The house lights go off. The room fills with billowing smoke. Dancers wearing lighted hats representing the pyramids of Egypt, the dewdrop spires of St. Petersburg, and other exotic destinations peek out of the mist. Through the aisles of the orchestra marches a parade of illuminated life-sized elephant and camel puppets. In this theatrical pomp the audience can be excused if they don't immediately notice the flying carpet overhead.
It's a scene played three or four times each day at Disney's California Adventure park in Anaheim, CA. The “A Whole New World” number is a signature piece in a 40-minute production full of spectacle — which explains why they chose to call it Disney's Aladdin — A Musical Spectacular. The compressed performance of the 1992 animated picture Aladdin is not, however, the typical theme-park song-and-dance show. First of all, 40 minutes may be short for a Broadway play, but it's twice the length of the usual Disney theme-park show.
“It's the largest theatrical show that we've done,” says Earle Greene, technical director, who also leads the technical and audio design team for the 2,000-seat Hyperion Theatre, where Aladdin is wowing full houses seven days a week. “The quality of the theatre is state-of-the-art and the show that we want to present is at that level,” he adds. “It's more competitive.”
Raising that bar meant hiring professionals to stage this ambitious production. Disney recruited talent from the commercial theatre and opera world. They started with director Francesca Zambello, currently at work directing Berlioz's Les Troyens for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Zambello enlisted a trio that have worked closely with her on past projects: set designer Peter J. Davison, who won a Tony Award for Copenhagen, costume designer Anita Yavich, and lighting designer Mark McCullough. “She's a fantastic director and a great person to work with,” beams McCullough. But it was working for Disney that really caught his interest. “The word Disney comes up and you think it's pretty much unlimited in what you'll be able to do.”
McCullough admits he never worked for a theme park before his experience on Aladdin; still, he approached the job as if he was working at the Met. “It didn't differ in terms of the artistic side because everybody involved came from a hard-core theatre background,” he notes. “We were all trying to shoot for the highest values we could get in the situation. In terms of the technical expertise Disney brought in to put on the show, all the crew they had, the automation people, it was literally like a Broadway show.”
Disney policy refuses to address questions of budget, but the rumor mill floats the figure at around $5 million. “Disney had to purchase all the equipment,” McCullough says. The theatre had a large inventory of older Vari*Lite® VL5™, VL6™, and VL6B™ automated luminaires. “They're like flash-bang lighting,” he explains. “You can move them around, roll color in them, but as far as doing something theatrical, as far as transitioning between moments or morphing, they're hard to deal with.”
The rest of the lighting package, a mix of in-house and McCullough-spec'd gear, includes a large contingent of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, Source Four PARs and Parnels, Wybron Coloram II scrollers, GAM TwinSpins, Rosco Hazemakers, High End Systems Dataflash AF1000™ strobes, Morpheus ColorFaders, Strand Irises, L&E cyc units, an array of Rosco and Lee color media, a grandMA console for the moving lights, and an ETC Obsession for the conventional units.
Early in the show, Aladdin enters the forbidding cave where the genie's lantern is hidden. The curtain falls on the exterior set of the cave's entrance (a giant lion's mouth) and Aladdin is seen suspended high above the stage moving down into the dark and mysterious interior. “Those are [Martin Professional] MAC 2000s that give you that transitioning of colors,” McCullough notes. “Originally I wanted 30 of them, but I ended up with 10. Ten works. That was one of the harder things, trying to have some of the older equipment fill in the gaps with the newer things. You want to keep the magic of the transitions or visual effects.”
McCullough adds, “The only constraints I really had was the amount of scenery. It just limits some things that you can do. There were so many flown pieces and they all get automated, and a lot had dimension to them; it eats up the amount of space onstage.”
Once Aladdin makes his way inside the cave, an avalanche seals the entrance, trapping him. “Originally that was a built piece, dimensional,” remembers McCullough. “Technically, it was incredibly difficult to construct so they ended up having to do it as flat, painted cutouts on netting. I thought, ‘We're doomed, this isn't going to look right. We're going to have to think of another way to make this have some depth.’ We ended up using six of the Wildfire units, which are the UV heads. It actually worked successfully in trying to make the set look dimensional. They gave that piece so much mileage that wasn't there under normal lighting.”
McCullough started working on Aladdin a year before its January 17 opening. “Even on an opera, if you get three months you're lucky,” he says when asked about Disney's commitment to the show. And it took a full year for McCullough to work through some of the illusions necessary in a musical about a magical genie.
Aladdin isn't Disney's first venture into upping the ante of its theatre works. When it hired director and designer Julie Taymor to create the hit 1998 Broadway production of The Lion King, the standard of excellence was set. A great deal of the success of that musical was due to the puppetry of Michael Curry, who was brought onboard for Aladdin.
Curry, who designs and manufactures puppets at Michael Curry Designs Inc. outside of Portland, OR, had no problem designing the life-sized elephants and camels that required teams of operators. “I make big animals for a living,” he says. “I can do it in my sleep.”
While both Yavich and Davison had strong concepts about most of the show, the one piece of the puzzle that was never clear was Iago, the parrot sidekick to Aladdin's nemesis Jafar. It was first thought of as a character in costume. “I drew on my experience with The Lion King because we attempted to do Zazu as a character in costume. But the scale was so difficult, it competed with the primary actors. I knew it would have to be in scale.”
Curry worked to de-emphasize the puppeteer and emphasize the parrot. “Iago isn't even thought of that much as a puppet,” he says proudly. Curry will be reuniting with Taymor designing The Magic Flute for the Metropolitan Opera, which opens in 2005.
Costume designer Anita Yavich was about to leave for India when she got the call from Zambello to work on Aladdin. “The timing was perfect,” Yavich says, in terms of researching the project.
She was attracted to the exotic locale of Aladdin, the challenges of the genie, and the “A Whole New World” number, with its globetrotting flying carpet ride. But there were unforeseen difficulties working within a theme park environment; for example, casting.
Because there are up to four shows daily, Disney hires two complete casts to revolve throughout the performances, and that's not including substitutes and body doubles. “Everything you do immediately multiplies,” Yavich says. “You're never doing just one costume, you're doing three or four. Every change you do filters through everything else. Just to plan it all out is challenging.”
The other hurdle to clear was costuming for the various body doubles. Aladdin is the first show that Disney cast with many of its lead roles going to minority actors. “We have four different races of people playing Aladdin, and then the body doubles,” Yavich notes. “It's a challenge to find the wig or whatever that will work to make them look similar.”
Aladdin runs away from soldiers in the marketplace scene, escaping by taking a giant leap that sends him flying across the 120'-wide stage. Aladdin and Princess Jasmine ride the magic carpet through the theatre. Aladdin climbs down into the depths of the genie's cave. “All of these are body doubles,” Yavich explains, “and you have to make them look alike. With a multiethnic cast it's very challenging, with different hair colors, texture.”
Disney doesn't have a costume shop, only an alteration and maintenance shop for the various parades and shows it puts on in its theme parks. Yavich, based in New York, used the services of Broadway veteran costume shop Parsons-Meares Ltd. She was in the shop supervising the build everyday. To capture the exotica of Arabia, Yavich used silks. “Only silk can be woven in such a way that gives a shine,” she says. There was also a lot of embroidery work.
“I worked on the show for about a year,” Yavich says. “I had to sketch out all the embroidery work with the embroiderers, pick out every single thread color, how it will pop onstage.” Disney policy insists that actors not share costumes, which meant Yavich had to make 250 separate costumes for the show. “And the casting list wasn't finalized until five weeks before opening the first preview,” she adds. “Even though I did a lot of the preparation work and the prototypes, the actual fitting process was really insane and fast.”
Yavich is presently back at work with Zambello on Troyens at the Met, designing 450 costumes. As rigorous as that opera is to costume, Aladdin remains the more challenging. “With opera it's almost like regional theatre,” she explains. “The chorus is permanent, you can fit them in advance. Whereas here we couldn't cast the people in advance. It's like normal commercial theatre — you don't get that much time.”
Time was an aspect of the production that attracted set designer Peter Davison. “I've done full-length musicals, but to do a 45-minute version of a complex scenario is quite a challenge,” he says. “I enjoyed taking on the challenge.”
Part of that challenge was to keep the narrative flowing. “At no point was the audience going to be waiting for a scene change, and most of the scene changes are 30 seconds long,” Davison notes. “Working the logistics of it was the most taxing aspect of the show.” The show calls for 18 scene changes. There are 27 pieces of flow scenery. Davison says it took four or five months to build the various sets that were then assembled onstage in about a month's time.
“Each individual piece is essentially simple,” he notes. “I used very traditional techniques. I wasn't trying to break boundaries, just tell the story and keep the narrative going. The real challenge was getting the whole thing to work given the time frame we had. The amount of scenery we use could be spread over two and a half hours. There was enough scenery to do a full-length show.”
In terms of researching his designs, Davison looked at Asian paintings and studied books on Moorish architecture. “The great thing about that sort of Arabic feel,” he says, is that “it's so rich in terms of detail. There's so much to pick at. There was no problem finding tons of really great images.”
Davison wishes he had more spaces like the Hyperion Theatre to work in. Designed like a soundstage, the house is malleable to explore any creative production. “There's no Baroque or Victorian decor,” Davison says. “You can put any amount of metalwork in there and track the things, and they blend in so you can hide a lot of secrets — you can make the carpet fly.”
The automation system for the scenery and deck automation was provided by Scenic Technologies, who also built all the sets. Las Vegas-based Fisher Technologies created the flying carpet machinery. “It's like a large gantry,” says technical director Greene. “It speeds up to eight feet per second, can rise up to 60', down to about 18', with a 75' range across the stage.”
“Fisher Technologies are great,” Davison adds. “I just sort of waved my hand around for the things I wanted the flying carpet to do and they made it happen.” Davison recently collaborated again with Zambello on William Tell, which opened in March at the Paris Opera House.
Not everyone involved in the creative production of Aladdin was a Disney virgin. Sound designer Paul Freeman, president of Audio by the Bay Productions Inc., has been working for Disney since 1976. “We function as the music department for the Walt Disney Special Productions Group,” he explains. He started preliminary sound design three months before recording the music, which took about four days, with three days to mix. “We were in the theatre two to three weeks during rehearsal tweaking it,” he says.
The existing in-house sound package at the Hyperion includes an array of EAW KF-861 speakers, SB-1000 subwoofers, JF-50s for front fills and delays and CR-58s for side and rear surround, Crown MA Series amps, QSC RAVE and Peavey MediaMatrix systems, and a Yamaha PM1D console.
The music in Aladdin is prerecorded and played back during performance. “The singers are all live,” Freeman says. “It's being run off two Tascam 24 digital tapeless playback decks and a Yamaha digital console. Each of the musical cues was written long at the end so the next incoming cue could up-cut the previous cue to give the actors time to stretch as much dialogue as they needed. But during the time that these two machines up-cut each other, there's ambiance going on inside the theatre. The trick was to be able to switch between these two machines and keep the ambiance going at the same time. It required some tricky cross-phasing from one machine to another and a very nimble operator.”
After the sound is synched, the lighting focused, sets built, and costumes fitted, it's all about the show. And for the crowds that fill the house several times a day, Aladdin could be their first taste of live theatre, a fact that's not lost on the design team. “If I was a teenager and went to a theme park and saw a show like this, that would have been amazing,” marvels McCollough. Who knows? Future designers may be google-eyed under that flying carpet. “It's exciting.”