IN THE EARLY SUMMER of 2001, I went with my wife and parents to see August Wilson’s play King Hedley II, at the Virginia Theatre on West 52nd Street. The play was set in 1985—Ronald Reagan’s America—and the action took place in the scraggly backyard of a street of row houses in a barely-getting-along urban neighborhood. A half-demolished brick wall at the back of the stage formed an enclosure separating the world of the characters, black people who were no longer young and no longer hopeful, from the prosperous, front-yard world familiar to the audience. No one was going anywhere; and the ironically named King Hedley and his neighbors delivered furious monologues about the cruelty of life in Reagan’s morning-in-America world, while also not failing to ensure their own inevitable failure, and even destruction. Wilson was also, of course, revealing to his audience the backyard world of embitterment and selfimmolation from which they would normally be shielded. Wilson’s incantatory language apparently hit its mark: At the intermission, my father turned to me and said, “They all seem very angry.”
Aristotle hypothesized that the theater arts permit the viewer to experience the catharsis that comes of feeling powerful emotions not normally encountered in daily life. Aristotle was talking about terror and pity, and probably that serves perfectly well to encompass the world of a play like King Hedley II, or Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, or O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, or any number of the serious and unsettling plays, whether originals or revivals, that have been mounted on Broadway in recent years. These works of theater provide the moral and intellectual anchor of Times Square. The critics of the new Times Square complain that the “unsettling experiences”—experiences of the unpredictable, the incongruous, the unmannerly—central to urban life have been evacuated from this all-too-calculated global crossroads. They’re right; and yet those disturbing experiences are still available inside the world of the theater. King Hedley II may not have constituted a cathartic experience for my father, but at the very least, it provoked a moment of troubled recognition— “They all seem very angry.”
It is patent that theater doesn’t “matter” in American culture; it’s scarcely mattered in half a century. But it matters greatly in Times Square, and not only economically. The illusionistic worlds inside the theaters offer relief from, and an alternative to, the illusionistic world of Times Square itself. They are spaces carved out from Times Square’s increasingly totalized environment. Some of them offer themselves as contrasts to, or subversions of, that environment. (One of the two main characters of Topdog/Underdog makes a living, when all else fails, playing three-card monte, presumably not far from the theater.) To emerge from these plays is to carry with you a memory, or perhaps just an image, of something that will not be assimilated into the glossy world of Broadway, just as King Hedley and his friends cannot be assimilated into Ronald Reagan’s America.
Of course, most of these illusionistic worlds aren’t meant to be disturbing in the least. They’re meant to be—even if in fact they’re often not—delightful, sentimental, splashy, and sparkling, just as they have always been on Broadway. Frothy escapism is the bread and butter of Broadway. Take a musical like 42nd Street, for example. Just as the 1933 movie muted the bitter misanthropy of the 1932 novel, so the play—itself a revival of a David Merrick production from the sixties—gentles the Depression-era desperation of the movie. The kids who find a dime on the street and sing “We’re in the Money” are urchins; but a moment later they’re whisked away and the cast emerges in the gold spangles of the children’s fantasy. Julian Marsh, the madly driven director, is here a lonely but lovable curmudgeon. Nick Murphy’s gangsters may be naughty and gaudy, but they’re hardly dangerous. And Peggy Sawyer tramples no toes on her way to the top. The show is about pluck—Peggy’s, Julian’s, the chorus’s. And when, after two and a half hours of frantic hoofing, the cast capers its way madly, brilliantly, through a reprise, you think, “These kids are having the time of their life!” The life of a chorus girl was famously transitory and cruel; in the years before the First World War, George Bronson-Howard created an entire literature out of these beautiful, brittle, predatory creatures. But not here: the true subject of this 42nd Street is the sheer wonderfulness of the theatrical well that is life on Broadway.
It is, of course, ever thus. There has always been an O’Neill, a Williams, a Miller; and a Ziegfeld, a Cohan, and, for that matter, a Minsky. Theater is the one aspect of Times Square that is immemorial: a play today looks like a play seventy years ago, and it is presented in the same space. You still need actors, musicians, writers, makeup artists, and ticket-takers, and you need producers willing to take a plunge on a risky project. Theater has remained the same, while everything around it, the context that is Times Square, and thus the context in which we experience it, has changed drastically.
This balance between the difficult and the accessible, the disorienting and the familiar, is an ancient pattern on Broadway. And yet the global firms that have come to dominate rental, food, television, and the like have now gained a foothold in theater as well. Two such firms, Disney and Clear Channel Communications, now constitute the largest forces on Broadway, the one as a producer, the other principally as a backer and a distributor, and both as theater owners. Their arrival in Times Square has been treated with a great deal of trepidation, though also some wary hope. Do they come as imperialists, or as rich uncles? The fear, generally unspoken, is that their advent will hasten the eclipse of the little voices of disturbance—the counterrealities of Broadway—and amplify yet more, as if it were needed, the bombast of the middlebrow musical. And then the Broadway theater, as it has been known for the last century, will linger only as Times Square’s vestigial organ.
THOMAS SCHUMACHER, THE HEAD of what is known inside Disney as the Buena Vista Theatrical Group, does not produce an impression that corresponds in any way with that notorious term of abuse “Disneyfication.” Schumacher is a slight fellow, still almost puppyishly enthusiastic at forty-four, with thick, floppy hair parted down the middle and dark, squarish spectacles. He looks like a chic, media-savvy French intellectual. The medium, in this regard, is the message, for Schumacher is the living emblem of a very different kind of Disney. And he is at pains to distinguish his role on Broadway, and Disney’s, from the epithet people so lightly toss around. “It’s ironic,” he said, when we first met, “that we use the term ‘Disneyfication’ when in fact the purest saving of what is the halcyon days of Times Square, the classic center of it, was actually the restoration of this theater.” “This theater” is, of course, the New Amsterdam, on 42nd Street just west of Broadway. We were seated at a little table in an oval lounge ringed with murals depicting the history of New York City, from the first encounter with the Indians up through 1903, when the theater was built. The lounge had been submerged beneath a foot or so of water when Disney took title to the New Amsterdam in 1994; now, like the rest of the theater, it had been lovingly restored. “That’s all we did,” Schumacher went on, with a good deal of heat. “That’s all we did.”
“Disney” is, of course, a very sensitive subject for Disney. The word has become shorthand for the spurious and the engineered and the uniform-but-with-a-little-local-appliqué. “We didn’t actually put up the McDonald’s next door,” Schumacher said, a bit wearily, “or the Chili’s down the street, or Madame Tussaud’s.” He evidently knew the critique by heart. When I mentioned that restoring the New Amsterdam was not quite all Disney did, since the company owns ABC and ESPN, both of which have an extremely gaudy presence on Broadway, Schumacher raised his eyebrows. That’s Disney-the-company; his Disney is the New Amsterdam Theatre and The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, and Aida, and the lineup of new shows he’s got in the works.
Whatever “Disney” is, Schumacher himself is plainly not an alien life form on Broadway. He is Broadway. When we had lunch one day at a popular theater spot on 44th Street, Margot Lion, the producer of the hit musical Hairspray, waylaid him to say how much she had missed him while he was out of town. The restaurant’s owner, another Broadway fixture, came by for a chat. Schumacher made a point of greeting a young woman at another table because she worked for him in some capacity, and he didn’t want her to be embarrassed lest he overhear an unguarded comment. (Disney is probably the largest employer on Broadway.) It was like dining with David Merrick, or David Belasco. And Schumacher has the bona fides. When he challenged me to think of a musical that wasn’t derived from an earlier work, I tried Oklahoma! “Completely adapted from Green Grow the Lilacs,” he fired back. Hello, Dolly!? “Based on both The Merchant of Yonkers and The Matchmaker.” When I complimented him on his erudition, he grinned and said, “Yes, the term ‘show queen’ does come up.”
Schumacher is a San Franciscan who went to UCLA and then went into arts administration—first with a dance company, then with the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, then with the Mark Taper Forum. In 1987 he established the Los Angeles Festival of Arts, where he presented the English-language premiere of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, a production to which he often proudly refers. He then went to work in Disney’s animation unit, which had just been revitalized by Michael Eisner. There he supervised the development and production of Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life, and such more classically Disneyesque fare as Tarzan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Schumacher is proud of his work, and at times he skirts self-parody as he provides a gloss on the Disney output worthy of a man who produced the Mahabharata. When I asked him why one Disney heroine, or leading man, is indistinguishable from another, he said, “It’s a retelling of the mono myth.” The mono myth? “Who am I? What am I? What is my purpose?” In other words, as Joseph Campbell would put it, the hero with a thousand faces. Schumacher is a Disney true believer; of course, you wouldn’t want to have a cynic turning out children’s movies.
After the movie of Beauty and the Beast was greeted, at least by some critics, as a better musical than anything then running on Broadway, Michael Eisner, himself a native New Yorker and something of a theater nut, decided to produce a theatrical version of the show as an experiment in a new medium for Disney’s animated characters. Disney executives came up with a noisy theme-park-style show that underwhelmed critics and delighted the plebes; Beauty has been running since 1994, making it, as of 2003, the seventh longest-running production in Broadway history. Schumacher makes a point of saying that he had nothing to do with the original production. I couldn’t actually bring myself to buy a ticket, but Alex, who was forced to go by virtue of a class trip, found it so profoundly beneath his twelve-year-old contempt that he could barely bring himself to describe it. “Stupid,” I think, was his chief impression.
Meanwhile, Disney was fixing up the New Amsterdam. Eisner now agreed to create a separate theatrical unit, and to run it he appointed Peter Schneider, the head of Disney Studios, and Schumacher. The Lion King had been released just as the theatrical production of Beauty and the Beast opened and was the logical choice for the next fable to grace the boards. There was no obvious reason why Disney wouldn’t produce another connect-the-dots show like Beauty and the Beast. But Disney wasn’t producing the new musical: Schneider and Schumacher were. And Schumacher, who was a man of taste but also a company man, found the place where personal taste and corporate strategy converged. He asked Julie Taymor, the sculptor and mask-maker—and then recent winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant—to direct the new play. Taymor was the least “corporate” of figures; she operated on the small, handmade scale of Very Off Broadway. And yet Schumacher recognized that her work, which revolved around myth and ritual, and nonverbal means of presentation—the whole Campbellian substratum—fit very well with the Disney oeuvre. He had, he says, tried to bring her play Liberty’s Taken to the Los Angeles Arts Festival, and followed her work thereafter. And so he asked; and Taymor agreed.
When I asked Schumacher about the choice of Taymor, he said, “There is this impression that it runs counter to what we do. People don’t realize that Salvador Dalí was in residence in the studio. People forget that Walt worked with Leopold Stokowski. People forget how arty Fantasia was. It has never seemed to me a choice outside of what we do as a company, but very much a choice outside of what people expected us to do.” Of course, people forget these things because they took place half a century ago. Among the current generation of Disney movies, some are ingenious and charming—though I wouldn’t have included The Lion King in that group—but most stay well within the Disney comfort zone, which often includes the downright cloying. (Pocahontas, anyone?)
There is, at any rate, no question that the choice of Taymor startled people who thought of Disney as the Standard Oil of children’s entertainment. The news coverage in the run-up to the show’s opening, in the fall of 1997, featured such arch conceits as Julie Taymor as Beauty, and Disney, “the many-tentacled house of mainstream,” as the Beast. Taymor conceded that many of her friends felt that she had, in fact, surrendered to the Beast. And of her new employer she said, “At first they worried that I was too far-out and I worried that they were Disney.” And yet, she found that whenever an aesthetic choice had to be made, the suits from Disney, including Eisner, pushed her to take the bolder and more experimental route. Schumacher says that Disney and Taymor signed a contract permitting either to walk away in case of artistic differences. And then, he says, “we never looked at the deal again.”
The Lion King offered irrefutable proof that “corporate theater” need not be a vaguely disreputable subspecies of the art form, like “dinner theater.” The show bore the stamp of a single creator far more plainly than did the overproduced musicals pulled this way and that by a dozen different investors. It was a Julie Taymor show on a giant scale. And yet what was striking about it was how effectively Taymor had brought Disney’s epic pretensions into human scale. “The grasslands” was indicated not by a great, billowing field of green but by two columns of stately figures rising from beneath the stage with square headdresses of green turf. A single tree with a great, spreading projection of lacy, irresolvable patterns stood for the bounty of nature. These allusive gestures, which Taymor described as “ideographic,” summoned larger associations by virtue of being so sketchy and economical. And then of course there were the masks, also contrived as minimalist objects. A big bird was an actor carrying a rack of wings, a flock of little birds an actor wiggling a mobile hung with birdlike shapes. A leopard was an actor piloting a leopard figure like a wheelbarrow. Man and animal merge and mingle in an enchanted vision of unfallen nature—the Circle of Life, perhaps, without the movie’s Mother Earth pieties. Apart from all the Disney-certified hokum about “Hakuna Matata”—which is to say, apart from much of the actual dialogue—it was an impressive production.
The Lion King won six Tonys, including one for best musical. Six years later, it was still playing to packed houses. On 42nd Street, and in ten other locations around the world, it had earned Disney over a billion dollars. What was perhaps even more important, it blotted out the image created by the schlocky Beauty and the Beast and materially altered Disney’s status in the larger culture.
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR an example of an evil media conglomerate you couldn’t do much better than Clear Channel Communications, an $8 billion company that enjoys a powerful, and in some cases near monopolistic, status in radio station ownership and program distribution; rock concert production; monster truck and motocross competitions; outdoor advertising; the management of sports stars; and, last and perhaps least, the nationwide distribution of theatrical productions. Clear Channel could have been described as one of the most powerful companies in the country that scarcely anyone had heard of until 2002, when suddenly it became the chief symbol of the evils of media concentration. Clear Channel owns 1,250 radio stations, making it by far the largest station owner in the country; and in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it was widely criticized for promoting pro-war rallies, pushing singers deemed patriotic and punishing those, like the Dixie Chicks, with the mettle to criticize the war effort. The company was said to engage in the illegal practice of “play for pay,” forcing performers to ante up for airtime (a charge they have consistently denied). And Clear Channel’s practice of using the exact same programming on many of its stations made it the single greatest cause of the numbing uniformity along the radio dial. Press reports described the company as “radio’s big bully” and “the evil empire.” And when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated media ownership in 2003, radio was conspicuously excluded from the fiesta—because of Clear Channel’s naked abuses of its power, according to subsequent reports.
Clear Channel’s role in the world of theater was practically an afterthought, and may be traced back to a company called Pace Theatrical. Pace had begun in the 1970s by booking tractor pulls and monster truck shows into arenas. In the early eighties, the company began to buy up theaters around the United States and in Great Britain; in many cities, it purchased the subscription series—in effect, the audience—rather than the theater itself. Pace then began to invest in Broadway shows, with a view to securing the right to distribute them in its network of theaters. Ever since the decline of the “road” back in the 1920s, theatergoers outside New York had largely had to content themselves with retread productions, of hardy perennials like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. In the late seventies and early eighties, the British producer Cameron Mackintosh began to mint Broadway-quality road companies for splashy shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Miss Saigon. Mackintosh proved that you could charge more money for a better class of show and still turn a profit. Soon Pace was investing in practically every musical on Broadway and sending the most successful ones on the road in productions of its own. The company now owned the product, the audience, and the venue; it enjoyed the kind of monopoly over the road that Klaw and Erlanger, or Keith and Albee, had exercised ninety years earlier, though at that time the road was a good deal bigger, and more valuable, than it is now.
In 1999, a concert presenter called SFX purchased both Pace and Livent, the production company established by the Canadian entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky, which owned the Ford Center, across the street from the New Amsterdam, as well as several valuable properties, including Ragtime and Fosse. And then Clear Channel bought SFX, like the giant fish that swallows the big fish that swallowed the little fish. To give an idea of how very small that little fish was, the Theatrical and Family Division, the company’s production wing, accounted for 12 percent of the revenues of Clear Channel Entertainment, which also included concerts, motor sports, and real estate (meaning the actual theaters)—and this entire branch of the company, in turn, accounted for only a quarter of its revenues. Nevertheless, that modest slice of the entertainment pie still made Clear Channel a giant force on Broadway—almost as significant a player in the world of musical theater as it was in, say, monster truck shows and billboards. In 2002, Clear Channel Entertainment moved into the Candler Building, a narrow, elegant limestone skyscraper built in 1913 on the southern side of 42nd Street. Clear Channel had now joined Disney, Viacom, and Toys “R” Us in the global entertainment axis of Times Square.
The offices of Clear Channel do not much resemble the raucous headquarters of Keith and Albee’s United Booking Office on the second floor of the old Palace Theatre, though the function is not so very different. Lauren Reid, whose job is to supply a package of shows to Clear Channel’s eighteen theaters, and its fifty-six subscription series, sits in a gray-carpeted office with a nice view east, toward the Condé Nast Building. Reid says that in most cities her big competition isn’t the ballet or the opera, but sports teams. The average theater she’s working with seats 2,800 people—immense, by Broadway standards—and this means that she has to find a crowd-pleasing product. “When we put together a package,” she says, “we always try to round it out, so you have maybe one megashow, like Lion King, one new hot revival, like 42nd Street, then you have a play slot and a slot for something different, like Riverdance. ” She says that she would love to aim a little higher, but there are, she says, “a limited number of cities where you have an audience for a straight play.” She would love to put together a circuit of smaller theaters for more modest and ambitious shows, but it hasn’t happened yet. And so the folks out in Minneapolis or Portland get David Copperfield and Seussical, though also Hairspray and The Producers— not August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks, perhaps, but also not Top 40 radio.
Scott Zeiger, the president of Clear Channel Entertainment, compares the theatrical operation to a television network that has owned and operated stations—the theaters and subscription series—as well as affiliated stations, which in this case means the “strategic partnerships” Clear Channel forms with other presenters. The central imperative is to keep the network supplied with popular product. Clear Channel takes the role of “associate producer,” “strategic partner,” or “strategic limited partner” on various Broadway productions, but the ultimate goal is to field shows that will play well on the road. In the mid-nineties, the company also began producing kiddie shows in collaboration with Nickelodeon and others. Clear Channel may claim credit for such dramatic fare as Rug-rats—A Live Adventure, Scooby Doo Stagefright, and Blue’s Clues Live. Liz Mc-Donald, who runs children’s programming, says that some of these shows can sell out Radio City Musical Hall many times over. I attended one rehearsal of an upcoming show called Dora the Explorer, based on a popular cartoon of the same name. Dora is a feisty little girl with a pet monkey who engages in educational and prosocial activities in the course of solving knotty mysteries. At one point the director, a Broadway veteran accustomed to somewhat more ambitious productions, instructed the villain, Swiper, to “come downstage and take a feather from Red Chicken.” Pausing to savor the sheer inanity of it all, he said, “I know: It’s derivative of Richard III. I know that, but the kids don’t know that.”
In 2000, the principal officials of Clear Channel Entertainment decided that the time had come to commission adult works as well. Unlike Disney, which has an archive of beloved material as well as a production line churning out mythopoetic cartoons on an annual basis, Clear Channel had to start from scratch. The company hired Beth Williams, a pianist who had conducted the pit orchestra in Les Miz and then worked as a line producer for shows Pace sent out on the road; she, in turn, hired six young producers to scour Broadway for talent and material. Clear Channel’s culture would appear to be allergic to anything as unpredictable as actual creativity, but theater is too marginal an enterprise to be subjected to the same stultifying discipline as radio. Beth Williams describes herself as “a Mom-and-Pop producer,” which is true in Clear Channel terms, if not in Broadway terms. Virtually everything has to be a musical, but Williams insists that it doesn’t have to be an inane musical—Dora for grown-ups. She is very hopeful about The Gospel According to Fishman, a musical she has commissioned, set in 1963, in which a Jewish composer hooks up with a gospel group (a setting that sounds dangerously heart-warming).
It would not be the least bit surprising if Clear Channel’s baby production unit unleashed on Broadway a cataract of gooey fudge, such as a Ben Vereen vanity piece now being developed. But you never know. Williams’s executive producer, Jennifer Costello, spent her twenties running an “ensemble-based collective,” Monsterless Actors, with her husband, who also now works for the company. She and Aaron Beall “flowed in the same circles,” she says. Aaron flowed one way, and she flowed another, to Rugrats—A Live Adventure. But her aspirations lie elsewhere. Costello says, “I like theater that makes you feel uncomfortable,” and she enjoys working with theater people who feel likewise. She has been trying to encourage a performance artist she admires to think Clear Channel thoughts. So far, she says, his ideas have been too avant-garde, but he’s moving in the right direction. She’s looking into a project about the drug-addled trumpeter Chet Baker. She would plainly love to produce something she doesn’t find embarrassing. Of course, that may turn out to mean that she will be delighted with the untold story of Ben Vereen.
TOM SCHUMACHER PERMITTED me to see fifteen minutes’ worth of a read-through for a musical of Tarzan, still in the very early stages. Tarzan said things like, “Did you know there were others like me, Mother?” Jane said things like, “My interest in Tarzan is purely scientific,” though also, “His eyes were intense and focused; I’ve never seen such eyes.” Here was another romance in uncorrupted nature, like Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid. There may also have been elements of the mono myth in Tarzan’s awakening. Afterward, Schumacher and I stood by the door, and he asked if I recognized any of the figures in the production. I drew a blank. “That’s Phil Collins,” he said, pointing to a balding figure sitting at a table. “He’s written eight new songs. That’s David Henry Hwang; he’s writing the script. And the actor over there is Roger Rees, from Nicholas Nickleby.” The director was Bob Crowley, perhaps the best-known lighting director on Broadway. All this for Tarzan.
Why do all these gifted people choose to work on a musical cartoon? The answer appears to be Tom Schumacher. Whatever horrors the word “Disney” may conjure up on Broadway, it is not Disney, but Tom Schumacher, who is buying lunch on 44th Street and choosing writers and directors. Schumacher says, “There’s no Disney point of view, because Disney is not an idea. There’s no gleaming granite board which says, ‘We do this. We don’t do that.’” Schumacher says that he always wants to be doing something new. That’s why he has gone to Suzan-Lori Parks to write a script for Hoopz, a musical about the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s why he asked Bob Crowley, who has never directed a play, to do Tarzan.
Rick Elice, a longtime Broadway publicist who now works as a consultant for Disney, argues that Schumacher should be understood as the David Belasco, or the David Merrick, of our day. Disney’s wealth gives Schumacher the power, almost unheard of on Broadway, to make a project happen if he wants to do it; but he is not really free to exercise his own taste as a producer of old was, or even as many producers today are. Schumacher has put some of his own money into the kind of shows that Jennifer Costello might like, but he can no more make those shows for Disney than she can for Clear Channel. “Personally,” Schumacher says, “as a guy who supports the arts, works in the arts, spent my life doing it, for me personally to produce a play is very interesting, but when I think of what I need to do for the company, it makes sense to do things with a great return.” One can imagine Marc Barbanell saying much the same thing to Aaron Beall, though perhaps in slightly different words.
Disney may have a better record of creativity than Clear Channel, but the two companies operate under the same economic constraints. A big musical costs as much as $12 million to produce, and perhaps $400,000 to $500,000 a week to run. If the show is a flop, it’s a catastrophe. But if it’s a hit, it may gross $800,000 a week, which means that it will begin breaking a profit within a year and a half. A straight play would be much cheaper to produce, but the profit potential is far too modest for a company of Disney or Clear Channel’s size. More important, success on Broadway means that the show is ready for the road; and it is the road that makes theater a business worth pursuing for Disney, as for Clear Channel. As Chris Boneau, a theatrical publicist, puts it, “Broadway is now a form of international branding.” A hit musical is a global product.
Thus, by the fall of 2003, when productions opened in Sydney and Amsterdam, there were ten versions of The Lion King playing around the world. The initial cost of the play had already been absorbed; the road productions only had to earn more than they spent each week. This they did, with a vengeance. Although a ticket in New York generally costs more than a ticket elsewhere, the New Amsterdam has fewer seats than most of the other theaters where The Lion King will play. In 119 weeks, according to Schumacher, the show grossed $125 million in New York and $147 million in Los Angeles. Beauty and the Beast may be idiotic rather than ideographic, but the same economics apply. At its height, in fact, Beauty had eleven shows going at once.
Schumacher’s ability to attract gifted writers and actors, and his own ambitions, make it unlikely that Beauty and the Beast will happen on his watch. But even The Lion King is not Oklahoma!; the language and characterization were stamped out in the Disney tool-and-die factory. Disney is itself the limiting factor in a Disney musical. What’s more, the company’s other current long-running Broadway hit, Aida, is considered neither as hackneyed as Beauty nor as inventive as Lion King. Perhaps that perfectly acceptable middle is where Disney will come to dwell. The projects closest to completion when I spoke to Schumacher were Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins (a collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh), and a medley of songs from Disney films. Might they not turn out to be much of a muchness?
Calculations of profit do not determine everything on Broadway—not by a long shot. People have been pouring money into difficult and unlikely shows since O’Neill’s first hit, Beyond the Horizon, in 1920. Broadway backers will continue to delude themselves about a show’s merits, or its potential popularity, until the end of time. But giant corporations like Disney or Clear Channel face issues of scale that necessarily change their calculations; investments are not worth making if they can yield only a modest profit. And the imperative of mass appeal sharply limits one’s options, in theater as in every other art form. In fact, the dimensions of the theater audience mark out the borders both of corporate pandering and of corporate aspiration. Clear Channel will probably never dumb down theater as it has radio, because the theater audience is too small, too adult, and too variegated to make that strategy worthwhile. On the other hand, neither Clear Channel nor Disney is likely to nudge theatergoers very far from their comfort zone, because there’s simply not enough money in discomfort. The one thing one can safely predict that both companies will do is to keep Broadway, and for that matter Cincinnati and Dallas, knee-deep in lavish musicals for many years to come. That is, in the world of global entertainment companies, a fairly benign outcome.