Since 1994, Disney on Broadway - the theatrical wing of the Walt Disney empire - has proven that The Mouse is a commercial theater powerhouse
It's a tale as old as time ... or so goes the title song from one of the Walt Disney Company's most lucrative titles, Beauty and the Beast. As if the 1991 animated film wasn't a big enough hit, Disney figured out a way to get the public to pay to see it again - by putting the movie onto the Broadway stage. In 1994, an expanded version of the film - with more songs and a little stage magic - opened at the Palace Theatre on Broadway and was a sensation. Little did we all know that the Broadway stage musical of Disney's Beauty & the Beast had become the flagship of what was to become the theatrical empire now known as Disney On Broadway.
Disney Turns Its Successful Name Brand Properties Into Broadway Gold
As tourists now make up the majority of the Broadway ticket buying public, commercial theater has relied more and more on recognizable names to entice audiences into theaters. Since Disney has nearly 100 years of material to draw on, they need only dust off the most popular titles in their vault, use their considerable money to hire a creative time to theatricalize it, and then use more of their considerable money to advertise the show.
After the success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney took another one of its most celebrated animated films, The Lion King, and staged it. But unlike Beauty and the Beast, which was a visually faithful realization of the movie onstage, The Lion King was given a more creative and artistic treatment by experimental director/designer Julie Taymor. The risk paid off big-time, and The Lion King has been Disney's most impressive success yet.
With their next entry, Disney took yet another risk - this time on a (somewhat) original show. Using the famed opera of the same name as the basis for its story, Disney's Aida had a new book by playwright David Henry Hwang, Linda Woolverton, and Robert Falls, and a score by Elton John and Tim Rice. Aida was seen as a creative misfire by many theater wags, but it still did manage to snag a few Tony Awards and it enjoyed a solid four-year run on Broadway. Disney then returned to its catalogue with the next three shows, Tarzan, Mary Poppins (the only live action Disney movie to be put on Broadway so far), and The Little Mermaid.
Nancy Coyne of Serino Coyne and the creation of "Disney On Broadway"
By the time the first three Disney shows - Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aida - were running on Broadway simultaneously, Broadway marketing guru Nancy Coyne of Serino/Coyne came up with the clever idea of advertising the trio of Disney musicals under the collective name "Disney On Broadway". As long as they continue having multiple shows on Broadway, the campaign can continue uninterrupted (the 2009 version is hawking the trio of The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and The Little Mermaid). It allows the newer and less popular titles to ride on the coattails of the more popular and established ones. Essentially it's another way of saying, 'If you liked this Disney Broadway show, you'll love these other two!' This strategy isn't new, as many popular products and services currently employ cross-selling techniques that can bolster sales of the "lesser" twin, but Nancy Coyne was the first to bring the concept to Broadway, traditionally a late starter in new concepts.
Closing Up and Cashing In: Disney and Discounts
Of the six Disney On Broadway shows, only two (Tarzan and The Little Mermaid) haven't been successes, and even they had runs that lasted well over a year. And the Disney people are smart - they know to quit while they're ahead. Rather than allowing shows to continue running on fumes and discounts when the ticket-buying public have started losing interest (which is inevitable for most Broadway shows), they simply close up shop. Even the long-running Beauty and the Beast, without a doubt a major triumph for Disney On Broadway, closed while it was still quite popular with audiences. When you consider how high the weekly running costs must be for Disney's lavish shows, this is just good business.
While most of Disney's Broadway musicals have offered no or paltry discounts, Mary Poppins has been offering discounts pretty steadily for much of its run. However, Mary Poppins is an unusual case because it doesn't cost Disney as much to run. The reason is because they actually own the theater that it plays in, the New Amsterdam, so they don't have to pay rent on it (and you had better believe that renting a theater in Times Square costs a lot of money!).
Disney on Broadway still has an aversion to ticket discounting; it appears that they would rather close a show than sully the Disney brand with selling tickets for less.
Disney's Broadway Musicals On Tour
It's so difficult to make money with a show on Broadway that even a musical that runs for two or three years might not recoup its investment. However, many Broadway shows that don't make back their money with the initial production go on to make it back on tour. Disney is no exception, and once again it has the advantage of its well-known, family-friendly name. So even if The Little Mermaid didn't earn back its investment on Broadway, it is bound to do so on tour.
On the other end of the spectrum, take The Lion King. Even as it spent 10 years selling out night after night on Broadway, there was a separate touring production cashing in across the country. Plus there have been sit-down productions in several cities, including Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Toronto, and many more.
Musicals and Kids - The Secret of Disney On Broadway's Success
All of the Disney shows on Broadway so far have been musicals, and surely that's no accident. Musicals are far more popular than plays, especially with tourists, so it's an advantage to Disney to produce musicals exclusively. They have also, not surprisingly, focused on children's fare (the only exception so far was the more adult-oriented Aida). Disney has, in fact, virtually cornered the market on children's theater on Broadway. Either because the other Broadway producers have not yet figured out how to appeal to kids, or because they're just afraid of competing with the Disney behemoth, few others Broadway producers have even attempted to bring a kid-oriented shows to Broadway. That means that almost any family with young children wanting to take in a Broadway show have no choice but to see a Disney musical. And that's a strategy that you can take to the bank.