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259 259 15 modern medicis: disney on broadway Kathy L. Privatt On May 2, 1997, after decades of disuse, the New Amsterdam Theatre reopened it doors, admitting an audience to its art nouveau interior. The production for this gala event was King David, a limited-run concert oratorio. The work’s classical heritage, implied by the biblical subject matter treated in oratorio form, was a fitting choice to pair with the extraordinary work of the theater’s restoration artisans. The surprise in the scenario was the renovator of the theater and producer of this work: the Disney Corporation. In fact, through the artistic restoration of a landmark theater and an opening production with high-art connotations, Disney positioned itself as a patron on Broadway. The journey began April 18, 1994; Disney offered Broadway audiences their production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Well attended and apparently well received by the public, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast set a record high the next day for single-day ticket sales, despite several critical pans. The audiences continued to attend, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast established Walt Disney Theatrical Productions as a popular and financially successful producing organization. Encouraged to explore 260 kathy l. privatt other stories for future production, Disney began to entertain the possibility of its own venue on Broadway. The end result of this exploration was the renovated New Amsterdam Theatre on Forty-second Street and its opening production, King David, a concert oratorio. If viewed as a chess game, the Disney-on-Broadway events present a stark contrast and perhaps a careful plan: Disney placed Beauty on Broadway; despite the audience’s embrace, critics responded with a sweeping pan and questioned Disney’s presence as a producer; Disney countered with choices enlarging its role on Broadway and garnering a position for itself as a historic preservationist and patron. The specific nature of that position as preservationist and patron is best defined by the similarity of Disney’s behavior to the activities and motivations of the Renaissance patrons. After Disney’s second full production, The Lion King, opened under the guiding hand of Julie Taymor, a couple of members of the press began to agree with this assessment. In fact, these writers equated Disney with the Medicis, the Italian Renaissance family known for its patronage of the arts. Peter Applebome, writing for Lobby of the New Amsterdam Theatre, circa 1926. Courtesy of the Terry Helgesen Collection, Theatre Historical Society of America. 261 modern medicis the New York Times, titled his article “The Medici Behind Disney’s High Art” and concluded that Michael Eisner, as Disney’s chief executive officer , “has the capacity to commission culture.” In his article, Applebome detailed projects like Taymor’s The Lion King and two choral symphonies commissioned for the millennium as support for his statement.1 Aaron Jay Kernis, the composer for one of the symphonies, labeled Eisner and Disney as “the new Medicis for our time.”2 Jack Zink, at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, spread the Medici label with his article that cited Applebome’s New York Times piece (“The Mouse”).3 In fact, the label was first applied by Peter Schneider, then president of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, who referred to Eisner as a modern Medici ten months previous to Applebome’s article; Schneider cited the New Amsterdam Theatre renovation as an outgrowth of Eisner’s “fundamental desire to do architecture” and his long-term work on numerous buildings with world-class architects.4 While Schneider might not be publicizing a new corporate policy, his statement certainly suggests the company’s awareness of the larger role of patron accompanying the renovation. On close examination, the label of modern Medici is a good fit, in terms of both Disney’s largesse and the limitations and expectations attached to it. The renovation of the New Amsterdam, and that opening oratorio, are primary examples of Renaissance-style patronage behavior. Renovating the New Amsterdam let Disney cast itself in the role of a patron who values historic architectural preservation. The New Amsterdam , built by the infamous Syndicate, is the largest theater on Fortysecond Street and now is the second-largest theater on Broadway.5 Best known as home to the Ziegfeld’s Follies, the theater housed many stars now immortalized, such as Will Rogers, George M. Cohan, and the Castles. At its opening production in 1903, critics ignored the play and lavished praise on the theater itself, especially for its use...


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