Classic Conversations

New this year, join us for an educational talk before each Broadway Entertainment Series show to enhance your experience throughout the season!

Musical Theatre Historian, Kristin Pressley, will lead a discussion before each show to help you view the show from another perspective.

Following Classic Conversations, there will be an exclusive Member Reception for Classic Center Cultural Foundation Members. Enjoy a meal and a private room throughout show by becoming a member today!

Click here to join the foundation!
Kristin Pressley
  1. Beauty & the Beast
  2. Bullets Over Broadway
  3. The Producers
  4. 42nd Street
  5. Disney Fantasia
By Kristin Pressley

Once upon a time

New York’s Times Square was a dark and frightening place. Many visitors to the city were scared away by the area’s reputation for seedy characters and shady locations.

The heart of New York’s Theatre District beat to a different drum almost from its inception. As early as the late 19th Century, Times Square was overrun with gamblers, prostitutes, and other criminals. This condition only worsened as time went by. By 1960, The New York Times called stretches of 42nd Street “the worst block in town.”

To see the area now, that’s hard to imagine. The brightest lights in the big city shine down on today’s Times Square. Travelers flock to its theatres, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The area once avoided by tourists has become the center of the City’s tourism industry.

It’s very likely that such a transformation would never have occurred had the Walt Disney Company not stepped in, and the Walt Disney Company might never have stepped in were it not for a musical called Beauty and the Beast.

Based on an 18th century French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast premiered in the form of a 1991 animated film. It was a box office smash—the first animated film to earn more than $100 million—but it was also a critical success, gaining acclaim in some unexpected places.

One of those places was 1991’s “The Year in the Arts: Theater” column written by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich. Rich wrote ironically that the Oscar-nominated film showcased “the best Broadway musical score of 1991.” These critical and commercial accolades caught the attention of Disney executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The two began to explore ways in which Disney might translate its success from the screen to the stage. By 1993, Walt Disney Theatrical Productions (now Disney on Broadway) was up and running. The stakes were incredibly high. Not only was the team they assembled attempting to make Beauty and the Beast as big a success on stage as it had been in film, but they were also tasked with establishing Walt Disney Theatrical Productions as a Broadway producing force.

Opening night came a year later. Though not beloved by critics, audiences adored it. David Richards, in his New York Times review of the show, predicted Beauty and the Beast would be “a whale of a tourist attraction.”

As it turned out, that was putting it mildly.

Beauty and the Beast ran on Broadway from April 1994 until July 2007. Playing nearly 5,500 performances, the show remains the 9th longest-running musical in Broadway history, and, with New York box office receipts of nearly a half billion dollars, the show is number seven on The Fiscal Times “10 Top-Grossing Broadway Musicals” list, compiled in 2014.

Needless to say, this success wet the Disney whistle for more. Company executives pursued ways to bring more of Mickey Mouse’s magic to the heart of Manhattan.

Prodded by the success of Beauty and the Beast, Eisner finalized ongoing plans with the city of New York to buy and renovate the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre. In its heyday, the New Amsterdam had been a show palace. It was the glamorous home of the famed Ziegfeld Follies and an anchor of 42nd Street throughout the Jazz Age.

Fallen since then into a state of dismal disrepair, the theatre’s renovations would be as monumental a task as mounting a Broadway production. But if it meant a place to peddle its wares, then Disney was up to the challenge.

For its $29 million investment, Disney would get a dedicated theatre in which management anticipated opening a new show each year.  In return, New York would get a chance to breathe new life into a long-dead district in the center of the city.

The arrangement was risky for both parties involved. Disney put its reputation for family friendly entertainment on the line by taking up residence in an area synonymous with the unsavory.

New York, on the other hand, was accused of selling out to Disney’s brand of commercialism. Critics on both sides of the issue were very vocal in their disapproval.

It’s hard to argue, though, with the results of the partnership.

The renovated New Amsterdam re-opened in November of 1997 with the world premiere of The Lion King. Adapted from the 1994 Disney film of the same name, The Lion King was as immediate a stage success as Beauty and the Beast had been, and the new New Amsterdam was as breathtaking a building as ever.

It quickly became clear that the gamble had paid off.

The success of The Lion Kingnow in its 18th year, the show has brought in over $1 billion at its Broadway box office—has meant great things for Disney but also for New York.  With the renaissance of the New Amsterdam came the rebirth of the surrounding area, as well. Disney was among the first tenants to return but many others soon followed its lead.

Today, that section of the city is once again alive and—maybe for the first time in over a century—well. According to Business Insider magazine, Times Square is now the second most visited tourist attraction in the world, welcoming more than 39 million visitors per year.

And, in some ways, all that change was facilitated by the success of tonight’s “tale as old as time.”