The Denver Center for the Performing Arts Blog

Posts tagged Disney

Mary Poppins: The Hunt for PL Travers

by Michael Lassell

PL TraversLike Mary Poppins, the character she created, P.L. Travers did not believe in explaining. She did, however, believe in self-mythologizing, leaving those intent on biographical criticism so confused in her wake that even her obituaries had the facts wrong (according to Valerie Lawson, author of Out of the Sky She Came, the definitive Travers biography).

PLT, as she was sometimes called, did not even take credit for “creating” Poppins. Instead, she insisted, the nanny with the upturned nose just came to her one day, much as she blows in on the East Wind in the opening chapter of Mary Poppins (1934). But whether Travers created the “Practically Perfect” Poppins—while convalescing from pleurisy in her Sussex, England, cottage—or merely channeled her, the world is in her debt. 

A history of Disney’s BEAUTY & THE BEAST

Emily Behny at Belle. Photo by Joan MarcusA traditional fairytale first published in France in the mid-18th century, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is an enduring story of love and friendship that has been translated into hundreds of versions worldwide. When Walt Disney Pictures released the animated feature film Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 1991 with a score by composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman, it was hailed as an instant classic with critics praising its “songs worthy of a Broadway musical.” The film went on to win Academy® Awards for Best Song and Best Original Score and made history as the only animated feature ever nominated for Best Picture. Given the power of the film’s story and music, the decision was made to bring Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to the Broadway stage.

Disney Theatrical Productions assembled the creative team and worked hard to combine the strengths of the beloved film with the possibilities that only live theatre can offer. Linda Woolverton adapted her Disney’s Beauty and the Beast screenplay to the stage, adding new scenes to fill out the story for the stage. The Oscar®-winning score was expanded to include several new songs by Menken and veteran lyricist Tim Rice. Beauty and the Beast opened at the Palace Theatre on April 18, 1994, played on Broadway for over 13 years (5,461 performances, finishing its run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre), ultimately becoming the eighth longest-running musical in Broadway history.


Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has logged more than 15,000 performances in more than 120 cities and 21 countries such as Canada, Japan, Mexico, Ireland, South Korea, United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil and Argentina. The play has been translated into 8 languages: Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Italian.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays Denver’s Buell Theatre March 14-18. For information or tickets, contact us at 303-893-4100. 

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Looking into the heart of an all-new ‘Beauty’

By Brendan Lemon

Dane Agostinis as Beast and Emily Behny as Belle. Photo by Joan MarcusDisney’s Beauty and the Beast, now embarked on a lavish and visually re-imagined new tour presented by NETworks, is one of best-loved of all musicals. It’s easy to understand why. Its classic story — of a beautiful village girl, Belle, who is first repelled by, then attracted to a gruff yet big-hearted Beast —is indeed, as one of the show’s numbers has it, “a tale as old as time.” The songs (music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice) are almost criminally tuneful. And the musical’s appeal crosses age barriers: truly, “Beauty” is an experience that can be enjoyed by child and adult alike.

Many of the songs – the charming “Belle,” the infectious “Something There,” and the spectacular hospitality anthem “Be Our Guest” – were written for the 1991 animated movie, which was the first – and until 2010, the only – animated film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The movie’s status not just in cinematic history but in critical lore was cemented when the New York Times’ then-theater critic Frank Rich, called Beauty and the Beast the best musical of the year – in any format.

Disney took the cue, and soon started things rolling for the live adaptation. Several new songs, as well as the book by Linda Woolverton, were written for the stage version, which opened on Broadway at the Palace Theater on April 18, 1994, and went on to become the seventh-longest running production in Broadway history.

Emily Behny as Belle and the cast of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Photo by Joan MarcusRob Roth, who directed the Broadway premiere and is back at the helm for the new tour, says that the “story of the show is about seeing past the exterior of a person and into his or her heart.” He says that conveying that feeling is key to any production of “Beauty.” What’s fresh about the tour, he adds, is not just the timeless moral but a new approach to the visuals.

“So few directors have the opportunity to work on a show several years later in a new form,” Roth says. “I’m lucky that way, and I’m also lucky because I never get bored with ‘Beauty.’”

The Enchanted Objects of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.  Photo by Joan MarcusStan Meyer, the scenic designer both for the 1994 Broadway version and for the new production, says that the former staging was, essentially, the 1991 movie made live. The latter is “a departure from that.” He explains: “We did a lot of research that involved eastern-European wood carving and gilded manuscripts. The new version is an illuminated manuscript come to life.”

Audiences will delight in the eye-popping storybook shapes and colors that Meyer and the other original-version designers (Ann Hould-Ward: costumes; Natasha Katz: lighting) have re-imagined. The production’s look, adds Meyer, “is more evocative of whimsy and very, very romantic.”

DIsney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST plays Denver, CO (Buell Theatre) March 14-18, 2012. Tickets: 303.893.4100, 800.641.1222, Groups 10+ 303.446.4892, TTY 303.893.9582

Julie Taymor: Still Queen of THE LION KING

by Sylvie Drake for APPLAUSE magazine

Julie Taymor

Almost from the moment she was born—in 1952, into a comfortable upper middle class Boston family—Julie Taymor was destined for a wild ride in the theatre she could never have foreseen. This director, choreographer, writer and designer has managed what no one else has in the West (with the possible exception of France’s Ariane Mnouchkine and our own Robert Wilson): She has successfully blended Eastern and Western theatrical traditions, creating new forms exclusively her own. With the 1997 emergence of the musical of The Lion King, which she directed and whose costumes, masks and puppets she designed, she is the first artist to have brought her unique talents to a huge commercial hit.

Who would have predicted that?

Taymor’s interest in theatre had manifested itself in the usual ways—backyard productions, theatre classes. But before she was 21, she had studied with an assortment of world masters, including Jacques Lecoq of the Lecoq School of Mime in Paris and Peter Schumann of the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont. At Oberlin College she flourished under the tutelage of Hebert Blau. Aside from Europe, her travels had taken her to Bombay, Madras and Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time).

Seeds were planted. When she graduated in 1974, Taymor received a Watson Traveling Fellowship. “My specific course was to go to Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Japan and study visual theatre and experimental puppet theatre. I planned to spend a year at the Awaji folk-Bunraku theatre in Japan [an ancient puppet theatre form]. But I went to Indonesia first.”

Theatre in Indonesia so inspired her that a planned three-month stay became four years. Because there was virtually no film or television, “theatre operated in its original manifestation,” she said, “not just as entertainment, but as educator, mediator between the gods, for religious purposes, socializing purposes. I immersed myself in it with Indonesian artists—Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese, Sumatran. W.S. Rendra was one of the most famous contemporary poets and playwrights of Java. I worked and choreographed for him, until he encouraged me to do my own work.” 

Overcoming a daunting variety of obstacles (practical, financial, lingual and cultural) and using mostly Javanese artists, Taymor created her first piece, Way of Snow, an elaborate three-part affair about shamanism and spiritual and physical starvation. Encouraged by its reception, she organized her own international company.

The company lived communally in Bali on a Ford Foundation grant in a house with dirt floors, no running water, no electricity. “We toured, performed. I tried to bring my company to the States. Could never get the money,” she said. “Everyone was China-oriented. Where’s Indonesia? It’s only the fifth largest population in the world! So I came home.”

That was 1980. Where was an iconoclast with such exotic talents to find work in the US? Mostly at experimental not-for-profit venues such as the New York Public Theater (where she did The Haggadah with Elizabeth Swados) and LaMaMa (where in 1981 she did a second version of Tirai, created in Bali). In 1984 Robert Brustein invited her to design puppets and masks for Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. When the costume designer backed out, Brustein suggested Taymor do everything. “So I designed the costumes, did the choreography, worked with the company, helped them perform.” 

As with so much of her work, The King Stag drew broad admiration from theatre insiders, but a contemplated joint production with several theatres fell apart because of high costs (much as the staggering costs and complexities of Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway this year caused her to be fired as director from the show). 

Money has always been an issue with Taymor productions. She continued to develop her idiosyncratic style, eliciting raves, but not finding many US companies able or willing to afford such demanding work. She decided she also wanted to direct and branched out into opera and film. The world began to notice, especially Europe, which found real kinship with her sensibilities—and, at that time, the subsidies needed to finance them.

The phone call from Tom Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, came as a total surprise. Taymor remembered him as a line producer for the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles who, in 1984, had wanted to bring a piece of hers, Liberty’s Taken, to the Festival. It never happened, but after joining Disney some years later, and the success of Beauty and the Beast as a stage musical, Michael Eisner, head of Disney at the time, urged Schumacher to find someone who could do the same for The Lion King. The only name that came to mind for what Schumacher thought was an unfeasible project was Taymor’s. 

She hadn’t even seen the movie. 

“I wasn’t very interested,” she said. After going off to direct Salome for the Kirov in Germany and Russia, and The Flying Dutchman in Los Angeles, she decided to take a second look. She liked the set-up. Both parties could leave at any time if things didn’t work out. She had the talent, Disney had the money—a marriage made in heaven.

“I got tremendous support from Disney,” she said, “and when I say Disney I mean individuals—Tom in particular—and they kept saying, ‘Do what you do; that’s why we hired you.’ ”       

Julie Taymor at work

She was working with her long-time associate Michael Curry, as much a wiz in the engineering of the puppets and masks as she was in the sculpting of them. For years they had jointly created a panoply of invented creatures. Together they came up with the movement of the masks as headgear—up/down, backwards/forwards—operating on an intricate technology. 

 “I could never afford to do that in any other playground,” Taymor said flatly. “I thought, ‘Disney is game to support these experiments. We should take advantage.

The next thing she did was develop a book with the writers. There were five songs in the film; she needed 15. Some were by Elton John and Tim Rice, but most of the new work came from South African composer Lebo M.

 “I was adamant about that,” she said, “and, thank God, they supported it. He’s a great artist. This is a specific composer who draws on the choral traditions of his culture as the Beatles drew on a pop tradition, wonderful songs like ‘Shadowland,’ ‘He Lives in You,’ ‘Endless Night’… I love ‘Circle of Life,’ don’t get me wrong, but without Lebo’s contribution…?” 

How, with so many ethnically different composers, did she maintain a unity of tone?

“Lebo provides the unity. Everything has his choral touch. They had put out this album called Leader of the Pridelands after the Lion King movie opened. It was all this choral music Lebo had done with Hans Zimmer. It had been background. My plan was to bring [it] to the foreground and make the chorus as principal as the principals. I told Tom, ‘You can’t hide the actors. This piece is about humanity. It’s human, not animal.’

Buyi Zama as Rafiki in the opening number The Circle of Life from THE LION KING.  ©Disney.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.

“I wanted Pride Rock to be like the Circle of Life. The circle is a strong symbol throughout. Mufasa’s head is circular. The wheels of the gazelles, the sun that rises in the beginning, the pool of water in act two—many, many things came off of this dynamic. Even if it’s subliminal, it’s much more than you know.

“We did workshops. Things had to be proved. Fine by me. A lot of money was being invested.” The first workshop disappointed. “The heads were too big, the masks oversized, cumbersome. We hadn’t gotten the scale right.” Taymor talked the powers-that-be into letting her refine four of the characters and present three versions of each (as make-up, as half-masks, as full masks), fully costumed, under proper lighting, giving the actors time to practice the movement.

“All three worked,” she said. “Michael Eisner came. Top of the food chain. He said, ‘They all work, but the one that you first conceived is by far the riskiest. The pay-off will be bigger.’ ”

Taymor’s willingness to accommodate to whatever suited Disney was the mark of a mature and confident artist, but also smart. It removed tension. The choice grew easier. The Disney brass knew it could trust the outcome.

What excited her were the virtually limitless possibilities, “the idea of the old-fashioned theatrical techniques, the forced perspective, the mechanical doll theatres. I love that stuff. I knew I would use a lot of traditions from Asia and Africa as well as our own that have so much charm but are not hi-tech. It was exciting.

We had done our work.”


Sylvie Drake is the editor of Applause magazine, the program magazine for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Fun Facts about Disney’s THE LION KING

Around the World

  • The Lion King has been seen by more than 54 million people in 14 different countries, on five continents.
  • The Lion King is the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history and one of only five productions in theatre history to play for ten years or more, both on Broadway and in the West End.

Eight current productions:

  • Broadway (the flagship)
  • North American tour
  • Las Vegas
  • London’s West End
  • Hamburg
  • Tokyo
  • Singapore
  • Madrid (opening Fall 2011)


Winner of more than 70 global theatrical awards including:

  • 1998 Tony® - Best Musical
  • 1998 Tony® - Best Direction of a Musical - Julie Taymor (making Taymor the first woman in theatrical history bestowed with the honor).
  • 1998 Tony® - Best Scenic Design - Richard Hudson
  • 1998 Tony® - Best Costume Design - Julie Taymor
  • 1998 Tony® - Best Lighting Design - Donald Holder
  • 1998 Tony® - Best Choreography - Garth Fagan
  • 1998 NY Drama Critics Circle Award - Best Musical
  • 1999 Grammy® - Best Musical Show Album
  • 1999 Evening Standard Award - Theatrical Event of the Year
  • 1999 Laurence Olivier Awards - Best Choreography and Best Costume Design 

Masks & Puppets

  • Tony® Award-winning director and designer Julie Taymor, along with designer Michael Curry, hand sculpted and painted every prototype mask that now appears in the iconic “Circle of Life” opening of the show.  Their department of skilled mask makers, sculptors, puppeteers and artisans spent 17,000 hours to build the anthropomorphic animal characters for the original Broadway production.
  • With the masks, Taymor created what she calls "the double event" which enables the audience to see the characters as animal and human at the same time.
  • Mufasa’s mask weighs 11 ounces, Scar’s mask weighs seven ounces and Sarabi’s mask is just four ounces.  The masks, along with many others used in the show, are extremely lightweight (just under one pound) and are comprised of silicone rubber (to form the mask imprint) with carbon graphite overlay - the same durable material used to build airplanes.  Over 750 pounds of silicone rubber were used to make the masks.
  •  Scar and Mufasa each wear two different masks:  one moves and one is a stationary headdress.
  • The tallest animals in the show are the four, 18-foot exotic giraffes from “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”  The two giraffes in “Circle of Life” are 14 feet high.  Two actors trained in stilt-walking, climb 6-foot ladders to fit inside the puppets, mount stilts and enter stage left to cross the stage.
  • The largest and longest animal in the show is the Elephant (nicknamed “Bertha” by the back stage crew when the show premiered in 1997).  At 13 feet long and 9 feet wide, the puppet requires four actors to carefully walk her down the orchestra aisle.  When not occupied by the actors, the puppet can collapse down flat for convenient backstage storage.
  • The smallest animal is the trick mouse at the end of Scar’s cane at just five inches.
  • Zazu is the lastanimal to make his entrance on stage in the “Circle of Life” opening number.
  • The Timon meerkat puppet weighs 15 pounds.


  • Worn like a back pack, Pumbaa the Warthog is the heaviest costume weighing in at 45 pounds.
  • Scar uses three different walking sticks.
  • The yearly upkeep and maintenance of the 20 Grasslands headdresses requires over 3,000 stalks of grass (roughly 60 pounds).
  • Every ensemble member plays both a hyena and a Grassland head.
  • The Bird Lady and Bird Man costumes represent a flock of birds.

Pride Rock, Sets & Lighting

  • The most complicated set piece is Pride Rock, which appears five times during each performance.  On tour, Pride Rock is a battery-powered set piece which expands out like an accordion to 18’ wide at its fullest position onstage and compresses to 8’ when it is offstage in the wings. 
  • Lighting Designer Donald Holder used nearly 700 lighting instruments to create the show’s lighting plot.

 By the Numbers

  • Puppets including rod puppets, shadow puppets and full-sized puppets:  200
  • Ants on the Ant-Hill Lady costume:  100
  • Wigs:  45
  • Wildebeests:  52
  • Hyenas:  39
  • Types of animals, birds, fish and insects represented in the show:  25
  • Gazelles:  15, five actors each wear a gazelle puppet on both arms and one affixed to their head.
  • Gazelles on the gazelle wheel prop:  6
  • Lionesses:  14 (Nala, Young Nala and 12 ensemble in the ‘Lioness hunt’).
  • Bird Kites:  12, featured in “One By One,” the opening number of Act II.
  • Bird Ladies:  5
  • Bird Man:  1, he appears in “Circle of Life” opening number and in the “Circle of Life” reprise in the final scene.
  • Simba representations:  6 (Baby Simba puppet, Young Simba-actor, Young Simba puppet, Simba Shadow puppet, Rafiki’s Simba painting-Act I & II, Adult Simba-actor).
  • Zebras:  3
  • Elephants:  (they are “Bertha” and the Baby Elephant who is operated by the child actresses alternating the role of Young Nala).
  • Antelope:  2
    (In the opening number, the low and high antelope are the first animals Rafiki calls out to in Swahili – the ‘NGONYAMA’ call & response choral chant.  The antelope are portrayed by two South African male ensemble singers.)
  • Rhinoceros: 1
  • Cheetah: 1


There are six indigenous African languages spoken in the show:

  • Swahili
  • Zulu
  • Xhosa (the click language)
  • Sotho
  • Tswana
  • Congolese

The Lion King has been translated into sevenlanguages:

  • Japanese
  • German
  • Korean
  • French
  • Dutch
  • Mandarin
  • Spanish

Production Staff

  • Worldwide, nearly 1100 people are directly employed by The Lion King, including 20 whose sole mission is artistic upkeep of the show.
  • Since The Lion King’s Broadway premiere, well over 200 South Africans have been employed in one or more of the global productions as lead actors, ensemble dancers/singers, musicians or members of the crew.

On tour, there are 134 people directly involved with the daily production of the show:

  • 49 cast members – seven of whom are South African
  • 19 wardrobe staff
  • 18 musicians
  • 11 carpenters
  • 10 electricians
  • 5 hair/make-up artists
  • 4 props people
  • 4 stage managers
  • 3 puppet craftspeople
  • 3 sound people
  • 2 creative associates
  • 2 company managers
  • 2 merchandise associates
  • 1 child guardian
  • 1 physical therapist

 On the Road

  • The North American touring production (launched in April 2002) uses 18 trucks to transport puppets, set pieces and other materials from city to city.  14 of the trucks are 53’ long semi-trailers.
  • The tour requires three days of advance prep and four days of on-site technical preparation at the respective venue to set-up the physical production in each new city.


The Lion King – NATIONAL TOUR Fun Facts