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The "Snow White" that wasn't: Why Disney took a pass on a Joe Papp production that would have had Linda Ronstadt starring as the Fairest in the Land

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The "Snow White" that wasn't: Why Disney took a pass on a Joe Papp production that would have had Linda Ronstadt starring as the Fairest in the Land

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Now through February 7th (in honor of the 80th anniversary of the general release of the studio's first full-length animated feature), Disney is presenting "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at the El Capitan Theatre.

To help sell tickets to this extremely limited engagement (How limited? Just six days. Then the El Cap tosses The Fairest in the Land out on her fanny to make room for its Throwback Thursday presentation. Which - fittingly enough [given that the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are being held on Friday] is Disney's 1993 sports comedy about the Jamaican bobsled team, "Cool Running"), this classic Hollywood movie palace is telling would-be ticket buyers that " ... Before the show, see Snow White live on stage!"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Now no disrespect for the obviously-talented-but-deliberately-anonymous (because that's the Disney way) young woman that the El Capitan has hired to play the Little Princess out ahead of each of these 80th anniversary screenings of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," but you know what might make us all far more eager to attend this promoted pre-show?  If the theater had hired a big name to play the title role. Like - say - 11-time Grammy Award winner Linda Ronstadt.

"But that's crazy, Jim," you say. "Ronstadt retired from performing back in 2011. And given that Linda was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in December 2012, it's doubtful that she'll ever sing again. Let alone play Disney's version of Snow White."

Sadly, all of the above is true. But you know what's even sadder? 35 years ago this month, Broadway legend Joe Papp was actually negotiating with the Mouse House to try and make this happen.

A flyer hyping Linda Ronstadt's 1971
appearance at Disneyland Park.
Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

Don't believe me? Take a gander at this article from the February 18, 1983 edition of the Los Angeles Daily News:

Award-winning theater producer Joseph Papp is negotiating with the Walt Disney organization to acquire the legitimate theater rights to the 1937 film version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The stage version would include the film's original songs and would feature Linda Ronstadt in the leading role. The Papp-Ronstadt Snow White will be presented free of charge during the summer of 1983 in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

So what set this surreal set of circumstances in motion? Believe it or not, it was Papp's acclaimed 1980 production of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera, "The Pirates of Penzance" (Which - not-so-co-incidentally - was also originally presented at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park before it then transferred first to the Uris and then the Minskoff Theatre for a very profitable Broadway run).

What made this particular version of "Pirates of Penzance" such a sensation back in the 1980s was A) director Wilford Leach decided to really play up the comedy in this then-101 year-old comic opera and B) Papp's decision to recruit stars to come play key roles in "Pirates" in order to this aged enterprise some added energy. Which is how Oscar winner Kevin Kline wound up being cast as the Pirate King (His swashbuckling / slapstick-infused take on this character resulted in Kline winning that year's Tony for Best Actor in a Musical), teen idol / pop singer Rex Smith was hired to play Frederic and ...

Linda Ronstadt in Universal Pictures' 1983 movie version of "The Pirates of
Penzance." Copyright NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

... As for the casting of Mabel (i.e., one of the Major-General's many daughters. To be specific, the one who gets to trill "Poor Wandering One"), Papp had a genuinely inspired idea. He reached out to Ronstadt (who had just released "Mad Love," her seventh consecutive million selling album) and asked Linda if she'd like to take a break from selling out arenas all over the world and make her legitimate stage debut instead.

And as it turns out, Ronstadt was really ready to take a break from rock-n-roll. But when she showed up up to begin rehearsals of "The Pirates of Penzance," her co-stars were genuinely startled to learn how little practical acting experience Linda actually had.

How little? The only time previous that Ronstadt had worked off of a script was May of 1980. Which was when Linda had flown to London to shoot an episode of "The Muppet Show."

Linda Ronstadt and the cast of "The Muppet Show." Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So - with so little experience when it came to lines & dialogue - how then Ronstadt then find her way when it came to the role of Mabel? She decided to base her performance in "The Pirates of Penzance" on what Linda once called " ... one of the most brilliant pieces of art in the twentieth century." And that was Walt Disney's "Snow White."

"Mabel's like a big cartoon and I guess I'm a cartoon character, too," Ronstadt admitted in an August 1980 interview with Newsweek magazine. "I did (this show) for fun and I'm glad I did."

And Joe - because he'd also had fun working with Linda - wanted to continue their collaboration. Which is why - given that Papp knew that Ronstadt was such a huge "Snow White" fan - began pursuing the stage rights for Disney's first-ever full length animated feature. Figuring that - if he could persuade Mouse House execs to get onboard with this idea and then stage this production back at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (i.e., a venue that this celebrated singer was already familiar with / comfortable with performing at) - there was just no way that Linda could then pass on this project.

Linda Ronstadt (far left) on stage at the Delacorte Theatre as Mabel with her sisters
(far right) and their father, the Major-General (played by the late, great George Rose).

That was the plan as of February 1983. That the Public Theater's proposed production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" would follow the "Pirates of Penzance" playbook. That rehearsals would begin sometime in the mid-summer, followed by a three week-long run at the Delacorte theater. Then - provided that the reviews were strong enough (more importantly, provided that Ronstadt was willing to continue in the role) - this new stage version of "Snow White" would then transfer to Broadway for an open-ended run.

But sometime over the next three months, Papp's plan fell apart. Which is why Joe was then forced to put together another project for Linda. As New York Magazine reported in its May 9, 1983 issue:

Bob Jani, back in his Creative-Director-for-Walt-Disney-Productions days.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And why exactly did Disney not give Papp permission to proceed with this seeming sure-fire project? To borrow a phrase from Facebook, it's complicated.

Long story short: Disney entertainment legend Bob Jani (who had left the Company in 1978 to go help revive Radio City Music Hall's "Magnificent Christmas Spectacular." As a reward for bringing that NYC holiday favorite back from the very brink of extinction, Jani was then named president of Radio City Music Hall Productions. Which meant that Bob was now in charge of Radio City's annual Christmas pageant as well as charged with creating other new stage productions that would then compel tourists as well as New Yorkers to come visit this historic entertainment venue on a far more regular basis) persuaded his old Mouse House bosses to award Radio City the stage rights to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in early 1979.

You see, Jani remembered that - back in August of 1969 - the St. Louis Municipal Opera Association had (with the cooperation of Walt Disney Productions executives) put together a trial stage adaptation of "Snow White." This show then ran for two weeks at this giant outdoor venue (And when I say "giant," I mean GIANT. The St. Louis MUNY has more than 12,000 seats). Once production of this trial stage version of "Snow White" wrapped, all rights then reverted to Walt Disney Productions. And the Company could then do what it wanted with this script.

Bob knew that the stage version of "Snow White" that had been presented in the more-than-12,000 seat MUNY back in 1969 could easily be adapted to play at the 6,015 seat Radio City Musical Hall in 1979. More to the point, once Radio City's stage version of "Snow White" was mounted, this $750,000 extravaganza could then be toured around the country. With the idea being that this touring show would then generate funds that Radio City Music Hall Productions could then funnel into production of new shows for the mothership.

That was the plan as of October 14, 1979. Which was Jani told the New York Times that - out ahead of the very first performance of Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at Radio City Music Hall - come November, this 90 minute-long musical fairytale (which was presented without an intermission) will then ...

... begin a national tour -- definitely scheduled through June -- of Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the proceeds of which, Music Hall executives hope, will help offset the high cost of mounting the production. Plans to visit other locations (including, possibly, Great Britain), which could keep "Snow White" on the road until Christmas 1980, are still being formulated.

Ad promoting "Snow White" 's stop in Washington,
D.C. during its national tour.

It was Bob's desire to tour Radio City's version of "Snow White" for several years that supposedly tripped up Joe's plan to present a brand-new stage version of this Disney animated classic in Central Park with Linda Ronstadt. Though this elaborate stage show did make stops at the National Theater in Washington D.C. ...

... and Chicago's Arie Crown Theatre ...

... before it then returns to Radio City Music Hall for an encore engagement that ran through March 9, 1980, the remainder of this expensive-to-mount traveling stage show's proposed national tour then became a "to-be-named-later" affair. Which is why - in February of 1983 - Walt Disney Productions just wasn't in a position to award Joe Papp the stage rights to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." At that time, Radio City Music Hall still held those rights. Largely because (in theory, anyway) Radio City Music Hall Productions could pull all of its "Snow White" sets & costumes out of mothballs and then send that show back out on tour.

What had further complicated the "Snow White" stage situation was that - in October of 1981 - Walt Disney Productions had signed a development deal with veteran Broadway producers Elizabeth I. McCann and Nelle Nugent. With the idea being that the talented team behind Tony Award winners like the 1978 revival of "Dracula," 1979's Best Play honoree "The Elephant Man," and "Morning's at Seven" (Which took the Tony for Best Revival in 1980) would then find shows that Mouse House could invest in. Given that it would have been somewhat awkward for Disney to enter into a brand-new business arrangement with Joe Papp and the Public Theater so soon after signing its high-profile development deal with McCann and Nugent (The worry in-house was that it would send a message to the Broadway community that Mickey had lost confidence in Elizabeth & Nelle. Which might then damage the reputation of McCann & Nugent's then-just-getting-started-film-and-television-development production company), Disney opted to stay true to these two.

What's the old adage that Molly Ivins popularized? You Got To Dance with Them Brung You? That's what Walt Disney Productions wound up doing back in the late Winter / early Spring. Even though the Joe Papp / Linda Ronstadt "Snow White"-in-Central-Park deal was obviously so tempting (More to the point, it would have given the Company some creative heat & credibility at a time when Disney really needed it), Mouse House officials opted to honor the deals that they'd previously made with Bob Jani, Elizabeth McCann & Nelle Nugent and then took a pass on the Papp project.

Gary Morris and Linda Ronstadt in "La Boheme"

So Joe proceeded with his back-up project for Linda. Which was having her play the role of Mimi in the Public Theater's production of "La Boheme." When this eagerly anticipated show finally premiered in late November of 1984, the reviews were respectful but not exactly enthusiastic. As the New York Times put it, "... Miss Ronstadt herself knows that she's not at home with Puccini - and one can only admire the bravery that allows her to forge ahead anyway, reason be damned."

Meanwhile over at the Mouse House, a new management team had been put in place in late September of that same year. And Michael Eisner never forgot about what Linda Ronstadt had said about "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (i.e., that this animated feature was " ... one of the most brilliant pieces of art in the twentieth century" ).

Which is why - in the Fall of 1986 - when The Walt Disney Company was planning a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Eisner insisted that the Company reach out to Ronstadt. Give Linda the opportunity to finally sing those songs that she'd been denied when the Mouse House's previous management team had refused to award Joe Papp the rights to stage "Snow White" in Central Park.

Ronstadt readily agreed when Disney's representatives reached out. More to the point, the Mouse really pulled out the stops when it came to producing this portion of the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Golden Anniversary Special" (which aired on NBC on May 18, 1989). They actually shot this sequence after hours at Disneyland. With Linda artfully posed by the wishing well in the Snow White Grotto as she sang "Someday My Prince Will Come."

And given how well that performance was received ... Well, when Walt Disney Records wanted to put together a recording honoring the 50th anniversary of the release of "Cinderella," Ronstadt was one of the very first performers that they reached out to. And Linda's performance of "A Dream is A Wish Your Heart Makes" is one of the true highlights of 2002's "The Music of Disney's Cinderella."

And speaking of dreams ... Even though anyone today can see what Radio City Musical Hall's version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" looked like (HBO video taped this stage production towards the end of its run at Radio City. The subsequent TV special originally aired on this Pay TV channel on May 19, 1980. A year later, Walt Disney Home Video made "Snow White Live at Radio City Music Hall" available for purchase on VHS & Betamax) ...

... the Joe Papp / Linda Ronstadt version of "Snow White" remains something that theater fans continue to dream and/or speculate about. The closest approximation that we will ever probably get to what this Delacorte Theater production might have been like is the 2012 revival of "Into the Woods." This Shakespeare in the Park production featured all sorts of modern day Disney favorites (EX: Donna Murphy - the voice of Mother Gothel from 2010's "Tangled" [EDITOR'S NOTE: How bizarre must it have been for Murphy - having just voiced Rapunzel's antagonist for that Walt Disney Animation Studios film - to now be playing scenes with that exact same character in this Sondheim musical?];  Amy Adams - Princess Giselle from 2007's "Enchanted" as the Baker's wife; and Glenn Close - Cruella de Vil from 1996's "101 Dalmatians" & 2000's "101 Dalmatians" as the Voice of the Giant) opened (just as "Pirates of Penzance" did in 1980 and as just as "Snow White" was originally scheduled to do in 1983) in early August.

And as Ben Brantley recounted in his review of this "Into the Woods" revival for The New York Times, "Central Park at night, when the moon rises and the wild things roam, sounded like the ideal and inevitable setting for stories of nature enchanted."

Which - admittedly - isn't quite as poetic as what the Magic Mirror says in Disney's "Snow White" (i.e., "Over the seven jeweled hills, beyond the seventh fall, in the cottage of the seven dwarfs, dwells Snow White, fairest one of all"). But it ain't bad.

Snow White and her prince explore NYC's Central Park as part of a November 2017
photo shoot. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

If you like these sorts of hyper-detailed Mouse-related stories, then you should definitely check out Disney Dish & Marvel Us Disney (two podcasts that Jim participates in). You'll find hours of great listening over at Bandcamp & iTunes. Be sure and support these shows by subscribing.

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  • I saw the Radio City production as a child. The Theater's size and technical capabilities made for a spectacular presentation. I remember Snow's escape through the forest with stage effect rain and the final chase where the witch appeared through different doorways all along the sides of the orchestra section seating. It was pretty magical.

  • I think there is some magic in this character itself because whoever plays Snow White it always turn out magically beautiful and talanted. I guess this is in general the magic of all Disney characters. Thank you for posting!

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