Centennial Parklands Belvedere Amphitheatre will come alive with the sounds of Disney musical classics at a one of a kind family performance on Saturday night. The Sydney Youth Orchestras have teamed up the Symphonic Wind Orchestra for Classics in the Park, an outdoor family event celebrating the tunes and themes of Disney cartoons and films. The program includes Coldplay on Stage, a medley of some of Coldplay’s greatest hits, and “Let It Go” from the Disney feature film Frozen. This is a kid and dog-friendly event. Entry from 2.30pm, finish at 4pm. Cost: $20, children under 5 free, eventbrite.com.au
LOS ANGELES — The Walt Disney Company recently held preliminary talks to buy entertainment assets owned by 21st Century Fox, including the Fox movie and television studio, the FX cable network and a share of Hulu.
The talks were first reported by CNBC on Monday and confirmed by two people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private information. The two companies are no longer talking, although discussions could restart.
Spokeswomen for both companies declined to comment.
The talks, however preliminary, say a lot about the rapidly evolving media industry. Big players like Disney are seeking to get bigger as they follow Netflix into the streaming business and square off against technology giants like AT&T, which is in the final stages of acquiring Time Warner. Medium-size players like 21st Century Fox may be realizing — or accepting — that gaining the scale they need to compete may be out of reach at this point.
In July, Discovery Communications spent $11.9 billion to buy Scripps Media, creating a powerhouse in unscripted television. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest owner of television stations, has been trying to win regulatory approval for its $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media.
Disney shares climbed 2 percent on Monday. Disney is scheduled to report fiscal fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.
Fox shares shot up 10 percent. Fox is scheduled to report fiscal first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.
Buying certain Fox assets — at the right price — would make a lot of sense for Disney, analysts said on Monday. In particular, Fox’s strong television production business would help Disney shore up its own struggling ABC Studios, which recently lost its star producer, Shonda Rhimes, to Netflix. Disney also needs to increase television production so that it can offer exclusive content on a planned streaming service of its own.
“We see the real strategy here as Fox content helping Disney build out its direct-to-consumer strategy,” Steven Cahall, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a research note.
As growth in the traditional cable business slows because of cord cutting, Disney also sees value in Hulu, which focuses on programming aimed at adults, including the Emmy-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Disney owns 30 percent of Hulu now. Fox also holds a 30 percent share, with the balance owned by Comcast and Time Warner.
As part of the talks, Disney also looked at buying Fox’s minority stake in Sky, the Britain-based pay-television service. Fox has been trying to buy all of Sky, but has so far been stymied by regulatory approvals.
Disney would also like movie rights held by Fox, most notably to the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters, which were licensed to Fox by Marvel Entertainment before Disney bought that superhero company in 2009. Fox also controls the “Avatar” franchise, for which there are four sequels in production. Under a licensing agreement, Disney recently opened lavish attractions based on “Avatar” at Walt Disney World.
For 21st Century Fox, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, such a sale would amount to an acknowledgment that it cannot compete against media colossuses like AT&T and Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google are also expanding into entertainment.
Mr. Murdoch tried to buy Time Warner in 2014 for $89 billion but dropped the effort after Time Warner spurned the offer.
With some of its assets sold, Fox would remain a powerful player in television news and sports, two niches that remain highly valued by advertisers. The talks with Disney did not include the sale of Fox’s broadcasting network, Fox News or Fox’s sports holdings.
In its last fiscal year, which ended on June 30, 21st Century Fox had $28.5 billion in revenue, a 4 percent increase from a year earlier, and $2.95 billion in profit attributable to Fox shareholders, a 7 percent increase. Much of that profit came from Fox’s cable television unit, of which Fox News is the largest contributor.
In a previous post, I wrote about why Disney World would be one of the best test cases for autonomous vehicles. Here are my main arguments in summary:
Disney uses 400 buses in a hub-and-spoke transportation system, which is large enough to justify the upfront costs.
Because the bus system serves their customers, the incentives are correct, and the externalities of transportation costs are internalized.
Transportation and wait times are high for customers right now, meaning the potential savings are large.
Because Disney customers are on an expensive vacation, the willingness to pay for this time savings will be much higher than for public transportation riders.
It would support Disney’s brand of being innovative and futuristic, specifically Epcot, which is “dedicated to the celebration of human achievement, namely technological innovation and international culture.”
These are enough reasons to justify Disney embracing self-driving technology, but I think there a few other strong points in favor of this idea.
Source (AP Photo/John Raoux)
One of the often-cited challenges to autonomous driving technology is how the machines will respond to unexpected changes like road construction. As I’ve argued before, this can be overcome if all construction projects that affect road traffic are required to have their plans uploaded somewhere in advance and able to be automatically accessed by autonomous driving companies. When you’re talking about nationwide self-driving technology, this becomes a non-trivial challenge, requiring the creation of a system that all local governments, transportation authorities, construction companies and autonomous driving companies use. That’s a surmountable challenge and not enough to doom self-driving cars overall, but it is undeniably a large and bureaucratic coordination problem.
Disney has no such problem. In addition to the private roads that Disney controls, they also effectively control the local government through the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The RCID is in charge of law enforcement, fire protection, environmental protection, building codes, land use planning, utilities and roads.
Here is how Wikipedia describes the governance of RCID:
A five-member Board of Supervisors governs the District, elected by the landowners of the District. These members, senior employees of The Walt Disney Company, each own undeveloped five-acre lots of land within the District, the only land in the District not technically controlled by Disney or used for public road purposes. The only residents of the District, also Disney employees or their immediate family members, live in two small communities, one in each city. … These residents elect the officials of the cities, but since they don’t actually own any land, they don’t have any power in electing the District Board of Supervisors.
All of this means that Disney is in control of all of the relevant infrastructure and rules. If construction happens, it’s because Disney wants it to happen. They control the road crews, the signs, everything. So there is no coordination problem, and no bureaucratic wrangling. A centralized system where any construction projects or road changes are coordinated with the self-driving vehicle system is much more surmountable.
Disney’s control of the road system is also beneficial because it would help them overcome another challenge for autonomous vehicles: Machines sometimes struggle to read signs built for humans. When road paint starts to fade, or if it’s raining really hard or foggy out, the already challenging task of having machines recognize symbols built for humans becomes more difficult.
But while this is usually viewed as a problem of getting machines better at seeing the world around them, I view it as a problem of getting our signs and road markers to better push out the relevant signals for machines. I don’t have an answer to what it means in practice to change signals to be more easily readable by machines. Maybe it means putting RFID chips every 30 feet on the road, and maybe in all of the signs. The Transportation Research Board is working on a study now on how best to standardize lane markings to make them machine readable. Whatever they come up with, or whatever Disney’s independent research would come up with, it could be quickly, easily and universally adopted within Disney World.
Also, it doesn’t snow in Florida, so the much-discussed problem of snow covering lane markings is moot.
What’s more, road markings and signs might not matter much in Disney. Given the relatively small area of land to map, the autonomous vehicles in Disney might not need to read any signs, or only very minimally.
These are usually the top problems cited by autonomous vehicle critics, and they are far less of a problem in Disney. There are also a few extra benefits of putting such a system within Disney relative to a random city. As Len Testa, the author of “The Unofficial Guide to Disney World,” suggested to me on Twitter, it’s worth considering how this could simplify security and shorten entry times to the parks. Perhaps your tickets (or MagicBands) are scanned at the resort before you step into the transport, and the transport takes you past the scanning lines and right into the park. Again, like the better machine readable signs, the optimal way to do this isn’t obvious upfront, but the potential is significant.
Finally, I think a benefit to Disney is that they could help catalyze the wider embrace of self-driving technology in their region. Once they prove their technology and basic model work well, it’s easy to picture the airports, local government, Universal Studies and non-Disney hotels working together with Disney to create an integrated autonomous driving system to transport people from the moment they get off the plane until they arrive in the parks — autonomous systems to take people from the airport to hotels, both Disney and non-Disney, and then into the parks. Not only would moving to a system like this make a trip to Disney more convenient overall, but it could provide other benefits to Disney. According to this count, Disney has 35,000 parking spots. If autonomous driving systems mean they can cut down on parking, that means lower maintenance costs, and it also frees up land for development.
Combined with the reasons I listed in the previous post, I think the case for Disney to embrace and take the lead on autonomous vehicle technology is very strong. I’d be surprised if they don’t go this route.
Addendum: By the way, did you know Disney Research already hires lots of PhD scientists to work in computer vision and machine learning? This is from one open job application from Disney Research in Pittsburgh for a computer vision research scientist, whom they want to have a PhD in computer science or equivalent:
Disney Research Pittsburgh seeking applicants for a Research Scientist position, at either junior or senior level, in Computer Vision. The research emphasis is on the visual recognition algorithms in image and video domains. This includes areas such as object and activity recognition/detection, joint vision + natural language processing, and other high-level visual structured prediction problems.
Addendum 2: This is not to say that Disney should go it alone on this and try to develop the technology from scratch on their own. I think they should have a partner but can meaningfully contribute to the research as well. Disney Research in Pittsburgh, for example, is located on the Carnegie Mellon University campus. This is where the some of the leading researchers on autonomous driving tech are located and is the reason that Uber has located its autonomous driving labs in Pittsburgh.
This holiday season, “Star Wars” fans will have another chance to relive their dream of using the force, thanks to a new augmented reality (AR) kit that went on sale this Friday. “Star Wars: Jedi Challenges” was made by Disney in cooperation with Lenovo — and while it doesn’t include a real lightsaber, it may just be the next best thing.
“Star Wars: Jedi Challenges,” which retails for $200, includes an AR headset, an AR-powered lightsaber controller, and an LED puck to help with motion tracking. Similar to VR headsets like the Samsung Gear VR, Disney’s headset also relies on a phone for graphics rendering. Unlike the Gear VR, it actually works with a wide selection of phones, including most recent iPhones and Android phones.
And there’s another key difference to mobile VR headsets: The phone actually gets placed above one’s field of view, with the display facing downward. The picture is then mirrored on a transparent plane, allowing you to see the environment around you, and combining that view with various “Star Wars” games. The lightsaber consists of a realistic replica of the handle with a small LED propped on top. After putting on the headset, this LED gets magically extended with that signature glowing blade.
At launch, “Star Wars: Jedi Challenges” supports three types of games. There is your basic lightsaber combat against a number of enemies, including Kylo Ren and Darth Vader; a strategic combat game allows you to command troops to fight against the Empire as they fight on your living room floor; Holochess is, well, Holochess as known from the franchise.
During a recent brief demo, the headset did deliver on its basic promise. The AR overlays were smoothly rendered and bright enough to make for immersive game-play, but still offer a view of the environment around you, so you won’t knock over any furniture during your lightsaber duels. The lightsaber also was fun to play with. At times, the digital projection of the blade was slightly off, and didn’t really align with the handle — but this wasn’t much of a distraction from the game play.
The headset itself did feel a little rigid, and the horizontal placement of the phone, protruding outward from your forehead, also made it feel heavier than your typical mobile VR headset. What’s more, the AR image projection technology does have a significant impact on your field of view. That especially noticeable vertically. It feels a bit like wearing a baseball cap just a bit too low on your face. Glean up just a little, and you won’t see anything.
The game-play itself is fun, with the lightsaber duels being the clear highlight. And there’s enough there to keep you entertained for some time: The main game menu gives players the option to explore multiple planets, which equate levels of difficulty within the game. And Disney can easily add more content to the game just by updating its mobile app.
Disney advanced development VP Mike Goslin told Variety that the company already has a multi-player mode working in its labs, which would make it possible for two players to duel each other with their lightsabers. He also hinted at plans to eventually bring other Disney franchises to the headset as well. To enable this, the headset already comes with a few extra buttons so that players of games not related to the “Star Wars” franchise won’t always have to wield a lightsaber. Goslin said Disney may also release additional accessories in the future.
Starting this Friday, “Star Wars: Jedi Challenges” will sell for $199.99 exclusively at Best Buy, at Disney stores, and via Disney’s and Lenovo’s website.
Disney is barring the Los Angeles Times from advance screenings of its films and access to its talent in response to a series in the paper about the relationship between the Walt Disney and the city of Anaheim that Disney claims is “biased and inaccurate”.
The editors of the Times said that Disney declined access to its slate of films for the paper’s holiday film preview citing “unfair coverage” of its business ties with Anaheim. Upcoming Disney films include Thor: Ragnarok, Coco and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The paper ran a two-part series in late September looking into what it characterised as a complicated and increasingly tense relationship between the city and the Disneyland Resort. The Times says it will review and cover Disney films when they become available to the public.
Disney responded in a statement Friday that the Times’ series showed, “a complete disregard for basic journalistic standards.”
“Despite our sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months, the Times moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda,” the statement continued.
The Times reporter who wrote both pieces, Daniel Miller, tweeted that, “Disney never asked for a correction.”
Hillary Manning, the communications director for Los Angeles Times, said the paper had “no further comment” to the allegations made by Disney.
Disney representatives have not responded to The Associated Press’s request for details on which facts it is contesting in the series.
ORLANDO, Fla. – Disney is continuing to do all it can to remove alligators from its Seven Seas Lagoon more than a year after a 2-year-old boy was drowned by a gator.
A lighthouse on the shore of the lake serves as a tribute and reminder of a heartbreaking story.
Lane Graves was building sandcastles on the beach of Disney’s Grand Floridian resort in June 2016 when an alligator lunged at him and pulled him underwater.
Authorities recovered his body the following afternoon.
Since the attack, Disney has placed signs, fences and rocks along the resort’s lake to protect visitors.
Disney is now taking it a step further by significantly increasing the number of gators captured on its property.
In the 15 months before the attack, trappers removed 45 nuisance alligators from the lake. But since the attack, trappers have captured 95 gators, 10 of which were captured the week following the attack.
The most recent capture was on Sept. 5 when trappers captured an 11-foot long gator. It’s unclear where on Disney property the gator was found.
It looks like Disney has no plans of slowing down in its efforts.
Earlier this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a revised permit to Disney, allowing them to remove up to 400 alligators through April 2023. They were previously permitted to remove up to 300.
Disney World’s scariest ride is getting a very merry transformation.
Disney World is known for its complete transformation every holiday season, glittering and glowing with decor and entertainment for the months of November and December.
This year, that Disneyfied holiday cheer will make its way into even the darkest corners of the Orlando parks, converting one of Disney’s scariest rides into a merry wonderland. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride in Hollywood Studios will get a holiday makeover this season, featuring bright and colorful decor, juxtaposed against the dark, spooky backdrop of the haunted Hollywood Tower Hotel.
Walt Disney World released concept art for the re-theming this week, giving park-goers a glimpse at what the revamped hotel will look like. Similarly to the projection shows Disney favors on other park landmarks like the Cinderella Castle, the Tower almost appears to have been completely reconstructed, with toys, lights and games making up its entire front facade. The name on the hotel has even been changed to read The Hollywood Toy Hotel.
The projections are part of a brand new Disney event taking place over the next two months in Hollywood Studios, titled Sunset Seasons Greetings. The park’s Sunset Boulevard, modeled after the real street in Los Angeles, will be transformed into a winter wonderland for the holiday season, featuring lights, decorations, falling snow and billboards that will “come to life” and feature some of Disney’s classic characters. The Tower Hotel, which sits at the end of the boulevard, will therefore join in the holiday merriment with its outside decor.
Although Disney has not specified how the projections on the Tower of Terror will fit into the larger holiday scenes, they have given details surrounding the character moments that will be featured.
Guests can expect to experience a “romanticized, Norman Rockwell-inspired town” inhabited by a nostalgic Mickey and Minnie, “Toy Story” characters guessing which gifts they’ll get for Christmas, the Swedish Chef from “The Muppets” in a scene of life-sized gingerbread houses, and Olaf from “Frozen” enjoying a winter scene complete with snow and aurora borealis lights.
The event will take place from November 9 to December 31 of this year. Plus, by some Christmas miracle, the entertainment won’t cost guests anything extra: Valid park admission is the only requirement.
If two-month-early ticket sales causing delays at sites like Fandango weren’t indication enough, there’s plenty of audience appetite for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi this fall. Disney evidently knows this, too, and according to The Wall Street Journal, the company is happily using its leverage in unprecedented distribution deals with theaters over the next Star Wars installment.
WSJ reports Disney has crafted agreements through which it will receive roughly 65 percent of ticket sales, “a new benchmark for a Hollywood studio” according to the report. (Average splits range from 40 percent abroad to 55 percent on average in the US to 60 percent for only the largest hits, WSJ writes.) And anonymous theater owners told the paper that Disney’s list of requirements for carrying The Last Jedi are the “most onerous they’ve ever seen.”
Among the asks theaters had to oblige, Disney insisted The Last Jedi must be shown on a participating theater’s largest auditorium for at least four weeks, theaters must sign individually watermarked contracts so official language doesn’t leak, and any marketing must be held until Disney gives theaters the go-ahead.
With the company touting not only Star Wars but entities like the Marvel Universe and its own highly sought animated films, “[Disney] is in the most powerful position any studio has ever been in, maybe since MGM in the 1930s,” one film buyer told WSJ.
The paper notes there are penalties for not following Disney’s specifications, too. “If a theater violates any condition of the distribution agreement, Disney can charge it an additional five percent,” the WSJ reports. That would raise Disney’s cut to 70 percent on a film analysts expect to gross hundreds of millions.
SlashFilm notes prior Star Wars films also had big asks from Disney—64 percent of ticket-sale revenue and two weeks in a theater’s biggest auditorium, for instance. (And Ars can vouch that press screenings for prior Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakenswere also difficult to come by.) To an optimist, such requirements could be seen as a form of quality control (Star Wars is meantfor big screens); to a pessimist, it’s merely content rights being used for more beneficial business.
Either way, SlashFilm says that the heightened regulations for The Last Jedi have kept some smaller film houses from deciding to carry this chapter when it officially releases on December 15. If you’re a small-town theater with only a few screens, for instance, being cemented into a single film for a four-week period could mean lots of empty seats.
Out there, beyond the anthropomorphic mice and never-ending queues is a man who is quietly trying to disrupt your next vacation to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. His name is Len Testa and his annual subscription-based service, Touring Plans, will predict how long you’ll wait at any ride, any time of day, any day of the year for $14.95—less than the price of a giant turkey leg and a Dole Whip.
With statisticians, programmers and data scientists among its eight full-time staff members and dozen part-time employees, Touring Plan upends trips to Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts with customizable itineraries centered around how to smartly skip the lines at every single theme park. In addition to optimizing which time to board each attraction with its Touring Plans itinerary guides, their free-with-subscription app, Lines, says how long you’ll actually wait in every line, and the freakishly accurate Crowd Calendar recommends the best times to book a trip, even displaying how busy each theme park will be in advance.
Sounds more magical than the last time you met Cinderella in the sweltering Florida sun? Oh, it is. The various arms of Touring Plans are made possible due to its tour-de-force system, which harnesses 600 features and updates every few minutes to determine the most accurate wait times. Touring Plans goes beyond factoring in rudimentary information like Christmastime and special on-site events, adding data sets on everything from Jewish holidays to the hourly capacity impact caused by rides that are closed or temporarily broken down.
Instead of simply considering spring break, they pull information for the hundred largest K-12 public school systems in the country and pair it with data from the Orlando Visitor Convention Bureau on where families are visiting from to determine the true impact of schools being out of session on the theme parks. The automated algorithmic model dives deep into economic considerations, too, using unemployment rate, consumer price index and inflation rate in Mexico, UK, Canada, US, and Brazil over the past 60, 90 and 180 days. That’s because today’s visitors to Walt Disney World likely booked their vacation months ago, and the state of the economy at that time can aid in predicting how busy the parks are now. Touring Plans even goes one step further, looking at not just U.S. unemployment rates but the unemployment rates for South Atlantic states, which account for most of Walt Disney World’s visitors.
The algorithms provide serious analysis of actual wait times compared against predictions.
All of Touring Plans’ products hinge on the idea that when you know how many people are in line, you can deduce how many are in the park. So, by running its algorithmic model, Touring Plans can accurately predict how overwhelming the crowds will feel, which park will have the shortest lines and even what you should ride at Epcot at 11:05am three months from now.
Disney does not release crowd data to the public, so it helps, of course, that Testa’s empire is wholly synergistic. While following a Touring Plans itinerary within the Lines app, park-goers clock how long they actually waited for rides like Space Mountain or Test Track, sending of-the-minute data from 140,000 annual subscribers, which puts a few hundred in the parks each day. With 8,000 additional wait times clocked daily, it’s this kind of historical data that sets Testa’s theme park empire apart. (Touring Plans’ scheduling system even has its own patent.)
Never-ending lines are such a hindrance to theme park enjoyment that both Disney and Universal parks have made strides to eradicate them. Disneyland’s FastPass program and Walt Disney World’s FastPass+ online booking system allows guests to “skip the line” on certain attractions throughout the parks, with Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort’s for-purchase Express Pass doing the same. Universal Orlando has even begun enabling a “Virtual Line” on newer attractions, with its third theme park, Volcano Bay, going fully queue-less.
With all that time freed up to wander the parks — Touring Plans boasts saving users up to four hours in line each day — you may be wondering where to dine, drink or stay. Good thing there’s a data set for that, too: guest feedback. Testa co-authors The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which reprints annually and gathers hundreds of thousands of reader surveys, outlining trends among some of the resort’s most passionate guests.
The app isn’t pretty, but it cuts down on data usage requirements.
What can one learn from the man harnessing all the available Disney data? Plenty. Here’s what we found most interesting:
Because of Touring Plans, It’s someone’s full-time job to hang out in Disneyland
His name is Guy, and he’s the eyes and Mouse-shaped ears of the operation. If a ride breaks down, an unexpected tour group floods the park or a wait time looks curiously wrong, he’ll assess it first-hand, even hopping in line to time the waits himself. This way, Testa explains, “we can instantly change the software to accommodate all the people who are in the parks every day.”
Posted ride wait times are almost always inaccurate
On rare occasions, wait times will be deliberately inflated to steer guests to other areas of the park, but they’re usually wrong due to how they’re measured. If a theme park clocks someone’s wait in line from start to finish as forty minutes, the current wait for the attraction wouldn’t be forty minutes, despite that being posted. In actuality, that’s what the wait was if you got in line forty minute ago. Testa’s system accounts for this with an “intraday adjustment”, giving Touring Plans times more accuracy in its “actual wait” times.
The data set that most surprised Testa? Sunset
When Disney’s Animal Kingdom added nighttime hours last spring, it created an evening version of its popular Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction that began at nightfall. Touring Plans added in astronomical data to track the line into the night, and discovered the time of sunset can also predict how long you’ll wait after dark. “People use sunset as a visual cue that the day has come to an end,” he said, explaining that when the sun sets later, lines will be lengthy for longer.
The Lines app is ugly, but for good reason
As an all-text platform, the design of Lines is a bit of a snooze, but it was specifically developed to use minimal battery, require less data and most importantly, work in the Florida sun “The number one knock on our app is that it looks bad, but it looks bad for a reason, because it’s supposed to work in the park,” laughed Testa. “We spent a lot of time making that thing ugly!”
Hiba Elchikhe is living the dream, which sounds like a cliche but also happens to be true. The 24-year-old British musical theatre star is Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin – The Musical, which will come to Brisbane’s QPAC in February after stellar seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.
“It is every little girl’s dream to be a Disney princess and I am currently living that dream,” Elchikhe said when we met over high tea at the Sofitel Melbourne the day after another glittering show. “This is a highlight for me. I grew up watching Aladdin and all the other Disney films, and I love playing this role. Jasmine is such a strong, powerful character, a princess who isn’t meek at all. As far as I know she’s the first princess to wear pants, literally.”
The young Londoner is excited to be coming north and has been to Brisbane twice already – once to scope out digs (she found somewhere to stay at inner-south Kangaroo Point and will be catching the CityCat to work), and once to spruik the show with fellow leads Ainsley Melham, 25, who plays Aladdin, and 36-year-old Broadway star Michael James Scott, who plays the Genie and tends to steal the show.
The three leads were here recently with president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions worldwide, Thomas Schumacher, 59, who flew in from New York. Having a heavyweight such as Schumacher here to announce the Brisbane season demonstrates on the one hand how much Disney cares about the booming Australian theatrical market and, on the other, how much he personally cares about this musical. He has been involved since the film version in 1992, which featured music and songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. He oversaw its transformation into a hugely successful stage musical. “Everything aboutthe musical stands on the shoulders of the Academy Award-winning 1992 movie,” Schumacher says. “Then we had to figure out how to make a 75-minute movie into a stage show. And the thing is that some of the things written for the movie weren’t used. The beautiful song Proud of Your Boy was cut, but we had the chance with the stage show to put it back in.”
Schumacher acknowledges that the story of Aladdin is globally known and is “by no means exclusive to Disney”. “What is specific to Disney is the nature of the storytelling and, more specifically, the beloved song score to the original film,” he says. “It was really the music that launched the property, and that gave it definition, particularly the jazz quality of the Genie’s now legendary song, Friend Like Me.”
Schumacher points out that Disney has six companies of Aladdin playing around the world right now. The Australian production was built here with stunning sets, 360 costumes, 160 different pairs of shoes and over half a million Swarovski crystals that make it a dazzling spectacle, with magic carpet rides adding more wow factor.
The story itself is one of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights, stories of Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin, one of the best known. It wasn’t part of the original Arabic text but was added in the 18th century by Frenchman Antoine Galland. In the earliest versions of the tale, Aladdin is a poor youth living on the streets of a city in China rather than Arabia, although the rest of the story suggests a Persian or Arabian setting complete with a Sultan and people who are obviously Muslims. In retelling the story, film versions such as The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Disney’s animated hit Aladdin in 1992 (which had two sequels) fixed it as Arabian.
This production, set in the mythical city of Agrabah, looked to places such as Morocco for design inspiration and set designer Bob Crowley spent a lot of time looking at Moroccan and Middle Eastern tiles, rugs, textiles and architecture, with exotic results.
Broadway director Casey Nicholaw, who took the show from the screen to the page and then to the Broadway stage, came to Australia early in the piece to work with the Australian cast. Disney was apparently thrilled to find the perfect Aladdin in fresh-faced Ainsley Melham, who is brilliant in the role and everything Aladdin should be. Melham already had an army of younger fans too since he was with the children’s group Hi-5 for three years before this show, touring Australia and abroad. “That was huge fun and a learning curve,” Melham says over tea and scones. “It was like theatrical boot camp and it set me up for this show.”
Melham, from Bathurst in NSW, trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), the star factory that produced Hugh Jackman, Frances O’Connor, Lisa McCune and many others. He says working with the American creative team behind Aladdin early in the piece was great.
“They had thoroughly researched the show, and were really well informed about the culture they were drawing from. We had some wonderful chats and we all read the stories from One Thousand and One Nights. These are known worldwide and have their own versions in different cultures. It gives you a broader context as an actor.”
Melham says that to have a starring role at his age is fantastic and that the show “still feels wonderful every night”. In case you’ve forgotten the story, Aladdin is a street urchin who lives in Agrabah with his faithful monkey friend Abu. Aladdin is poor and has to steal to survive. Princess Jasmine, meanwhile, has it all but feels trapped in the palace and sneaks out to the marketplace where she accidentally meets Aladdin. Aladdin helps the princess out of trouble, and they fall in love.
But under the orders of the evil Jafar (the appropriately sinister Adam Murphy), Aladdin is thrown in jail and becomes caught up in Jafar’s plot to rule the land with the aid of a mysterious lamp. Legend has it that only a person who is a “diamond in the rough”, like Aladdin, can retrieve the lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Aladdin seems to be the one, and once he gets hold of the lamp he gets three wishes from the Genie and Aladdin uses one of them to pretend to be a prince so he can woo Princess Jasmine.
As the Genie, American actor and singer Michael James Scott is brilliant, a one-man party on stage. He sings, he dances, he jokes, he tugs at the heart strings … the Broadway star does it all and says he was not daunted by the fact that the late, great Robin Williams was the Genie in the Disney film.
“His genius and mastery made the role iconic but this is our version and I do my own thing,” Scott says. “I never felt any pressure to be like Robin Williams but his essence is still there in the role, which has all sorts of different music and inspirations. The creative team went for the Fats Waller, Cab Calloway jazz feel with the music, and that’s a really cool thing. I’m such a song and dance man … I love that. It’s old school.”
Scott is a dynamo up there but also a skilled actor who looks at the deeper themes of his role. “When Aladdin asks him what he wants, the first thing he says is … freedom,” Scott observes. “As joyous and alive as he is, he is also trapped and is doing things for everyone else, granting wishes for others. For Aladdin to turn the tables and ask him what he wants is interesting, and that makes me think.”
But if you just want to enjoy the spectacle, without too much introspection, that’s OK too, he says. The Genie is the character who gets to talk to the audience directly at the beginning of the show and he has a few jokes with an Aussie flavour prepared for his Queensland audience, in particular a sight gag with a prop we all recognise. But we won’t spoil it for you.
We can tell you without really ruining things that the show does have a happy ending. It’s a Disney production, after all. That’s how they roll and we love them for it.
Disney’s Aladdin – The Musical, Lyric Theatre, QPAC, from February 25, tickets from $60; qpac.com.au