Despite Poor Reviews, Broadway Goes Beast Crazy

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NEW YORK _ Twelve years ago, "Cats" arrived in America and the Broadway musical began resembling a theme park ride. Now comes The Mouse (also known as Walt Disney Productions) with the sets-and-effects-laden "Beauty and the Beast" to transform the landscape further.

Critics are largely appalled by the empty spectacle and amateurish staging of this new $12 million show. The New York theater community remains generally wary of why entertainment giant Disney _ which plans to continue cranking out stage shows _ has moved into town. Will The Mouse forever alter the face of the musical theater?

Theatergoers, it seems, have no such qualms. They love the idea of a live version of the beloved, Oscar-winning movie musical about the bookish lass who falls in love with a buffalo-like bully.

Last month, the day after reviewers called the show "undernourished, only fitfully entertaining and ... emotionally barren" and "pretty tacky stuff," the public had its say at the box office. A line of ticket buyers snaked out of the Palace Theatre like pilgrims at Lourdes, eager to make an offering and see the miracle. By evening, a one-day record was set as sales reached $603,494.

New York has gone Beast crazy. And according to Disney's master plan, the rest of the world will get its turn next. A touring version of "Beauty and the Beast" will be trucking around the country a year from now and another production of the show is slated for Tokyo in late 1995.

Still, when a movie giant like Disney takes the plunge in the Broadway pool, industry watchers get nervous. Beauty's budget numbers are huge by Broadway standards, but modest compared to movie costs _ even the relatively inexpensive films for which Disney has become known.

Three years ago, the animated film version of "Beauty and the Beast" cost $28 million to make. By now, it has made approximately $340 million worldwide. So why would Disney want to bother spending $12 million on Broadway, if its profit potential after three years is only $16.8 million, according to a Variety estimate?

"First of all, we think it's a natural extension of what we already do," said Robert McTyre, vice-president of the newly formed Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and Beauty's nominal producer. "And you can make a substantial profit if you happen to be either good at it or fortunate or both."

Substantial enough to compensate for the wrath of the Broadway media, perhaps. "I think that there was a certain amount of Disney-bashing going on," said McTyre. "I think in certain critical corners there was more talk in the reviews about Disney and merchandise and a lot of things that weren't really relevant." But, he added, "The audience response has been terrific. It seems like the audience has accepted us and we think we're going to be in New York for quite a few years."

That is, like most of the Disney executive's comments, an understatement.

For the company is also pouring money into restoring the once grand New Amsterdam, a dormant and decrepit playhouse on grimy 42nd St. Like the Beast's palace, the New Amsterdam will be returned to its former glorious self to house upcoming stage versions of Disney films. A "Mary Poppins" musical is rumored to be on the drawing boards to re-open the theater in 1996.

If anyone can clean up the eyesore that is 42nd St., it would probably be Disney. But even that civic boon has other theater owners grumbling. They object to the sweetheart low-interest loan of $21 million that Disney has squeezed out of New York state for the project. Disney is putting $8 million of its own into the New Amsterdam and is likely to create the new, young audiences for theater that Broadway so desperately needs. Nevertheless, the company is perceived as a California carpetbagger, not to be trusted.

"Something that is important to us, and that I think will ultimately be very important to the Broadway community, is our ability to draw in new audiences," said McTyre. …