I was raised on two things-- Broadway and Disney. When those two things combine, I’m extremely happy. Disney Theatrical Productions has taken several of the most popular Disney movies to the Great White Way, creating a whole new genre of Disney magic for die-hard fans to enjoy. While the newest Disney trend is taking the animated classics and re-creating them as live action movies, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Disney on Broadway.
I’ve ranked this list based on the following criteria-- success of the musical, staying power, reviews and awards and how true the musical stayed to the original movie. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen some of these shows on Broadway or on tour and I’ve been especially lucky to have participated in a local production of one of these shows as a child, so some have made more of a lasting impression on me than others, but I’ve tried to keep my personal thoughts on the show as neutral as possible.
Tarzan opened on Broadway on May 10, 2006 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It is the only Disney Theatrical Production to open on Broadway without an out-of-town trial run. Many of the beloved Phil Collins songs are reprised for the stage version, with a few tweaks, and Collins wrote nine new songs for the musical as well. While the show was not nominated for any Tony awards, a Dutch production of the musical was nominated for nine awards over the course of three years and won three of them.
The musical was able to stay true to the original movie, but left many audiences wanting more depth out of the music and lyrics. Phil Collins' traditional pop style did not translate well to the stage, especially his lyrics. Critics and audiences felt that the lyrics were cliché and bland, and gave more of an Adult Contemporary feel than a Broadway musical. Personally, I liked moments from Tarzan, but as a whole, it felt like a pop album with a story line as opposed to a Broadway musical. I’ve placed Tarzan this far down on the list not because it was necessarily “bad” but because it was nowhere near as successful, charming and magical as the rest of the musicals on this list.
6. The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid opened in 2008 to replace Beauty and the Beast. Disney Theatrical Productions closed Beauty and the Beast for fear of having two competing Disney Princesses on Broadway at the same time, as well as having three other Disney shows running during the same period. The musical was based on the 1989 Disney movie and featured Sierra Boggess as Ariel, Tituss Burgess as Sebastian and Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula. Ten new songs were added for the stage and many of the famous songs from the musical were given a facelift for the Broadway version. The Little Mermaid was nominated for two Tonys in 2008.
All in all, The Little Mermaid did well, but did not live up to the success of other Disney musicals. The Little Mermaid had a short run and was closed, almost preemptively, because of historical trends and financial difficulties during the fall months of the year. However, the short run of only 685 performances has not left a bad stain on the original success of the story or movie-- The Little Mermaid continues to be one of the most memorable and magical Disney movies in history. Overall, not a huge success, but not a huge loss either.
One of the most recent additions, the story of Aladdin made its Broadway debut in 2014. The original Broadway production was praised for its individual songs, like “Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World.” It was nominated for five Tonys and won for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for James Monroe Iglehart’s performance as the Genie.
As much as I loved the music in the movie, there were too many changes for me to ignore in the Broadway version. One of the most memorable songs, "Friend Like Me," got a huge overhaul. Robin Williams originated the voice of the Genie in the 1992 movie and was one of the driving forces behind the movie’s success. While Iglehart does an amazing job of breathing new life into this iconic character, "Friend Like Me" tries to top itself in too many ways, adding different gimmicks to get laughs, like a lounge singer style medley of Alan Menken’s biggest Disney hits and a hoedown. While some of the original ideas from the movie might have been impossible to translate to the stage, I felt like the creative team gave up on themselves in this number. Some of the new numbers introduced characters and ideas that were cut from the original movie. I do love parts of this show, but overall, I felt like Aladdin tried too hard to bring the Disney magic to a new level.
4. Mary Poppins
I’ve been a huge fan of Julie Andrews for as long as I can remember, so anything that has a connection to her is something that I want to check out. Although I never really loved the Mary Poppins movie, the musical is a nice trip back in time to the things that made Broadway so wonderful in its early years-- huge dance numbers, fun music and sweet stories. Disney Theatrical did a wonderful job bringing a timeless movie to the stage with Mary Poppins. The musical ran on Broadway for six years and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The musical, though based on the 1964 film, brought in inspiration from the original books, including new characters and rewriting some of the backstories of the Banks family. Many new songs were created for the musical and some were moved or re-imagined to incorporate new parts of the story or new characters. While Mary Poppins flew under the radar in comparison to other Disney Theatrical Productions, it was very successful on Broadway and ran for 2,619 performances. I’ve placed it this high on the list because of its success and its ability to remain true to the original books while still reminding us why we fell in love with the movie that first brought Mary Poppins to life.
Newsies was nominated for 8 Tonys in 2012 and won two, Best Choreography and Best Original Score.While the Broadway run only lasted 1,005 performances over the course of two years, it was the quickest Disney musical on Broadway to turn a profit and got rave reviews before it even opened. I’ve placed Newsies in the third place spot because it was extremely popular and successful, even though it had a short run on Broadway-- it’s almost the “underdog” of Disney Theatrical Productions.
2. Beauty and the Beast
Another Alan Menken masterpiece that made an excellent transition from the screen to the stage, Beauty and The Beast debuted on Broadway in April of 1994 at the Palace Theatre. It was the first adaptation from film to stage for a Disney movie. Where the movie brought dishware and inanimate objects to life with a little bit of animation, the Broadway show utilized costumes and confetti cannons. The Beast’s costume is breathtaking and several of the castle’s residents, like Lumière and Cogsworth, have special effects wired into their costumes to add a little flair and put the magic in the details. New songs added to the show are beautiful, heart-wrenching and add to the story without altering it. My personal favorite additions are the Beast’s solo, "If I Can’t Love Her" and the ensemble number "Human Again." Another piece was written specifically for Toni Braxton’s run as Belle to accommodate her R&B style and highlight her voice in it’s own special way. It has now become another staple of the musical.
I saw Beauty and the Beast on Broadway when I was about 12 or 13, and then again when the tour came to our local theatre. In the tour version, Gaston’s song was extended and included a mind-blowing dance break involving acrobatics and clanking mugs together. Usually when a show goes on tour, the show is downsized to account for transportation limitations and smaller stages in smaller cities, but Beauty and the Beast was able to make the show just as magical on tour as it was on Broadway.
1. The Lion King
The second Disney Theatrical Production-- first performed on July 8th, 1997 and moving to Broadway on October 15th 1997. Many of the original songs from the movie were kept during the transition to the Great White Way, but several new pieces were composed specifically for the Broadway version, mostly to incorporate more of the African rhythms and languages. Some songs that were cut from the original movie were added back into the musical as well. The Lion King was praised for its creativity and ability to bring the movie to a new medium in such a successful way. It has been one of the highest-grossing Broadway shows every week and is one of the most beloved productions of all time. It is currently the third longest-running show in history, topped only by The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago. The Lion King won six Tonys, including Best Musical.
The Lion King was my first Broadway show that I ever saw in NYC and it blew my little third-grade mind. Puppet animals like zebras, giraffes and elephants are brought to life by actors, and the costumes used to create the lions and lionesses are extremely detailed and creative. I don’t like to see the same musical too many times because the appeal wears off a little, but The Lion King is one of the few shows that I would see as many times as possible because of the Disney Magic that made me fall in love with the movie as a child is just as present on stage as it is in animation.
Bonus - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
While The Hunchback of Notre Dame technically hasn’t made it to Broadway (and unfortunately, doesn’t look like it will) it made huge waves at the La Jolla Playhouse on October 28, 2014. It was originally produced in Berlin and ran from 1999-2002. I managed to find a bootleg copy on YouTube that was absolutely enchanting. The original movie has some of my favorite music-- I’ll eat up anything that Alan Menken writes, but “Out There” never fails to send shivers up my spine. The La Jolla staging and casting is just beautiful. While I usually don’t enjoy huge plot changes, I loved the expansion on the original movie to be truer to the Victor Hugo novel, while still being a familiar and heartwarming story. Several relationships between characters were fleshed out in a way that would have been too much in the movie. Michael Arden’s performance as Quasimodo is extremely nuanced and clever-- after reading the novel and learning that the character of Quasimodo is half-deaf because of the bells, Arden created a series of signs that Quasimodo uses to communicate. I strongly recommend getting your hands on this soundtrack through either YouTube or Spotify.