Walt Disney waltzes into the West End

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The Independent Online
After Disney on the screen, Disney in the children's bookshop and Disney on the T-shirt, here comes Disney on the West End stage.

The heirs of Mickey Mouse are now about to push their ever-expanding entertainment empire into London's theatreland with the first of many large-scale musicals, spearheaded by the company's recently-formed Theatrical Productions Division.

The move, which could pose a threat to the current hegemony of the UK's two successful musical producers, Cameron Mackintosh and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, is part of the The Walt Disney company's continuing global expansion, which includes plans for 200 high-street Disney Stores in this country by the year 2000.

Disney has licensed Beauty and the Beast - its first foray into legitimate theatre - to Stella Musical Productions, a German production company which will take it to the Dominion Theatre next May. At pounds 10m, the show, which is currently auditioning in London, will be the most expensive musical for the capital yet, comparing with an average start-up cost of around pounds 4m for similar productions.

This is a strategy with little commercial risk for Disney as the company is maintaining creative control while allowing Stella to put up all the money. It is part of the company's year-old plan to promote "sit-down" productions at specific venues around the world where a local company has paid to license it - so far including Japan, Australia, next year the UK, Germany and Latin America. Disney has only produced the show in-house on home turf in the United States and Canada.

"Since Beauty... has been such an incredible success, London is the logical next step. Everyone feels the more the merrier," says Disney spokesman Ken Werther. "I believe that we could have three or four productions in one go at different theatrical centres such as the West End."

What has been dubbed "Show 2", scheduled for November 1997, will be decided this month from three or four competing ideas, including a production of The Lion King, and a stage version of Aida which Tim Rice and Elton John are working on.

Rocket Theatre, a London-based production company set up two months ago by Elton John's manager John Reid and the producer Sacha Brooks, is likely to be involved in both of these.

Further musicals are likely to include King David, which will be worked into a full production after a concert version on Broadway next spring, and Mary Poppins, which will use songs from the Disney film if an agreement is reached with the owners of the book copyright.

Is this a cultural disaster? Hardly, according to many in the London theatre, who are welcoming the news as potentially favourable for West End jobs and tourism rather than a threat to national heritage.

"If Disney were to come into the UK they would be competing with very high quality musicals," producer Thelma Holt says. "Competition is very healthy and I can't see them as a threat."

Guy Chapman, another London producer, views the move as a "challenge to both Andrew and Cameron", and believes the company could succeed, given its financial clout, network of global contacts and ready-made range of products.

"Disney will be able to mine its own archives. That's a strength Cameron Mackintosh doesn't have," he says.

Sir Cameron himself remains sceptical, questioning Disney's ability to sustain a long-term game plan in such a high-risk business. "Disney has no magical route to great musicals, which are very hard to find," he says. "It remains to be seen how frequently they are able to find something that works - never mind goes around the world - and they would need a world-wide hit every 12 months.

"Disney has only recently been looking at theatre after seeing the success of Andrew and I. But we have haphazardly made an industry out of our success. You can't come in with a corporate strategy and took for shows yielding a bottom line."

In any case, Disney is likely to move somewhat cautiously. Earlier this year there was speculation that it had bid for Mackintosh's company, but now it seems more likely to co-operate with British interests than attempt to steal the West End for itself.

Ken Werther says the company is aware of the dangers and will take things slowly, concerned not to "bite off more than it can chew". He admits that "these projects take an incredibly long, painstaking time".

"The fact that Beauty's Los Angeles run closed last month after only 18 months because of slow business at the box office must be giving the company pause for thought. "Everyone was hoping for it to run for 10 years," Mr Werther adds ruefully.