with Arthur Freed producing the likes of Singin' in the Rain at MGM, while later stage-to-screen transitions of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows such as South Pacific and The Sound of Music, and the multi-Oscar pile-up for Bernstein's West Side Story, kept the studios more than happy. At the end of the Sixties, the business turned to Barbra Streisand to save them, but after knocking 'em dead in Funny Girl, more - in the mangled shapes of Hello, Dolly! and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - proved to be less. Bette Midler's powerhouse performance in The Rose proved that there were still vital signs but, come 1980, the dollar-chewing, disco-driven disasters Can't Stop the Music and Xanadu sounded the death knell. By 1985, who wanted Richard Attenbrough's ill-conceived screen version of Broadway's longest runner A Chorus Line? Answer: nobody.

Not that anyone was denying the power of song. Eighties cinema ate up screen time with moony montage sequences cut to wannabe hits and everything from the Bond movies upwards used songs to sell themselves, if only to cover the titles. Entire movies were constructed around catalogues of period hits and the largest chunk of the credits these days is the recording details and copyright listings for songs from the soundtrack. The producers of Evita, "the screen event of the decade", would have you believe that their musical amounted to the resurrection, but don't believe a word of it. Ashman and Menken got there first.

The two of them hit the big time with their off-off-Broadway, Phil Spector- sound, B-movie spoof Little Shop of Horrors (which intriguingly began life as a Brecht / Weill style show): it was duly turned into a movie. Ashman joined the then moribund Disney animation studio to make The Little Mermaid (1989), taking composer Menken with him. The venture netted Menken the first two in his collection of eight Oscars and from there came world domination in the form of Beauty and the Beast (1991).

Director Robert Jess Roth and designer Stan Meyer, friends since college, had been mounting stage spectaculars in Disney theme parks but had been pressing studio supremo Michael Eisner (who had also majored in theatre at college) to let them do something on Broadway. Eisner was intrigued, but nothing clicked until he followed up on Frank Rich's hunch and suggested a stage transition for Beauty and the Beast. Months of preparation and a two-and-a-half-hour pitch later, it was a done deal. It opened almost exactly three years ago at the Palace Theatre to downbeat reviews from the weightier press, who expressed more than slight misgivings. No one could gainsay the splendour of the spectacle, its technical flair and lavish costumes, but watching actors express all the innate subtlety of a cartoon wasn't to everyone's taste. Audiences flocked, however. With tickets hovering around $70, no one would want to risk shelling out on a loser, but, with the Disney imprimatur on it, and in the wake of the splendid film, this show offers the epitome of the known quantity.

Beauty and the Beast changed Roth's life. This friendly, energetic thirtysomething guy need never work again, but he has directed its worldwide reincarnations and is helming it in London, convinced it will be better than ever, thanks to the strengths of British actors. Successive productions have simplified many of the technical demands of this outsize show, but Disney has had to move the back wall of the vast Dominion theatre to house the stage machinery, sets, costumes and props, including 600 lamps, three miles of lighting cable and 160 wigs, let alone the cast of 40, an orchestra of 25 and an astonishing backstage crew of 69. (Where are they going to hold the opening night party? Wembley Stadium?)

Peter Schneider, the boyish, enthusiastic president of Walt Disney Feature Animation and Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, cheerily dismisses suggestions that the stage version might be considered a pale imitation of the film. "You have to strive not to dilute the original source. That's the goal. I think it's a great evening in the theatre." He has no time for the notion that success is guaranteed. "If you think it's foretold, you fail. Rest on your laurels, you're in trouble. London is a very different market. It's familiar with pantomimes and Christmas entertainments, so I think we have to be vigilant in making it a dynamic production that is unique to Britain. It will have a different sensibility... the same elements but a different flavour."

He's equally excited by the myriad projects on Disney's slate. The Lion King arrives on stage later this year, while Elton John and Tim Rice are writing a new stage musical of Aida with 17 songs that Schneider believes include five hit singles. (He's probably right: Elton John's Lion King album sold 11 million copies in the States.) As for animation, Hercules, the latest from Alan Menken, opens in the USA in July, Phil Collins is at work on songs for Tarzan and Sting is doing likewise for a fairy tale, Kingdom of the Sun.

Ten years ago, if you'd suggested that Disney was the crash team to pump life back into the musical, no one would have listened. Not even Schneider, but he's too busy to speculate on the past. The day after Beauty and the Beast opens, he's flying back to Manhattan. Why? To attend the opening of the company's next big venture: nine concert performances of Alan Menken and Tim Rice's King David being given in Disney's opulently restored New Amsterdam Theatre with 12 principals, 40 in the chorus and, says Schneider, "Shoot me, 54 musicians!" If it works, they'll turn it into a full show. In that event, even Nineties power-players Disney may be forced to cut this musical Goliath down to sizen

'Beauty and the Beast' is previewing at the Dominion Theatre and opens 13 May

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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