>Artistic director Kenny Leon and Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, announced in February that the world premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice's Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida would take place in the 800-seat main stage of the Alliance Theatre this September, a very high-profile kick-off to a season that will also include Frank Galati's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, Antonio Skarmetas's Burning Patience and Pearl Cleage's Ernesto's Eyes. "This is the first time we are developing a show that is not based on one of our movies, so we thought it appropriate to have a relationship with a regional theatre, which has expertise and dedication in developing new work," said Schneider of the "intimate love story" about a Nubian slave and an Egyptian army officer set in the time of the Pharaohs and popularized through Verdi's opera. "It's a perfect marriage for us."
"Disney adds something to the American theatre, developing serious work that is important to us, and we want to be a part of that," said Leon, who added that he would be a "full collaborative creative partner" with the rest of the Disney team that includes vice-president Thomas Schumacher and the Beauty and the Beast creative team, led by Robert Jess Roth. "They're in the business of creating theatre that connects people to people, and so are we."
Major Broadway musicals have been developed in the non-profit regional arenas before, notably at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego (The Who's Tommy, How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying) and, recently, this season's High Society premiered at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. But this is a first for Disney who premiered Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King in large commercial theatres in Houston and Minneapolis, respectively. One of the primary reasons for approaching Leon, said Schneider, was convenience: Elton John has a home in Atlanta, and he is expected to be heavily involved in the rehearsal process, which begins in August. Another, he added, is "that this will keep the focus on the development of the work," something of a strategic move insofar as this may well be the follow-up to The Lion King, which has been a phenomenal box-office and critical smash and which is likely to overshadow anything that opens in its aftermath.
"Certainly, it is our intent, if all goes well, to bring the show to Broadway following the Atlanta engagement," said Schneider, whose theatrical division is providing "enhancement" money for the Alliance production and who added that the regional theatre would have "a continuing financial interest" in any future productions.
Leon said that he felt that the Alliance had a particular contribution to make to Elaborate Lives by virtue of its creative history and multi-cultural audiences. "Over the last three decades, we've launched culturally diverse productions, from Alfred Uhry's Last Night at Ballyhoo to the Hot Mikado [a black version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that played London's West End], to the plays of Pearl Cleage," he said. "So, I think we can provide a perspective that can be very useful to Disney."
The artistic director was stoic when asked about the criticism that is usually voiced whenever a non-profit regional theatre enters such a "commercial" alliance as this. His subscribers have responded "extremely enthusiastically," but he expected some flack from his peers. His defense? "The first objective remains the artistic integrity of the piece."