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Ever wonder how that magic carpet in Disney’s “Aladdin” flies? New making-of-this-Broadway-musical book offers a few clues

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There’s always a “How’d they do that?” moment in a Disney stage production. In “Beauty and the Beast,” it was when the performer playing the Beast first began spinning like a propeller and then transformed into a handsome prince right in front of the audience. For “Mary Poppins,” it was when that musical’s practically perfect title character first flew out over the orchestra section and then – umbrella & carpet bag in hand — ascended towards the New Amsterdam’s balcony section.

And for Disney “Aladdin,” the hit Broadway musical, it’s when Jasmine joins Aladdin on that magic carpet. And – as “A Whole New World” plays – these two then soar off into a star-filled sky.

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So how exactly is this illusion pulled off 8 times a week in both NYC & Chicago (Speaking of which: The North American tour of Disney “Aladdin” officially gets underway tonight as this Tony Award-winning show kicks off a 22 week-long stand at Chi-town’s Cadillac Palace Theatre)? Well, the folks at Disney Theatrical Productions are (understandably) kind of tight-mouthed when it comes to this topic. But if you pick up a copy of Michael Lassell’s terrific new behind-the-scenes book, “The Road to Broadway and Beyond — Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World” (Disney Edition, March 2017), you can uncover some clues.

Take – for example – what Bob Crowley (i.e., the seven time Tony Award-winner who handled “Aladdin” ‘s scenic design) has to say about this musical’s central showpiece. In his interview with Michael, Bob revealed that ” …  the flying carpet is one of the biggest things in the show, and I had to accommodate that. When I saw the prototype, I was gob smacked … I was happy to work around it, but it did take up almost all of my mid-stage space. There were more than a few times when Casey (Nicholaw, the director & choreographer of “Aladdin”) or Tom (Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Group) would ask for something and I’d have to say, ‘I can’t give it to you because the carpet is up there.’ But it earns its keep and then some. It’s just fantastic, and to this day I have no idea how it works.”

Natasha Katz – who did the lighting design on Disney “Aladdin” – was similarly cagey when it came to this impressive piece of stagecraft. When she spoke with Lassell, Katz stated that ” … the magic carpet in this show is not very big, but the mechanism that makes it fly takes up a lot of technical real estate when it’s flying.”

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Which is kind of ironic. Given that – when Disney Theatrical Productions mounted its pilot production of the stage version of “Aladdin” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre back in July of 2011 – that show’s magic carpet didn’t take up that all much real estate. Largely because – in this early, bare-bones edition of Disney “Aladdin” – that version of this illusion was basically (I’m quoting Casey Nicholaw now) just ” … a mattress on a stick.”

It wasn’t ’til two years later (after Mouse House management finally agreed to fund a full-scale stage version of Disney “Aladdin”) that Schumacher then began to search for ways to make the flying carpet moment in his new Broadway-bound musical seem genuinely magical. Which is why Tom then reached out to the man who had masterminded the Beast’s onstage transformation as well as figuring out how to fly Mary Poppins out over the audience. And that was theatrical illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer.

As Schumacher recounted to Lassell in his interview for “Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World,” the inspiration of this particular piece of stagecraft can actually be traced back to Disney & Cameron Mackintosh’s stage production of “Poppins.”

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“One of the ways we talked about making Mary Poppins fly was a technique that dates back to the 1920s,” the producer said. “But there had never been a technology that would make it work for our purposes. When we started working on ‘Aladdin,’ ten years after ‘Mary Poppins,’ I brought it up to him [Steinmeyer] again. Could it work? He said it could work in theory, but only if someone could actually deliver it.”

“After an elaborate search,” Thomas continued, “We found these remarkable people at a place in Pennsylvania. The company is called TAIT Towers and they do a lot of rock ‘n’ roll shows for the top acts in music – everyone from Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga to Metallica, Justin Timberlake, and Elton John. They produce high-end equipment that theater people never use.”

“And we went and met with them, with Adam Davis and Scott Levine in particular, who were the project leads. And we drew little pictures of what the engineering concept was,” Schumacher recalled. “And they said, ‘Oh, we could do that.’ And I think we gave them five or six months and then we drove for hours out into rural Pennsylvania to their shop. And we walked in, and a wooden version of the carpet was flying around their scene shop in broad daylight, and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this could work.'”

Cover of Michael Lassell’s “Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World — The Road to Broadway and Beyond.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved 

As Jim shared with Michael for “The Road to Broadway and Beyond,” the very best part of working on a high profile stage production like “Aladdin” is ” … today we can bring a number of optical illusionary effects together with new science and engineering to make something that pleases the audience. And a good part of the reason they’re pleased is that they can’t figure out how it could possibly be done, which has always been part of the joy of magic.”

“But that said, it’s also fun when an illusion takes on a life of its own, the way the carpet does in ‘Aladdin.’ And everyone (on this show’s creative team) seems to have understood its theatrical potential right from the beginning. Casey completely understood what he had, and he choreographed that carpet as if it were a character,” Steinmeyer continued.  “We even gave the carpet a little curtain call of its own. We weren’t planning to bring it back for the end of the show, but sometimes things just work out.”

But – of course – because Michael Lassell’s “The Road to Broadway and Beyond — Disney Aladdin : A Whole New World” doesn’t reveal how the magic carpet illusion in this Tony Award-winning show is actually achieved … Well, that’s something you’re just going to have to work out on your own.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Because you can forget about asking members of the cast about how the magic carpet in “Aladdin” flies. They’ve all been sworn to secrecy about this exquisite piece of stagecraft as well as this show’s 83 other illusions & special effects.

As ensemble member Dennis Stowe told Lassell, “Everyone asks me how that magic carpet works. I just say it’s Disney magic.”

Cast member Bobby Pestka concluded, “I say the Genie does it.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Music Theatre, Stage, & Performance Art

Hercules: The Muse-ical

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Quick trivia question: What were the names of the three stage shows that were presented on the Disney Magic on that vessel’s maiden voyage back in July of 1998?

  • “Disney Dreams”
  • “Voyage of the Ghost Ship”
  • And “Hercules: The Muse-ical”

It’s that last show – which is based on the hand drawn animated feature that Walt Disney Pictures released back in June of 1997 – that occupies an interesting spot in Mouse House history. Largely because Disney’s “Hercules” (the movie, not the stage show) arrived in theaters at a time when the folks who ran the animation side of the operation at Disney Studios were getting a wee bit nervous about the Company’s supposed supremacy over feature animation.

Disney Animation Success: Aladdin & The Lion King

Some three years previous (June of 1994, to be exact), no one in Hollywood had any doubts at all about who was the top dog when it came to feature animation. And that was because “The Lion King” had just arrived in theaters and was such a huge hit at the world-wide box office. $312 million in ticket sales in North America alone.

To put that in perspective: Disney’s previous biggest hit, at least when it came to hand-drawn animated features, had been “Aladdin.” Which arrived in theaters some 20 months earlier in November of 1992 and had sold $217 million worth of movie tickets domestically. So what with “The Lion King” earning basically one-and-a-half times what “Aladdin” had (Mind you, that’s just the domestic release of this movie that we’re talking about here. Overseas, “The Lion King” made $545 million. Which – compared to the $286 million that “Aladdin” made overseas back in 1992 – that’s nearly double the business) … We’re talking some very serious moola.

DreamWorks SKG

But then – in August of 1994 – Jeffrey Katzenberg is forced out as the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. He – in turn – joins forces with Steven Spielberg & David Geffen. And – just two months later (October of 1994) – launches DreamWorks SKG. And one of the key components of this brand-new entertainment conglomerate is an animation studio. Which is then supposed to go head-to-head to the Mouse House.

Cold Streak for Disney Animated Films

Compounding this situation is that Walt Disney Feature Animation suddenly starts to have a cold streak. Where “The Lion King” sold $312 million worth of tickets when it was released to North American theaters in the Summer of 1994, Disney’s “Pocahontas” (which is released to theaters just one year later in June of 1995) does less than half that business. $141 million in domestic ticket sales to be exact.

And then – when Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” arrives in theaters just one year after that in June of 1996 – it does 2/3rds of the business that Disney’s “Pocahontas” had done the previous year. It sells $100 million, $100 thousand worth of tickets in North America. Which – given that Disney’s animated “Hunchback” costs a reported $100 million to make … That’s a problem.

Hercules is Coming: Disney Goes All-Out to Promote New Film

So as the Summer of 1997 looms, Disney is now looking to reverse this box office trend. The Studio needs another “Lion King” -sized hit to show those guys at DreamWorks SKG who’s really the boss in Hollywood when it comes to feature animation. And the Mouse is going to use every tool that it has in its promotional tool kit to make sure that every would-be movie-goer knows that “Hercules” is on its way and it’s a big, bright, colorful, really funny animated feature just like Disney’s “Aladdin.”

Side note: Figuring that Robin Williams’ star power was one of the reasons that Disney’s “Aladdin” had zoomed to the top of the box office back in November of 1992, the Studio initially wanted to use the same sort of stunt casting to make Disney’s “Hercules” a must-see movie-going event. Which is why they originally wanted Jack Nicolson to be the voice of Hades and then hire the Spice Girls to served as the voices of the Muses.

Sadly, in both of these cases, though the Company had meetings with Nicholson and the Spice Girls’ representatives, the cost of hiring these performers to voice characters in Disney’s “Hercules” proved to be prohibitive. So that stunt casting idea was ultimately abandoned.

Hercules Mega Mall Tour

Anyway … Back to promoting “Hercules” as only Disney could … This meant – starting in February of 1997 – the Company sent out the “Hercules” Mega Mall Tour. Which – to raise awareness of the June debut of this new full-length animated feature from Walt Disney Studios – involved stops in 20 different cities around North America over five months time. Over the course of this tour, 4 million cassettes of “Zero to Hero” (The song that Alan Menken & David Zippel had written for this animated feature that – it was felt at the time – had the best chance of being the break-out single from the “Hercules” soundtrack) were handed out to mall patrons.

Credit: delaespriella.com

Hercules New York Movie Premiere

And speaking of June … To make sure that as many people as possible were made aware that Disney’s “Hercules” was opening in theaters, the Company decided to stage the world premiere of this new Ron Clements & John Musker movie in New York City. Not only that, but to present a week-long series of screening of Disney’s “Hercules” in the just-renovated New Amsterdam Theater (which would – just 5 months later, in November of 1997 – would then become home of the Company’s long-running smash hit Broadway musical version of “The Lion King”).

Hercules Electrical Parade

And – to make sure that everyone in NYC knew this was happening – Disney got special permission from then-New York City mayor Rudi Guiliani to roll the Main Street Electric Parade (which, for this one-time promotion event, was renamed the “Hercules Electrical Parade”) down 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue.

Speaking of parades … To make sure that theme park goers knew that Disney’s “Hercules” was now in theaters, a “Hercules” – themed parade rolled through four different theme parks that Summer.

  • Disneyland Park in Anaheim
  • Disney-MGM in Florida
  • Disneyland Paris in France
  • and also at Tokyo Disneyland in Japan

It was an unprecedented promotional effort on the Company’s part. More to the point, because they were absolutely certain that “Hercules” was going to turn out to be another “Aladdin” or a “Little Mermaid” (The two animated features that Ron Clements & John Musker had previously made for the Mouse House. Which had then turned into these hugely lucrative franchises for The Walt Disney Company which had gone on to have surprisingly long shelf lives) … Well, that’s Disney – even before “Hercules” had actually arrived in theaters – began making plans as to how it could then extend the shelf life of this particular IP.

Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series

One way was “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series.” Which was basically a prequel to that theatrically released animated feature. 65 episodes of “Disney’s Hercules: The Animated Series” were produced and then began airing on ABC in September of 1998.

Hercules: The Muse-ical on the Disney Magic

But six weeks prior to that (in late July of that same year), the Disney Magic had its maiden voyage. And Guests who sailed on this 984-foot-long, 84,000-ton vessel were treated to performances of “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” I’ve also seen this stage show referred to as “Hercules: The Muse-ical Comedy.”

There’s only one problem with this plan. This new stage show was debuting onboard the Magic some 13 months after Disney’s “Hercules” had originally arrived in theaters.

Hercules the Box-Office Disappointment

By now, everyone knew that this Ron Clements & John Musker movie had been a box office disappointment.

Only selling $99 million worth of tickets in North America – making “Hercules” the first Disney animated feature to not blow through the $100-million-at-the-domestic-box-office barrier since “The Rescuers Down Under” back in November of 1990.

Disney Cruise Musical Success: Hercules: The Muse-ical & Villains Tonight

Which – you’d think – would have doomed “Hercules: The Muse-ical” to a very short run on the Disney Cruise Line. But here’s the thing: people who voyaged on the Disney Magic (and – later – the Disney Wonder. Which got its own clone of this stage show) just loved “Hercules: The Muse-ical.” They just loved how this stage show was one part stand-up comedy act and another part well-put together musical review.

Which is when – when “Hercules: The Muse-ical” came to the end of its run (in 2005 on the Magic & then in 2008 on the Wonder) – Disney’s Entertainment Department did a very unusual thing.  They crafted a sequel show of sorts, “Villains Tonight.” Which brought back the three most popular characters from “Hercules: The Muse-ical” (i.e., Hades, Lord of the Dead and his hapless minions, Pain & Panic) and then had this trio interact with some of Disney’s most famous fiends. Among them Maleficent from “Sleeping Beauty,” the Evil Queen from “Snow White,” Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” … you get the idea.

“Villains Tonight” debut on the Disney Magic in 2010 and quickly proved to be so popular that this stage show was then replicated for the Disney Dream the following year (2011). “Villains Tonight” had a healthy run on both boats, with the Disney Magic version of this show closing up shop in November of 2015 and the Disney Dream version shuttering in August of 2017.

Stage Adaptation of Hercules

But here’s the weird part: These long-running “Hercules” -inspired stage shows proved that there was actually an audience out there for a full-scale Broadway musical version of this Ron Clements & John Musker movie. Which is why – back in September of 2019 – the Public Theater (for one week only) staged … Well, kind of a trial production for a stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules.” It was presented outdoors at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park with a cast of 200.

This stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” got such great reviews (in large part thanks to Roger Bart’s performance as Hades, Lord of the Dead.

Fun fact: Mr. Bart was the singing voice of young Hercules in the original animated feature. So when you hear teenaged Herc belting out “I can go the distance,” that’s actually Roger who singing. Bart’s spent the past 25 years being closely associated with this IP)

This world premiere of a stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” was so well received that a follow-up production was immediately put in the works.

Of course, then the pandemic happened. Which then slowed down the momentum for this stage version of Disney’s “Hercules” a little bit. But that follow-up production now has a venue – the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey (which is where the stage version of Disney’s “Newsies” started off life back in September 2011 and then went on to great success of Broadway). We’ve also got some production dates for that show: February 9March 12, 2023.

Disney’s Live-Action Hercules

What’s kind of weird about the timing of all this is – while Disney Theatrical is readying a stage version of “Hercules” – (June 2022), it was revealed that Walt Disney Studios has a live-action version of its animated “Hercules” in the works. This big budget project will be directed by Guy Ritchie (who directed that live-action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” which debuted in theaters back in May of 2019 and then went on to sell over a billion dollars worth of ticket at the worldwide box office) and produced by Joe & Anthony Russo.

That’s significant. Given that Joe & Anthony Russo are the guys who directed “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Which tells us that the action scenes in this upcoming live-action musical comedy are going to feature Marvel-level FX work. Which will make this “Hercules” remake / reboot a must-see for Marvel fans.

More Hercules Musicals on Cruise Ships?

So – long story short – “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight” proved that there was an audience out there for a stage version of this Ron Clements / John Musker movie. Which then led to the world premiere of the stage adaptation of Disney’s “Hercules” at NYC’s Public Theater in September of 2019. Which eventually led to a second production of this stage, which will bow at NJ’s Papermill Playhouse in just six months time.

But is it possible that Disney’s “Hercules” could eventually make its way back onto the Company’s cruise ships? It is worth noting here that – following the success of the live-action reboot of its animated “Beauty & the Beast” (That Bill Condon film was released to theaters back in March of 2017 and then went on to sell $1.2 billion worth of tickets worldwide), the Disney Cruise Line then mounted an all-new stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” that was then based on that live-action remake.

This production debuted on the Disney Dream back in November of 2017 (some eight months after the live-action “Beauty & the Beast” reboot originally debuted in theaters). So it stands to reason that – if Disney Studios’ upcoming live-action reboot of its animated “Hercules” is equally successful – this film too could eventually become fodder for a future stage show that could then be presented onboard the Disney Cruise Line.

Hades – The Lord of the Dead

One final note: Given that Hades was the break-out character in both of those Disney Cruise Line productions (i.e., “Hercules: The Muse-ical” & “Villains Tonight.” FYI: Both of these DCL shows are currently available for viewing on YouTube), it’s worth noting here is that how Hades is reportedly based on is actually one of the notorious in-jokes in Hollywood history.

You see, given that the Lord of the Dead in Disney’s “Hercules” is portrayed as this slick show business grifter (“We dance, we kiss, we schmooze, we carry on, we go home happy. What do you say?”), it’s worth noting here that James Woods – who voiced Hades in the original animated feature – reportedly based his performance on ousted Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Going forward here, it’ll be interesting to see how this character is portrayed in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live-action version of Disney’s “Hercules.”

This article is based on research for The Disney Dish Podcast “Episode 385”, published on August 1, 2022. The Disney Dish Podcast is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

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“The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World” reveals how close this hit show came to not happening

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“We can’t do this. This doesn’t work.”

This is what Michael Eisner – the then-Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company – told Thomas Schumacher, Peter Schneider and Julie Taymor back in August of 1996. That the stage version of Disney’s acclaimed animated feature, “The Lion King,” which this trio had been developing at that time wasn’t even remotely ready for Broadway.

Which is why – as Michael Lassell recounts in his terrific new behind-the-scenes book, “The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World” (Disney Editions, November 2017) — Eisner then reportedly turned to Schneider and said ” … You better get moving on ‘Aida,’ because you’re going to have to put something into the New Amsterdam Theatre next fall.’ “

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Just one year later, Disney’s stage version of “The Lion King” was at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre getting ready for its very first preview. There was only one tiny problem: Taymor’s artistic vision for this stage show was so innovative & ambitious that – even though the cast had been rehearsing this piece for weeks at that point – they had never actually gotten through an entire performance before, from beginning to end, without stopping.

Which is why – prior to the start of “The Lion King” ‘s first preview – Thomas & Peter had to get up onstage at the Orpheum and basically warn that audience there’d be some hiccups along the way. Ironically enough, because the creative team had yet to prepare this show’s staged-in-front-of-a-curtain scene which was supposed to immediately follow “Be Prepared.”

That’s half the fun of paging through this 224-page hardcover. Even though the stage version of “The Lion King” is now considered to be one of The Walt Disney Company’s all-time greatest success stories (Just yesterday, Forbes posted a piece which revealed that – over the course of this show’s now-more-than-20 year-long run on Broadway – the Mouse has made $8.1 billion off of this musical), Lassell points out how problematic this project’s birthing process was.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And that goes for the animated version of “The Lion King” as well. Schumacher (who was the vice president in charge of development at Walt Disney Animation Studios prior to taking up the reins at Disney Theatrical Productions) remembers the initial iteration of this film (which – at that time, anyway – was called “King of the Beasts” being ” … kind of an animated National Geographic special about a war between lions and baboons, all set in this brown, dirty, earthy environment. Rafiki was a cheetah, and Scar was the leader of the baboons. And nobody had much interest in it. The A-list animators all chose to work on Pocohantas.”

With the hope that the addition of some music might then make this movie’s subject matter seem that much more palatable to Disney’s animators, Schumacher reached out to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longtime collaborator Tim Rice in the fall of 1990. As Thomas recalled, ” …  I asked him if our war between lions and baboons could be turned into a musical. And Tim said ‘I made a musical out of the obscure dead wife of an Argentinian dictator. Anything can be a musical. ‘ “

Mind you, Rice was only looking to write the lyrics as well as help out with the story for “King of the Beasts / The Lion King.” Who Tim had in mind to handle the actual music on this movie was Sir Elton John. The only problem was that Elton’s management team – knowing how strict Disney’s attorneys would be when it came to copyright / who had ultimate ownership of any material that was created for this new animated feature – refused to even make John aware of this employment opportunity.

Paul McCartney did eventually wind up working for Disney. He recently cameo-ed in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” as Captain Jack Sparrow’s long lost uncle. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why – at Rice’s suggestion – Schumacher & Schneider then reached out to Paul McCartney. But that former Beatle quickly said “No” when it came to working on “King of the Beasts / The Lion King.” So Disney then made a second run at Elton John. Only to have his management team again refuse to make this legendary rock star aware of this opportunity because they didn’t like the terms of the deal that Disney’s lawyers were offering.

As Lassell reveals in this profusely illustrated / exceedingly well-researched coffee table book, it was about this time (October of 1991, to be exact) that then-Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg got involved. Realizing that it was the terms of the deal that Mouse House managers were offering which was preventing Elton John’s management team from passing this offer along, Katzenberg got on the phone with Disney’s attorneys and then asked them to sweeten the deal. Make some changes to the standard deal memo that the Studio offered when it came to recruiting talent. All with the hope that – with a few small concessions – this pop star’s management team might then finally be willing to make Elton aware of this opportunity to work with Walt Disney Animation Studios.

As it turns out, the third time was the charm. Once the terms of this proposed deal were tweaked, Elton’s management team immediately agreed to make him aware of the project. And …

(L to R) Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

… John accepted readily as he had no idea (that his management team) had already turned aside the proposition twice before.

“(Schumacher and Rice) really didn’t have to sell it to me,” remembers Sir Elton, who is himself a huge fan of (Disney’s) The Jungle Book. “I mean, I was in from the word go. I loved the story and I loved that it was an original story, and it came at a time in my career where I wanted to do something different.”

And speaking of something different: As part of the hundreds of interviews Lassell did while he was pulling together “The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World,” Michael got Julie Taymor to talk about her original vision for the second act of this stage show. Which would have sent Simba off on a decidedly different coming-of-age journey.

“What’s that on the horizon?” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The first act of the stage version of “The Lion King” was to have hued closely to the story of the film. With Simba – blaming himself for Mufasa’s death – basically abandoning his pride and banishing himself to the desert. But as Taymor’s original vision for “The Lion King”‘s second act began, Simba – as he struggled through the sand – was to have seen some lights on the horizon. He goes to investigate and discover this place that Julie describes as being ” … a cross between Vegas, Disneyland, and a futuristic city.”

The denizens of this setting would have been half human & half animal with characters like Papa Croc, a paraplegic crocodile in a wheelchair who runs a nightspot filled with lounge lizards in snappy suits. In addition, there was a character named Natasha Leopard, who drove a Jaguar.

Papa Croc, the new father figure Simba found after Mufasa died, is also a fight promoter and wants Simba to become a boxer. Nala, meanwhile, arrives in this selfsame city and goes underground as a dancer at the Pussycat Lounge.

(L to R) Peter Schneider & Thomas Schumacher. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved

Schneider & Schumacher (who had initially tapped Taymor for this project because they hoped she’d do something genuinely unique with this material) weren’t exactly enthusiastic when Julie showed them her Las Vegas-inspired vision for Act Two of the proposed stage version of “The Lion King.”

“It was clear that they actually wanted to stay closer to the original story. They didn’t want me to introduce new characters. But I learned a lot from the exercise. I never would have solved the human / animal thing (for this stage show) if I hadn’t gone through the process,” Taymor said in retrospect.

And speaking of learning a lot: Even if you’re already a big-time fan of the “Lion King” film or stage show, you’re sure to learn a lot about this Academy Award & Tony Award-winning entertainment by reading “The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World.” There are so many previously untold stories that Lassell shares in this Disney Theatrical souvenir publication. Things like real estate deals that The Walt Disney Company didn’t follow up on back in the early 1990s:

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“(When Schumacher was talking with Taymor about the many different ways “The Lion King” could possibly be staged, he) said, ‘Look, Disney is in a conversation about buying Rockefeller Center. So we could do it at Radio City Musical Hall. Or we could do it at Chelsea Pier, or buy a pier and mount it on the water – pretty much anything an avant-garde theater director might want to fantasize. Or we could do it as a Broadway show; you tell me.’ That’s how loose an idea we had at the time, because, remember, there was a real sense that we might not be able to pull (the proposed stage adaptation of this animated film) off at all.”

And speaking of which: Because the stage version of “The Lion King” seemed like such a long shot in the early 1990s, Disney Theatrical – in addition to “Aida” – had another stage show in active development at that time:

“We actually started seriously developing ‘Pocahontas’ for the stage,” remembers Schumacher, “and ‘Mary Poppins,’ which we did eventually produce. But (that was because) none of us thought ‘The Lion King’ would work onstage.”

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which brings us back to Michael Eisner. Who – as I mentioned at the very top of this article — pulled the plug on this proposed stage production at least once.  So was Eisner ultimately the one who got the ball rolling on Broadway’s “The Lion King” ? Not according to Lassell. He credits …

… Ward Morehouse, a columnist for the New York Post, (who) wrote in his column that Disney’s next stage venture would be “The Lion King.” “He picked up on a joke someone told,” says Schumacher, “and thought it was real. But people believed (what Morehouse wrote) and his column set kind of a pulse among the press, who kept asking “When are we going to see ‘The Lion King?’ “(And) someone who was asking the same question was Michael Eisner.

So just to be clear here: The third longest running show in Broadway history (Only “The Phantom of the Opera” and the 1996 revival of “Chicago” have racked up more performances to date) only came into being because a New York Post columnist didn’t get that someone was just joking with him when they said ” … Disney is going to produce a stage version of ‘The Lion King.’ “

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

You just can’t make this stuff up. Because then you’d be … lion.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Wednesday, December 20, 2017

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Broadway vet Eden Espinosa is living out her Disney dream by voicing Cassandra on “Tangled: The Series”

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As Eden Espinosa recalls, it was early 2015 when Disney Television Animation initially reached out. Asking this Broadway star if she’d be interested in voicing a character for a new series that the Mouse was maybe going to produce. A show that – at that time, anyway – had a deliberately vague title: “Project T.”

“So they sent me the audition material,” this 39 year-old performer recalled during a recent phone interview. “And as I read the breakdown on the character they wanted me to voice, it said that she was 19 years-old or something like that. So I went into my little home studio to record the audition material that they’d sent me. And to make my voice sound younger, I deliberately pitched it up a little.”

Eden Espinosa in the booth recording dialogue for Disney “Tangled: The Series.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved 

So Espinosa sends in her audition tape. And Disney Television Animation must have liked what they heard. For a few weeks later, Eden found herself in a recording studio in New York City doing a callback.

“Now the producers of ‘Project T’ were still out in California. So we were talking via Skype. And before we formally got with this callback audition started, they gave me some notes. With the chief note being ‘We don’t want you sounding too much like our lead actress,’ ” Eden continued. “And to make sure that I knew what to steer clear of, they then played me a little of this lead actress’ voice. Which I immediately recognized as Mandy Moore.”

But even then Espinosa didn’t put 2 + 2 together. She just assumed that Disney Television Animation was planning on using Moore – who’d previously voiced Mara for Disney XD‘s “TRON: Uprising” as well as the title character on Disney Junior‘s “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West” – for some other project. It never occurred to Eden that Mickey might be looking to have Mandy reprise the role of Rapunzel for a brand-new animated series that would then continue the tale which Walt Disney Animation Studios had begun with their November 2010 release, “Tangled.”

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“I just thought ‘Maybe they’re doing something new and Mandy’s doing voicework for that too,” Espinosa said.

But “Project T” – AKA “Tangled: The Series” — was definitely something that Mouse House management wanted to pursue. Not only that, but the series creator for Disney Channel wanted to Eden to voice Rapunzel’s daring handmaiden and confidante, Cassandra.

Which would obviously be a nice gig for any working actress to land, right? But you’d think that – for someone like Espinosa (who’s been acclaimed for her portrayal of Elphaba in the Broadway, Los Angeles and San Francisco productions of “Wicked.” Not to mention playing Maureen in the closing company of “Rent“) – voicing a character for a  new animated series wouldn’t be all that big a deal. Especially since Eden has already done this sort of work, what with originating the voice of Sasha Caylo on Adult Swim‘s “Titan Maximum” back in 2009.

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That said, you have to understand that Espinosa grew up in Orange County, California in the shadow of a certain theme park. Not only that, but her uncle was a Kid of the Kingdom who – after he finished performing at Disneyland Park – would then take the very young Eden backstage.

“Growing up, Disney was a very big deal to myself and my family. In fact, my very first job – which I landed when I was 17 – was performing as a Christmas caroler in Disneyland ‘Christmas Fantasy’ parade back in 1995. I was so proud when I got that gig,” Espinosa remembered.

And Disneyland’s Entertainment Department obviously saw a lot of potential in this Southern Californian. Which is why – just three years later – Eden was one of the featured performers in “Animazement.” Which was this live stage show that was presented 5 – 6 times daily in the Fantasyland Theater where Espinosa then got to sing ‘Just Around the River Bend’ from Disney’s “Pocahontas.”

Eden Espinosa plays Pocahontas in “Animazement” at Disneyland Park 

“The experience I got while performing at Disneyland was invaluable. Doing five or six half-hour-long stage shows — sometimes outdoors in cold, rainy weather … That was like vocal boot camp for me. It made me into the performer that I am today,” Eden enthused.

And Walt Disney Creative Entertainment (i.e., the arm of The Walt Disney Company that produces shows for its Parks & Resorts) obviously takes great pride in having played a part in the launch of Espinosa’s career. Which is why – when the Happiest Place on Earth was looking for a vocalist for “Magical: Disney’s New Nighttime Spectacular of Magical Celebrations” – they immediately reached out to Eden.

“Which was like a dream come true for me, because – when I was growing up with family working at Disneyland – all I ever wanted to be was the voice in the sky for the park’s fireworks show,” Espinosa continued. “And now to be asked to originate a voice for a new character on a Disney cartoon … Well, that’s really another dream come true for me.”

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So what’s it been like voicing Cassandra for Disney’s “Tangled: The Series” ? Eden says that she’s been enjoying the collaborative nature of the process.

“What’s especially cool about working on a brand-new character like this is that you then play a really big role in determining the way that they speak, what their sense of humor is like and everything,” Espinosa said. “And what’s been particularly great is that – when I’ve made a face in the booth while recording a certain line of dialogue – having the directors then say ‘Oh my God. That expression. I’m making a note to the animators that that face has to be included in the show.’ “

So now that “Tangled: The Series” has been airing on the Disney Channel for a few weeks (This new Disney Television Animation production officially premiered on March 10th. But Disney Channel execs had such confidence in this show that – actually prior to its premiere – it was renewed for a second season) … What aspect of “Project T” is Eden most looking forward to now? Watching Cassandra, the character that she helped create, take on a life of her own outside of the show.

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“I just hope that people have been enjoying this character on ‘Tangled: The Series.’ Because I’ve been having an absolute blast voicing Cassandra,” Espinosa concluded.

And just so you know: Eden Espinosa isn’t the only Broadway veteran that Disney Television Animation had tapped to do voicework on “Tangled: The Series.” Because on “The Return of Strongbow” (i.e., the episode that airs tonight on the Disney Channel at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT) who voices the character that tries to lure Eugene back into his thieving ways but James Monroe Iglehart? The talented performer who won a Tony Award for playing the Genie in the Broadway production of Disney “Aladdin: The Hit Broadway Musical.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, April 28, 2017

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