Look at where The Mouse likes to “Play.”

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was coming up, was from an ol’ school Broadway Producer after I asked for his advice on how to have a successful career in this . . . ahem . . . “unique” industry.

His response?

“Ken, life is an open book test.”

What he meant by that was to look around . . . and learn from those people and companies that have had the success you’re strivin’ for and learn from what they’ve done to get where they are today.

One of the companies that I watch pretty closely is The Mouse House, more affectionately known as Disney.  Here’s a company that has birthed seven Broadway productions (with an 8th, Aladdin, on its way to the delivery room), and five of them have not only recouped but recouped and then some.

Sure, sure, recoupment is a crap-ton easier when you’ve got brands the size of theirs, and movies to go along with them, as I talked about in my blog about why Lion King grossed a billion bucks.  And there’s no takeaway to learn from that except, “Go forth and make cartoons and then theme parks and movies and then fifty years later, conquer Broadway!”

But there is still a double crap-ton to learn from their smaller strategy decisions, like customer service (as I wrote about here detailing their new game-changing exchange policy).

And today, I turn to how they develop new Broadway musicals, and more specifically where their path to Broadway begins.

I’ve got some musicals that are just seeds of an idea right now, that will soon be sitting on a page, and soon after will need to stand up on a stage.

Because musicals are so dang difficult to put together in all aspects, artistically, technically and economically, most shows have tryout productions prior to their Broadway run.

In fact, 85.35% of all new musicals to open on Broadway in the last 20 years had out-of-town tryouts. 

So I started thinking about where to put them.  And of course, the wonderful “usual suspects” of regional theaters come to mind.  But then I decided to open up the open book of life and see what Disney does.

Take a look at this list of all their Broadway shows (past, current and future) and where they started:

  • Beauty and the Beast – The Music Hall, Houston, TX
  • The Lion King – Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis, MN
  • Aida – Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, GA
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Berlin, Germany
  • Tarzan – No Tryout
  • Mary Poppins – Bristol Hippodrome, Bristol, England
  • The Little Mermaid  – Denver Center for the Performing ArtsDenver, CO
  • Newsies  – Papermill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ
  • Aladdin – 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle, WA
  • The Jungle Book – The Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, and The Huntington Theatre, Boston, MA

Do you see what I see?

When Disney has a new property, they tend to go somewhere a little less obvious, just slightly around the bend, that most likely isn’t known for being a Broadway launching pad (The Alliance has lit the fuse for a lot of Broadway shows, but they were all after Aida).  Why?

  • You’re out of the spotlight, and for a company like Disney, with brands the size of small European nations, that’s important.
  • There’s more of a supportive excitement from the audience and the community.
  • Things tend to be a little cheaper.
  • There’s less expectation.

I know all of these reasons and then some were why I went to Chris Coleman’s Portland Center Stage for Somewhere in Time.  

But now that I’ve peeked into the mind of the mouse, just by watching how it has moved, I’m going to be looking into doing it a bit more often.

Because observing the success of others is a fantastic way to guarantee your own.

TRIVIA QUESTION:  Besides Tarzan, what are the other 22 new musicals that didn’t have Broadway tryouts in the last 20 years?  Answer Monday!


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  • janis says:

    How are the try out sites selected? Why did you choose Portland? Are there any specific requirements?
    My state, like others, has plenty of live theatre talent, but allocates little funding to that art form.
    Instead, like others, millions of dollars are appropriated for failed attempts to attract big screen movies. The funds are used to compensate over staffed recruitment programs and numerous trips to Hollywood.
    Grants generally either go unspent or to films by college professors.
    Maybe Broadway could tap into some of the Hollywood recruitment funds around the country to recruit and support Broadway try outs.
    Probably a long way off, but if you start now, you’ll get there sooner.

  • George says:

    We’re on the same page… but it’s nice to see the evidence of how the “Mouse House” works!

    “Where should we create our “Proto-Type?”

    Can I suggests – as Ken has noted – that the $$$ cost is NOT as critical as the relative anonymity…

    “Working in the Playpen” we call it in the Corp Software Development world. I’ve spent 25 years running IT projects in some of the largest corps (from GM to UPS to Chase) and it’s always the same… take New Unproven Software Tools or Products and play with them FAR away from the wheels that grind out the Business! You do NOT want to add the pressure of making something work that has no proven record when there is REAL money on line – basically because all the Sharks are swimming around looking for the “kill” projects, rivals or just “steal” the success from those who were in on the ground floor.

    You want to play with your new Tool or Technique in some distant part of the business… visible enuff to attract some New Letter attention… safe enuff to not lose the company any significant $$$ as you – iteratively – prove out your “concept” AND – keep in mind what your Real Goal IS!

    You want to port the project – upon small success – with Your Name all over it – to the big money making application/system that will happen so fast… the Sharks will have to “smile” and go along with it!

    Yes – there are critics out there who have a bug against certain producers, companies, actors… but it will be tuff for them to try and nail a project that has ALREADY proved itself somewhere else… it will make them sound petty to dismiss a success in, say, Seattle (not that NY media types are all that adverse to sounding “petty”) but that – in and of itself – could become a major selling point, at least to insiders i.e. Critic X dismisses Production X but (s)he also dismissed Production Y and that is a major success!

    At least that has been what I have done when the Sharks came circling around MY project… since EVERYTHING in a corp environment is recorded.

    In fact – I’ll bet that “Projects” and “Productions” are developed in the “Mouse House” w/o distinction as to whether the goal is a successful roll out of “Alladin” or “STRUTS”


  • Paul L says:

    Ken, there’s one more thing the mouse tells me. That other than Tarzan & Newsies all of their tryouts were way farther from the B’way critics than a short drive.

    Case in point, W & I went to see Kiss of the Spider Woman in Purchase, NY in 1990. We felt, not great, but it needed work, and that’s what it was up there for. And, after, it did have book by TMcN & a bunch of other powerhouses in other slots. The producers asked the critics to stay away until they had it fixed up and ready to go. Of course, that was asking for trouble. Frank Rich was first, and cooked it before it got to the stove. In all fairness to him there were others, but it needed work, and should have had the opportunity to do get that attention up there without being hammered.

    When it finally got a chance to knock the sharp corners off a few years later it came back as a roaring success and earned a Tony for best musical, book, and score.

    So out of town should mean WAY out of town. Some place like Oregon, maybe :-).


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