You have to hand it to Disney. Take away the clear attempts at world domination with their acquisitions of Marvel and Star Wars. If there was ever a strange incident where the company ceased to exist, then they won’t be remembered for their recent endeavours (sorry Thanos – your finger snapping has to wait in line). They would be remembered for their significant contribution to musicals.
Whether animated or live action, it’s difficult to look past the inescapable edge that Disney has brought to our cultural upbringing. Resonating both emotionally and nostalgically, in some cases, they’ve obtained a life beyond their films. Regardless of your ‘Disney level’ (either a first-time listener or a passionate karaoke advocate), if there’s one thing that’s universal, it’s the sense of timelessness. These songs have become the soundtrack to our lives, functioning as auditory statements summing up that magical feeling of freedom and empowerment. Thanks to composers and lyricists such as The Sherman Brothers, Alan Menkin, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Elton John and Phil Collins (to name a few), their contribution serves as a gold standard, articulating their songs as a musical language. Full to the brim with a ‘larger than life’ quality (hence our pure love for them), it’s no wonder they’ve made the successful and seamless transition from film to an award-winning Broadway stage. They’re notoriously catchy and judging by the audience reaction to ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen, these songs will not die anytime soon.
So, it serves as no surprise that the Royal Albert Hall would host a celebration of this magnitude. After all, the venue has had a long history with musical theatre, and over the years has become the ‘go to place’ for film-related concerts. Disney’s Broadway Hits is no exception, returning to the stage after its sold-out performances in 2016. It may have lacked the usual ‘razzmatazz’ associated with a musical production as an all-singing and all-dancing affair, but it spectacularly delivered a contemporary, stripped back container to showcase the prestige, power and soul of its tailor-made vocal performances. Just like the songs on display, it was once again another magical evening at the Royal Albert Hall.
As the lights dimmed, it kicked off with a marvellous rendition of ‘Be Our Guest’ from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Yes, it’s a candlestick explaining what a menu is with Belle failing to eat any food, but it unmistakably served as the perfect introduction. It quickly got the audience on-board with a ‘big-hitter’, but most importantly, giving us a flavour of the headline talent of Shaun Escoffery, Ava Brennan, Willemijn Verkaik, Anton Zetterholm and the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart.
The combination proved to be a winner – an orchestra delivering faultless renditions and a world-class ensemble (having made appearances in various Disney stage productions throughout the years) singing the classics we treasure dearly. Probably the most recognisable to London audiences of The Lion King is Shaun Escoffery who plays Mufasa in the long-running show. It’s hard not to feel impressed by the quartet; their vocal range was impeccable and boundless, mic-dropping their A-game with sweeping emotions and an on-stage, friendly bravado that was infectious and brilliantly fun. You can immediately tell how much they enjoyed the experience and the audience interaction, going as far as serenading a female guest during ‘She’s in Love’ from The Little Mermaid. Thanks to the colourful and choreographed lighting display that gave each singer their ‘spotlight moment’ after each performance, their manifesto was simple – make this the best Disney Broadway party ever made.
In its full swing (with a few introductory snippets before each segment), Disney’s Broadway Hits was a historical odyssey, starting with the 1994 stage debut of Beauty and the Beast (running impressively for thirteen years on Broadway) to its latest incumbent Frozen in 2017. Sadly, there wasn’t space for every song. I’m completely biased in confessing my love of ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ from Mary Poppins or ‘The Circle of Life’ from The Lion King. It’s easy to get disappointedly downbeat on the absentees, but with a little bit of enforced perspective, you have to remember that the Disney catalogue is extensive! Furthermore, the talent and orchestra deserve that interval break! But in its two-hour showcase, they were essential taster samples to the real deal, and no one would blame you if you suddenly found the urge to buy some theatre tickets soon after the show to get the full-on experience.
But listening to the song selections and its smooth transitions between each set, it illustrates the evolving presence of the Disney musical and indicator of the reflecting times. It overcame tragedy, recovering from the loss of Howard Ashman (who passed away due to complications from AIDS in 1991), the era of chart-topping artists and their mass-market crossover appeal to the present-day reality reflecting the ‘Spotify generation’ where easy accessibility means you can take those songs anywhere.
Its ever-growing popularity reflects in productions like The Lion King, currently enjoying twenty-one years since its first opening. There are no guarantees on success, making a clear statement that it’s not just about mirroring the cinematic experience. Their on-stage flexibility offers more than expected where they’ve been re-imagined. Therefore, it felt great to gain an accommodating balance and distinction between the familiar and songs that were written or re-purposed for the stage. You get something like ‘Somebody’s Got Your Back’ from Aladdin, a throwback to the Jazz era of the 30s and 40s which fulfilled an original concept never used for the film. It was reinstated for the stage production thanks to Alan Menkin’s involvement and desire to go back to how he and Ashman envisioned the project before Ashman’s passing. Despite the obvious ambiguity (depending on whether you’ve seen the production on stage or not), there was never a displaced moment in quality.
That unfamiliarity served the celebration well, further highlighting musicals numbers less well-known to general audiences. Disney’s Newsies is another notable example of filling a consciousness gap. Based on the 1992 live-action film (titled The News Boys on its UK release) starring Christian Bale and Bill Pullman, the story revolves around the newsboys strike in the 1890s. It’s one of those rare stories introduced where the traditional pathway to Broadway wasn’t forged until fans demanded it, showing (at least on this occasion) a reciprocal acknowledgement of fan engagement. As for its strong performance, in particular, the rendition of ‘Santa Fe’, it’s a moment worth experiencing.
You almost wished that it went on longer because of its breezy approach. There was so much left uncovered and yet you adored what you got. Loud and gloriously over the top, this was the musical equivalent of a rock concert, and any criticisms would feel like an out-of-place nitpick. There’s no shame in admitting the happiness it brings, and if there was another aspect that Disney will be remembered for, it will be that emotion.
Now if you excuse me, Disney’s Broadway Hits reignited my love of the genre. So, without further ado: *clears throat* Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba…