Too cool for `School'

Disney almost passed on turning its hit movie musical into a Broadway-style spectacle

August 09, 2007|By Chris Jones | Chris Jones,Chicago Tribune

When the smash 2006 TV movie High School Musical suddenly burst out of its box on the Disney Channel into the open, lucrative hearts of seemingly every tween girl in America, you'd have thought Disney Theatrical Productions would have been champing at the bit to turn the megahit into a Broadway-style show.

But Musical's journey from the small screen to the live stage has been anything but a slam-dunk.

To work for Disney is to fall victim to stereotyping. That's at least partly why the people who run Disney Theatricals - the studio's live-entertainment arm - are intensely preoccupied with artistic legitimacy. Despite the parent company's famed commitment to populist products, the New York-based theatrical division always has preferred to surround itself with arty, top-shelf creative types from the high-culture realm.

Brilliantly, president and producer Thomas Schumacher turned to Julie Taymor, then an avant-garde figure known for Asian-influenced performance, to stage The Lion King. Beauty and the Beast, which ended a whopping 13-year Broadway run Sunday, was the work of a slate of star Broadway artists. And last month in Denver, Schumacher oversaw the first preview performance of the long-awaited, Broadway-bound live version of The Little Mermaid under the direction of Francesca Zambello, who is known primarily for grand opera.

Don't expect any tanks of water or Ursula flying around, Peter Pan-style. Much too cheap and obvious.

Yet despite the obvious theatrical viability of any movie themed around putting on a show, High School Musical didn't easily fit that gestalt.

The wholesome structure of the material - cute, athletic boy and cute, brainiac girl find Romeo-and-Juliet love while performing in a school show and staying true to themselves - doesn't exactly glisten with originality. The poppy tunes weren't penned by a Broadway great - but by a committee of 12 songwriters, including David Lawrence, the son of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and the composer of American Pie 2. And the familiar, high school setting wasn't likely to set the imaginative minds of a Taymor-like artist all aflutter. No wildebeests or circles of life here. Just basketball, homerooms and the scholastic club.

"I said," Schumacher recalls, "that the best thing to do with this property is to let kids do it."

Put another way, High School Musical didn't exactly have the words "Tony Award" pinned to its sweater. So, a choice was made.

"High School Musical felt to us like something that was best enjoyed in a school auditorium," says Steve Fickinger, the vice president for licensing at Disney Theatricals. So that became the plan. Orchestrators and adapters went to work to create a low-key, easy-to-perform version that schools and small community groups could license. Disney developed a taped, karaoke-style soundtrack that schools could use to do the show. Licenses were dispensed.

And then the phone started to ring.

"Every two or three days, another producer from another professional theater would call," Fickinger says. "I told them we probably weren't going to go down that road, but that their interest was noted."

Many of the callers were professional children's theaters that wanted to broaden their audiences and knew a crowd-pleasing cash cow when they saw one on TV. And many were chagrined that the local middle school could do the show but not them.

Meanwhile, Disney had made a fortune by touring the original cast of the movie (in concert version) to arenas across the country. It had announced plans for High School Musical 2 and High School Musical 3, with the latter destined for cinematic, not cable, release in early 2009. And the original movie had firmly established itself as an international brand.

"People were telling us," says Richard Ross, president of the Disney Channel Worldwide and the main original force behind the global phenomenon, "we want as much of this as we can get, and we want it in all kinds of different ways. The theatrical version was really the cherry on the top of a live-entertainment sundae."

With all this evidence in mind, those picky Disney theater people began to change their game plan. Slowly.

So, after an initial and highly successful partnership with a professional theater company in Atlanta, the Disney executives were finally sold on a touring production with professional actors. The original idea of casting roles from the community had been scrapped.

In Atlanta, Fickinger says, most of the division's worries about the artistic viability of the piece were put to rest. "Some TV scores die when you take them out of just piano and drums," he says. "This one didn't. The work felt really solid - and it had all the humor and the heart and pathos. It really was a very solid book musical, and we all thought it played beautifully."

One irritation for Disney, of course, is the existence of those amateur licenses, handed out before plans were firmed up for the big tour.

Whether the flood of amateur productions will drown the big downtown shows and beyond remains to be seen. But Disney already has booked a 60-city tour. (The show arrives at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in February 19 for a three-week run.)

"This really is a chance for us to build a new audience for the theater," Schumacher says. "If you go and see High School Musical' when you're 9, maybe you'll come back and see Lion King when you're 18."

Chris Jones writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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