Disney Mulling a Ride on Merrill-Stewart’s Carnival

News   Disney Mulling a Ride on Merrill-Stewart’s Carnival Though Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company offered a fairly well received staging several years ago, featuring Glory Crampton and Karen Mason, and the original cast recording of the Broadway premiere production has long been available on CD, Carnival is still considered something of a rarity on musical stages - this despite its profitable, nearly-two-year run on Broadway in 1961 and its popular theme song, “Love Makes the World Go `Round.” The show’s relative obscurity may change, however, thanks to Walt Disney Theatricals.

Though Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company offered a fairly well received staging several years ago, featuring Glory Crampton and Karen Mason, and the original cast recording of the Broadway premiere production has long been available on CD, Carnival is still considered something of a rarity on musical stages - this despite its profitable, nearly-two-year run on Broadway in 1961 and its popular theme song, “Love Makes the World Go `Round.” The show’s relative obscurity may change, however, thanks to Walt Disney Theatricals.

As confirmed by Disney spokesperson Chris Boneau, Disney has bought the theatrical rights to revive the Bob Merrill-Michael Stewart musical. A private reading is expected in January to determine - as Thomas Schumacher told Newsday - “Is this a property we should be doing?”

Schumacher said it took some doing getting the rights sorted out (possibly because the main contributors - composer-lyricist Bob Merrill, librettist Michael Stewart, and director-choreographer Gower Champion are all dead now. Champion, famously, died on opening night of David Merrick’s monster-hit revival of 42nd Street; Merrill, ill and depressed, shot himself in the head on Feb. 17, 1998.)

But Carnival lives on, a relatively low-key mix of playful whimsy and bitter disillusionment. The narrative, based originally on a story by Paul Gallico that was later adapted into the 1953 Leslie Caron movie, “Lili,” tells of a young French waif who wanders into a run-down but picturesque carnival. She’s eventually accepted by the troupe - especially when she proves charming when taking part in the puppet show. The skillful puppeteer slowly falls for her, but he’s both mentally and physically wounded and can only be friendly through his puppets. Otherwise, he simply lashes out and insults those around him. The subplot concerns two other carnival stars. They’re unhappily married - and he has his eye on young Lili.

Back in 1998, Carnival received a concert staging by the Musical Theatre Guild at the Pasadena Playhouse, with Susan Watson, who played Lili in the first national tour of the original production, directing. At the time, Watson recalled her years in the show thusly: "The most difficult time I had...was getting the part of Lili, because Gower [Champion] knew me as a bouncy teenager in Bye Bye Birdie and did not feel that I was actress enough to play the part of a French waif. But after auditioning in a dark wig and jumper with old-fashioned dark stockings and shoes, plus singing every kind of number imaginable, he relented!" The original Broadway company of Carnival starred Anna Maria Alberghetti, James Mitchell, Kaye Ballard, Pierre Olaf and Jerry Orbach as the puppetmaster.

No word yet on any director or cast-members of the Carnival project, though Schumacher told Newsday he had spoken with director Frank Galati and “a number of other people.” A Disney spokesperson told Playbill On-Line (Dec. 7), “This is really just a low-key reading. They just want to hear it read, and the hopes are that if it goes well, they’ll go forward. But it’s premature to talk about any plans or casting. I guess people are surprised Disney’s involved because [Carnival] is not a `new’ show, but Disney isn’t just interested in new musicals; they loved the project and grabbed it.”

Other projects that remain in the Disney pipeline include Hoopz, the Savion Glover basketball tuner that’s still in development; Pinocchio, which has The Lion King’s Julie Taymor onboard; and The Little Mermaid, to be staged by Matthew “Swan Lake” Bourne. The spokesperson told Playbill On-Line all are being worked on but have no set timeframe for development. Another Disney show, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, continues in Germany but remains unlikely to reach American shores.

— By David Lefkowitz