Disney’s Frozen continues its run at Chicago’s Broadway Palace through January 22, and it is worth seeing not only for the theatrical effects but also for the songs and story. Seeing Frozen led me to consider the progression of musicals from Disney Theatrical Productions, which began its Broadway affiliation more than 25 years ago with the premier of Beauty and the Beast.
This post will look back at the 11 Disney Theatrical musicals that I have seen. For a more complete list including shows in production, check out this link. In addition to ranking the musicals, I am also going to look at each musical’s role in the 25-year progression of Disney’s theater arm.*
Number 11: On the Record (2004)
In this Disney version of a jukebox musical, four singers meet in a studio to record an album featuring “64 extraordinary hits in one unforgettable musical.” Two are at the start of their careers, two are rekindling an old relationship, and they are happily in love by the end. These generic plot points are expressed rather awkwardly through Disney songs with the only dialogue coming from an off-stage musical director. This 9-month touring show probably made Disney money due to its low costs, but it also exposed how repetitive Disney songs can become when they are pilled one on top of another.
Notable song: Notice how uncomfortably enthusiastic the actors are with their monkey hooting during “I Wanna Be Like You.”
Number 10: Tarzan (2006)
The third animated movie adaptation overall but the first since the giant success of The Lion King, Tarzan was sold with an emphasis on how its actors would be swinging all over the stage. Notably, the creators of the animated film had not given Tarzan any songs because they said a man singing in a loincloth would look ridiculous. In the Broadway adaptation, ridiculous or not, loincloth singing is the norm. Disney, coming off a hot streak, was probably surprised by the relative lack of critical praise and audience enthusiasm for Tarzan. After Tarzan, Disney focused more on properties that were more beloved for their music and easier for smaller theaters to produce.
Notable video: “Sneak Peak of TARZAN on Broadway” highlights what Tarzan attempted to accomplish. For the audience, all those safety harnesses often seemed more prominent than the actual stunts.
Number 9: Newsies (2012)
Labor strikes are ugly, complicated events that often bring out the worst in both sides. Harvey Fierstein’s script focuses more on the glamorous aspects – namely brotherhood and the opportunity to perform choreographed gymnastics. The showstopper “Seize the Day” sticks in your head, but most of the other songs cover the same territory to the point of tedium. To give credit where credit is due, Newsies had a successful run on Broadway, reportedly recouping its initial investment in five months, and it is still revived regularly in regional theaters.
Notable video: Christopher Gattelli’s choreography for “Seize the Day” goes all in on the idea that “we are putting our foot down.”
Number 8: Aladdin (2014)
Disney had their Broadway formula figured by the 2014 premier of Aladdin: bright colors, dazzling special effects, four or five added songs to fill out the run time. I was amazed by the flying carpet, which circles the stage for several minutes during “A Whole New World,” although a friend reported that she saw the strings. I enjoyed Aladdin, but I did not see much that improved on the film. To date, Aladdin is still running strong on Broadway with over 1300 performances.
Notable video: On the fifth anniversary, five genies including Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart performed together in this fun video.
Number 7: The Lion King (1997)
Many people will disagree with me and rank The Lion King higher. As the second Disney production, The Lion King sought to shed the “musical for children” label that Beauty and the Beast could not shake, and Julie Taymor was the perfect director with her uncompromising originality and flair for visuals. I, like everyone else, was wowed by the animal costumes, but for me the plot becomes secondary to the visuals, and Young Simba’s presence lasts about 30 minutes too long. All told, The Lion King reigns as the most financially successful Broadway show of all time with over $8.2 billion in grosses.
Notable video: The coolest puppets are the elephants, showcased in this clip of “Circle of Life.”
Number 6: The Little Mermaid (2007-08)
This musical’s script improves upon the movie by giving Ariel more empowerment over her own destiny. However, the Broadway production hit a number of stumbling blocks as the designers obsessed about small details, earning derision for poor choices like putting motors in their mermaid’s tails and wheels on their shoes. By the time I saw The Little Mermaid at the Paramount Theater in 2016, Disney had tinkered with the musical following a shorter-than-expected Broadway run. The Paramount production hit the correct notes with plenty of lavish scenery and puppetry to accompany the classic songs.
Notable videos: You can compare the costuming in the Broadway production (including that infamous moving tail and the wheeled shoes) to the improved production at the Paramount, where Ariel can actually dance and Sebastian has been changed to a puppet.
Number 5: The Jungle Book (2013)
It appears, sadly, that Disney is not going to move forward with The Jungle Book. Like The Lion King, Disney recruited a respected director known for her flair for visuals, in this case Mary Zimmermann. The character designs used a different strategy from The Lion King, emphasizing the actor rather than the animal. The Jungle Book earned critical acclaim during its experimental run in Chicago (followed by a run in Boston). It is difficult to say if mainstream audiences would have embraced a concept so different from Disney’s other productions.
Notable video: This promotional video of the Goodman’s production features both the costumes and André De Shields as King Louie.
Number 4: Frozen (2017)
When Frozen became the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time and revitalized the Disney Princess genre in 2013, the announcement of a fast-tracked Broadway adaptation was inevitable. The opening number – an exposition-filled version of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” – overstays its welcome, but after that the video projections and other special effects enhance the still-compelling story. Meanwhile, puppet Olaf steals every scene where he is present, and “Let it Go” is a perfect close to the first act (assuming the viewer has recovered from the song’s ubiquitous playing back in 2013-14).
Notable video: The ideal video would be an authorized version of Olaf’s “In Summer.” I could not find one, but the Broadway in Chicago preview highlights the production as a whole.
Number 3: Beauty and the Beast (1994)
I was in high school when I first saw Beauty and the Beast – my second Broadway show (the first was the much different The Who’s Tommy). My reaction at the time was that this musical was creative and fun, but it strayed further than needed to pander to preschoolers. In the ensuing 25 years, I have never stopped cringing at the Beast-is-illiterate subplot, but I’ve learned to appreciate Beauty and the Beasts‘s many strengths. Of all the Disney adaptations, this starts with the best material in terms of both story and musical numbers, and it is the only adaptation to add a true showstopper not in the cartoon – the Act 1 finale “If I Can’t Love Her.”
Notable video: With Hugh Jackman returning to Broadway in The Music Man, take a few minutes to see him revisit his Gaston roots.
Number 2: Mary Poppins (2006)
Mary Poppins opened on the West End two years before its Broadway premier with a notable influence from co-producer Cameron Mackintosh. Like the 1963 movie, the musical offers a full lineup of beloved songs including “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” and (the incredible dance number) “Step in Time.” Mary Poppins is the type of character who elicits different reactions from different people, but for many viewers the appeal likely resonates from her ability to spark the imagination while alternately creating order and chaos.
Notable video: The original Broadway Mary Poppins was Ashley Brown, who also starred in On the Record (seen here performing “Step in Time”).
Number 1: Aida (2000)
Elton John (with lyricist Tim Rice) created some of his best work for Aida, demonstrating mastery at writing songs that develop and humanize Aida, Radames, and Princess Amneris as they navigate an ancient Egyptian love triangle. Choosing a favorite song is difficult – “Fortune Favors the Brave,” “Like Father Like Son,” “The Gods Love Nubia,” and “Written in the Stars” are all contenders – but “My Strongest Suit” wins for being a brilliant ode to material values. Disney took a chance on Aida, which is the only musical on this list not adapted from its pre-existing material. Unfortunately, there is no indication that Disney will go this route again despite the resources at its disposal.
Notable song: “My Strongest Suit” is performed by the Spice Girls on the Aida concept album, a perfect matching of artists and content.
*Unless otherwise noted, images feature the original Broadway cast.
If you have any opinions on my rankings, please leave a comment. Happy 2022 New Year!