How Broadway helped animate Disney’s comeback

The rebirth of Disney animation with such films as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” is the subject of the new documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” but a lesser-known subtext is the role that the Broadway-style musical -- and people who came from the theater world -- played in Disney’s renaissance.

Peter Schneider, who ran the animation department during that rebirth and would later become chairman of Walt Disney Studios, was coming off the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles when he was hired at Disney. He also had produced shows in Chicago and off-Broadway.

The arts festival is considered one of the city’s great cultural moments, but people at Disney Animation wondered why a guy with no animation background was running their division.

Don Hahn, the director of “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” had been at the studio almost a decade before Schneider and noticed the change: “There was a huge influx of theater people and they were very gregarious, very passionate, very vocal . . . it was an interesting match. I would never have thought of it. The people Peter brought were very talented people -- they were a large part of the revolution.”

‘Waking’ producer and director: An earlier version of this article said that Peter Schneider co-directed ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty’ with Don Hahn. Schneider co-produced the film with Hahn; Hahn directed it.

Over coffee at a Manhattan Starbucks, Schneider says he was able to hire people with theater backgrounds because feature animation was so under-the-radar at that time. The documentary is a sobering reminder that Disney animation was in a tailspin in the early 1980s. When Schneider brought in Thomas Schumacher, who had worked at the Mark Taper Forum, to produce “The Rescuers Down Under,” none of the Disney brass blinked an eye.

“Back then there was a genuine outreach on the part of Disney, in particular, [Jeffrey] Katzenberg and [Michael] Eisner, through Peter Schneider, to work with theater people,” says Alan Menken, composer of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” among others. He adds, “I didn’t know it at the time, but Michael Eisner was a theater major in college.”

So was Schumacher, who would go on to produce “The Lion King” on Broadway and with Schneider form Walt Disney Theatrical Productions.

Perhaps the heart of the movie’s case connecting the modern-day animated classics to the theater world is the scenes with Howard Ashman, Menken’s collaborator. Ashman came to Disney after having done “Little Shop of Horrors” on stage and for film, and right after his “Smile” flopped on Broadway. He brought with him a keen sense of what makes a musical tick.

Menken and Ashman’s first project was “The Little Mermaid.” Menken remembers coming to Disney and noticing people weren’t worried about characters breaking into song. It made sense, he says: “Disney’s animated films early on had a connection to operetta . . . making animated musicals allowed us to link back into the Disney tradition.”

There are wonderful scenes in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” of Ashman coaching Jodi Benson, who was the voice of Ariel, in a “Mermaid” recording session. As he talks about the elements needed for creating compelling characters and theater through songs, it’s clear how Ashman’s brand of storytelling meshed perfectly with the Disney tradition and brand. (Schneider insists this session will be included in its entirety on the upcoming DVD.)

In another scene, animator Glen Keane hears Menken and Ashman’s songs for the first time and feels compelled to draw Ariel, the mermaid character.

“The Little Mermaid” went on to win two Oscars (for best score and best song of 1989) but the culmination of the musical theater’s influence on Disney, according to Schneider and Hahn, was “Beauty and the Beast’s” nomination for best picture of 1991 (the first animated film to earn that distinction) and the 1994 release of “The Lion King” -- and the $750 million it raked in at the global box office.

The reign of the theater people at Disney didn’t last forever, however. Ashman passed away in 1991, Schneider stepped down in 2001 and Eisner (possibly the richest theater major ever) was forced out in 2005.

Several of the figures in the documentary said that animated features have moved away from the Broadway model and more toward the Pixar example.

Menken, who is now working on the upcoming “Tangled,” an adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy tale, says “the jury is out on where the Disney musical will be in the future as a form.”

Speaking from his studio in Long Island, Menken adds, “The difference is we’re in the John Lasseter era now. John is more of a filmmaker and he has his own ways of doing things -- and it would be stupid to impose another standard on what’s been so successful.”

Schneider compares the shift in Disney’s corporate culture that took place during that decade and the shift that’s happening now.

“I asked Don [Hahn] the other day, ‘Why doesn’t Pixar make a Broadway-style show?’ ” Schneider recalls. “And Don said, ‘Because they’re boys with toys. That’s Pixar’s culture.’ Whereas when I was at Disney, the culture was Broadway theatrical -- or theater people.”

Schneider says success and time changed things: “Did it get less good? No. It just became less special.”

Menken still works with Disney but says he realized how different things were when he watched the documentary: “I feel valued at Disney today . . . but things are more out of my hands now than they were when Howard was producing.”

For Menken, what is the importance of the Disney decade depicted in “Awaking Sleeping Beauty”?

“Simple answer -- for a brief period of the time, we of the theater were given a great control of the sandbox.”