Disney taps New York stage talent for cruise line theatre
BEFORE she reached Broadway directing rowdy hippies in Hair and tormented lovers in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Diane Paulus cut her teeth in big-budget theatre by making sure that Minnie Mouse and Snow White didn’t trip over each other during “The Golden Mickeys,” a 50-minute musical awards-show takeoff that she staged for Disney Cruise Line in 2003. For that production Paulus found herself wrangling with Disney lawyers over the neckline for Cruella de Vil (designs for wellknown characters can be sacrosanct) and spending lavishly on the show (a forerunner to the socalled event theatre that interests her).
“I was used to working in downtown theatre with $5,000, and suddenly I was working with several million dollars,” recalled Paulus, who spoke with pride about the cruise show. “It was a big chance to try to push boundaries within a very corporate, commercial producing environment.” Recently, Disney launched its fourth cruise ship, the Fantasy, and in doing so created a new theatrical playground for artistes like Paulus to produce work in line with that entertainment empire’s brand. Disney’s deep pockets, in an era when Broadway producers struggle to raise money, has turned cruise theatre into a plum opportunity for those who aren’t soured by strictures like blending venerable Disney characters and songs into new shows.
For Disney, meanwhile, the collaboration with theatre artists on the high seas reflects a history of building early relationships with talent like Paulus, who said she would happily work with the company again, and Spencer Liff, a dancer in Broadway shows and on the NBC series Smash who is now choreographing musicals for Disney ships.
Cruise ships are hardly a destination for high-minded plays – Waiting for Godot wouldn’t work with a walk-on by Goofy – but Disney has been increasingly reaching out to New York directors and composers with roots in noncommercial theatre.
Disney executives tapped the musical-theatre team of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen to help create the 2010 cruise musical Villains Tonight!, featuring Disney scoundrels, and they recruited the New York director Gordon Greenberg and the playwright Kirsten Childs for another show last year, Believe, which has a tenser-than-usual story (by Disney standards) about an unhappy father-daughter relationship.
The Fantasy will feature a new musical, Wishes, about high school seniors struggling with their futures, written by Childs (who is perhaps best known for the off-Broadway musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin).
Productions like Wishes and Believe have become as central to the cruise experience as all-youcan- eat buffets and the AquaDuck water slide, Disney executives say, citing surveys and feedback from passengers. Each cruise has three to five shows running in repertory on a given trip, with audiences totalling in the hundreds of thousands each year.
With individual budgets on a par with those of Broadway musicals, which usually cost $5 million to $15 million, the musicals have come a long way from the old cruise-ship variety shows that were sometimes cobbled together from Disney theme-park revues.
“We think we’re finding a way to introduce thousands of kids, and their parents, to their first musicals with material of real quality,” said Shelby Jiggetts- Tivony, one of the Disney executives overseeing cruise shows. “We don’t think entertaining kids has to be mutually exclusive from being artistically strong.” Jiggetts-Tivony moved up to a Disney-level salary from a nonprofit- theatre background: She directed play development at the Public Theatre under its former artistic director George C Wolfe, and also worked as a dramaturge at Lincoln Centre Theatre. Her Disney cruise colleague Michael Jung helped develop, direct and produce new plays for years at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, including an early production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Angels in America.
They report to Kevin Eld, who had worked closely with Cameron Mackintosh in the West End of London; Eld’s predecessor at Disney was Anne Hamburger, a force in downtown New York theatre during the 1980s and ‘90s.
The cruise line’s shows are developed and overseen by Eld’s Los Angeles division of Disney, which is separate from the New York office that oversees Broadway and other full-length productions like The Lion King.
“Having worked on everything from Shakespeare to grand opera, I found the real challenge at Disney to be creating a set of shows that would mesh with the experience of people on the cruises,” Eld said. “It’s mostly families who arrive wanting a break from real life and wanting to go on a journey. So a show like Believe is about reconnecting with your family, and the next day we’d want you to see a show like Wishes that is about growing up without losing a sense of the carefree.” While many Disney cruise passengers indicate that they want to hear songs and see characters they know, Jung said that Disney was trying to experiment more. The father and daughter in Believe, for instance, are not from Disney films, and their real-world problems – the father is overworked, the daughter feels unloved – are not exactly theme-park fluff.
Nonetheless, familiar characters like the genie from Aladdin take the stage to help mend the relationship.
Envelope pushing has limits: Jung recalled that the original idea behind Wishes had a relatively dark story line, and the high school students were sullen and off-putting. The show was overhauled and now has traditional Disney uplift, though still with some unusual touches, like a house-music rendition of Pinocchio’s I’ve Got No Strings, which drew quizzical stares but e n t h u s i a s t i c applause from an invitation-only audience at the Fantasy ship christening.
“You don’t want to become cliche and formulaic in the shows you’re producing out of well-known material,” Jung said inside the Fantasy’s 1,340-seat theatre before the christening.
“One of the reasons we want to hire innovative artists, people from Broadway or from the opera world, is because we want very different perspectives and visual styles.” Greenberg, who has directed several off-Broadway shows as well as the recent national tour of Guys and Dolls, said he originally talked to Disney about creating a version of the movie Ratatouille for the cruise line. But for every show created, many more ideas are shelved because Disney may want to hold on to the titles for more profitable efforts like a fulllength musical, or because executives do not think a ship is the right setting.
Greenberg said that he never felt pressure from Disney to water down Believe, though he never intended to subvert the Disney brand.
“They give pretty strict guidelines about the production elements and the narrative elements they want – in this case a fatherdaughter story to appeal to families on the cruises – and then let us go with our imagination,” Greenberg said.
“But we worked hard to create something we can be proud of, because, let’s face it, more people will see this show than anything else I probably ever direct.”