SHOW BUSINESS

Beauty and the bucks

Disney's chairman helps his mega-musical ready to open in canada

John Bemrose August 7 1995
SHOW BUSINESS

Beauty and the bucks

Disney's chairman helps his mega-musical ready to open in canada

John Bemrose August 7 1995

Beauty and the bucks

SHOW BUSINESS

Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of California’s Walt Disney Co., is talking with a loquacious enthusiasm reminiscent of one of Disney’s own cartoon characters. Indeed, with his gangly, six-foot, three-inch frame and affable manner, he has been compared to Goofy. But there is nothing goofy about the mind of the man who, since joining the company in 1984, has guided Disney to unprecedented profits. Eisner, 53, was in Toronto last week to see a preview of the musical Beauty and the Beast. The show—Disney’s first venture into live theatre—debuted in New York City in April, 1994, and is also running in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia. Now, it is Canada’s turn to host the musical based on the old folktale of a beautiful maiden who transforms a monster with her love. The $17-million show, with a cast of 39, opens on Aug. 8 at The Princess of Wales Theatre (which Disney has leased for five years) and has an almost entirely Canadian cast, with the notable exception of the two lead roles. While the members of his entourage bustle anxiously about in suits and ties, Eisner relaxes in a polo shirt and running shoes—and talks about his decision to guide Disney into the untried waters of live theatre. “At a time when everyone else was pushing Internet and video games and Nintendo and all that stuff, I got interested in Broadway,” he says. “Maybe I’m just nuts.” Eisner’s interest went ever further last spring when his company bought New York’s 92-year-old New Amsterdam Theatre. After extensive renovations, it will house future Disney productions, from a new version of the Egyptian love story Aida, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, to a possible stage adaptation of Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, plans are under way to open Beauty and the Beast in Austria, Germany and Japan. “The Japanese are big Disney-philes,” says Robert Jess Roth, who was one of the originators of the show and has spent the past two years moving from city to city—including Toronto—directing it. “They’re expecting Beauty and the Beast to run virtually forever.”

Disney’s new commitment to the musical stage is not quite the act of whimsy that Eisner portrays it as. Productions such as The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon have long proven that megamusicals can be highly profitable. Still, Eisner does not expect live theatre to bring in more than a small part of Disney’s revenues. ‘While a live show plays in one theatre a few times a week, a movie will play 90 times a week in 2,000 theatres,” he

says. Then again, the $17-million cost of mounting Beauty and the Beast is almost small change by Disney standards. Last year, the company racked up sales of $12 billion (up from $2 billion when Eisner took over), most of it from films and theme parks. And Eisner himself has gotten so rich from Disney’s success that he could easily pay for Beauty and the Beast himself. Last year, he made more than $270 million in share options

alone, and was named North America’s toppaid executive by Forbes magazine.

Still, for all his hardheaded business sense, there is a personal, idiosyncratic side to Eisner’s decision to make musicals at Disney.

He grew up in New York City watching shows such as South Pacific and Oklahoma! And at Denison University in Ohio, he majored in English literature and theatre (according to Roth, Eisner wrote “two bad plays” during that period). Later, as an executive at ABC television, he helped to develop several popular programs, including Starsky and Hutch. At Disney, he has displayed an intense interest in the details of production. He was involved in the development stage of Beauty and the Beast, and took notes at the Toronto preview to give to Roth afterward. “I think I’m pretty good with story,” says Eisner. As for his habit of descending on his employees with new ideas, he laughs and adds: “Like flypaper, they can’t get rid of me.”

In putting Beauty and the Beast onstage, Eisner and his team have worked to make it as much as possible like Disney’s animated film version. The rationale has much to do with maintaining the consistency of Disney products. Explains Roth: “I felt it would have been wrong, or misleading in a way, to do a totally different Beauty and the Beast, yet still call it Disney’s Beauty and the Beast— especially since the film was such a recent thing.” The original film score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman has been expanded in the musical to include several new songs (with Rice replacing Ashman after his death from AIDS in 1991). The costumes by Ann Hould-Ward look remarkably similar, while the Beast (played by New

Yorker Chuck Wagner) still resembles a very hairy cross between a buffalo and a warthog. The show itself is a non-stop whirl of special effects, from the Enchantress’s hand-thrown fireball to the climactic transformation— which takes place before the audience’s eyes—of the Beast into a handsome prince.

The relentlessly upbeat nature of the show reflects Disney’s trademark sensibility—which Eisner, who has three grown children with his wife of 27 years, Jane, likes to define in negatives. “Nobody knows what it is,” he says, “but everybody knows when it’s not there. It’s not wholesomeness, but maybe there’s some wholesomeness involved. It’s not cleanliness, but maybe there’s some cleanliness involved.” Eisner often sits through performances of Beauty and the Beast at the Los Angeles theatre near his home. He is such a fan of the show, he says, that “when someone gets up and goes to the bathroom, it drives me nuts.” No doubt, the old wives who first told the tale of Beauty and her Beast around their kitchen fires would know exactly what he means.

JOHN BEMROSE

Disney's chairman helps his mega-musical ready to open in canada