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Tom Brook Saturday, 4 December, 1999, 08:46 GMT
Disney's Aida resurfaces
Elton John with members of the Aida cast
By BBC News Online Entertainment correspondent Tom Brook

Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice's latest collaboration, Disney's musical Aida, will finally open to critics on later this month in a tryout run in Chicago before it moves to Broadway.

The production has been several years in the making and plagued by a host of difficulties, including a dramatic stage accident last month that left two of its leading cast members injured.

Disney's The Lion King has already won 25 awards
Disney has a lot riding on the Chicago production. Aida needs to get positive reviews to help generate ticket sales for its Broadway opening in March 2000.

Disney is also hoping that Aida will replicate the success it has already enjoyed with Beauty and The Beast and The Lion King - its two other stage musicals.

Verdi's classic opera Aida is set in ancient Egypt and it is the story of an ill-fated romantic triangle between the soldier Ramades and two women who love him - the Egyptian princess Amneris and the enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida.

The drama surrounding this modern staging of the opera resembles aspects of the emotional tragedy in the original work.

Tim Rice at the London premiere of The Lion King
Elton John and Tim Rice began collaborating on Aida over four years ago. At first, all went well as John and Rice wrote 21 songs in as many days.

Disney wanted the musical to appeal particularly to the baby boom generation who grew up attuned to the sensibilities of rock music.

The first reported difficulty arose when the company decided the title of the musical sounded old-fashioned and needed to be changed.

This brought criticism that a classic work was once again being "Disneyfied". Eventually it was decided to rename the work "Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida," and to stage a tryout in Atlanta in October last year.

The Atlanta production didn't go as well as Disney might have hoped. The reviews were either mixed or negative.

There was a recurring problem when a centrepiece prop, an unfolding pyramid, kept breaking down and embarrassing the cast.

The cast of the troubled musical Aida
The musical ran for just a month before Disney pulled the plug and decided to go back to the drawing board.

The original director was replaced and changes were made in the cast.

The disastrous unfolding pyramid was scrapped and the acclaimed Irish-born set designer Bob Crowley was hired to work on new scenery.

Disney decided the opera would - once again - be called Aida and another, hopefully more successful, tryout would take place this month in Chicago.

In the meantime, Elton John brought in top recording stars unconnected with the musical to contribute to songs for an Aida soundtrack album.

Sting, Tina Turner, Shania Twain, and even the Spice Girls and Lulu could be heard on what amounted to an all-star preview of a musical yet to be staged.

Lulu lends a hand on the Aida soundtrack
The Aida soundtrack went on sale in March and elicited a harsh response from critics who described it as slick, boring and lacking in excitement. It had the whiff of a publicity stunt designed to create awareness of the musical.

Disney had been hoping for some calm to build confidence before the 9 December Chicago opening, but that was shattered in mid-November when a tomb-like structure in which two of the stars were ensconced plunged 10 feet to the floor before a preview audience. The two actors involved in the accident were briefly hospitalised.

With all that has gone on it is easy to be cynical and say Aida will emerge as a "Disneyfied" musical that resembles more an entertainment product borne out of market research rather than creative theatre. There is some truth in that.

Disney faced similar charges before The Lion King opened in New York, but the final verdict from most critics was that the company had succeeded in creating an impressive commercial hit without sacrificing artistic integrity.

Aida, even with its tortuous creative journey, could still emerge as a huge blockbuster when it arrives on Broadway.

From Disney's point of view there have already been enough embarrassing blunders, and for them it's imperative that next week's world premiere in Chicago produces some genuinely positive reviews.

See also:

22 Nov 99 | Entertainment
20 Oct 99 | Entertainment
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