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Celebrating 25 years of Disney musicals in Australia

Can you believe it’s been over two decades since the Disney musical magic first graced our shores?

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We are baking a cake and blowing out some candles because 2020 is a very special year – we’ve just reached 25 years of Disney musicals Down Under.

That’s right, Australian audiences – over 7 million fans, if we’re counting – have spent a quarter of a century enjoying the magic and wonder of Disney on stage, so we thought now was the perfect time to wind back the clock and take a trip through the archives.

Beauty and the Beast, 1995

Australia’s love affair with Disney musicals began back in 1995 with Beauty and the Beast.

Based on the Walt Disney Pictures’ Academy Award-winning 1991 animated musical film, Beauty and the Beast was immediately noted as having Broadway potential, and on April 18 1994 it made its debut.

A little over a year later, on July 8 1995, Beauty and the Beast’s first offshore production opened at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre presented by Kevin Jacobson and Michael Edgley in association with Walt Disney Productions.

Looking through the cast list now, it still stands as an incredible showing of Australian talent – though many were then at the early stages of their careers. Among the list were the incredible Rachael Beck as Belle, Michael Cormick as Beast, Robyn Arthur as Mrs Potts and Bert Newton as Cogsworth. Also, in his professional debut, Hugh Jackman took on the role of Gaston.

In a Variety Today article, back in 1996:

“Hugh himself is taking it all in his stride. It seems everything he does in life is an exciting challenge and as a graduate from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 1994, he wasn’t expecting a major role to come his way for quite some time… “Gaston is such an emotional character and is physically demanding. I often feel like Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil … dripping sweat throughout each performance.”

25 years of disney hugh jackman dressed as gastonHugh Jackman as Gaston, 1995

Following its Melbourne run, Beauty and the Beast went on to open in Sydney in late 1996, making its home at the now-demolished Her Majesty’s Theatre. Among numerous accolades, the musical’s cast recording went on to win the 1996 ARIA Award for Best Australian Soundtrack/Cast/Show Release.

25 years of disney bert newton dressed as Cogsworth
Bert Newton as Cogsworth, 1995

The Lion King, 2003

Eight years later, and Disney was back with another much-loved musical, this time The Lion King.

As The Lion King prepared to celebrate its fifth anniversary on Broadway, preview performances for its debut Australia season began.

The Elton John-Tim Rice musical had already won over 30 major awards before it opened at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre on October 16, 2003. The production remained in Sydney until June 26, 2005 before landing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne from July 2005, until June 2006.

Among an incredibly talented and diverse cast featured a number of international talent – some of which are still part of The Lion King family today.

Jay Laga’aia – who theatre fans may know from Wicked and Jesus Christ Superstar, while TV and film fans might recognise from the likes of Star Wars, Home and Away, and Play School – took on the role of Mufasa.

Of the international crew, Zama Magudulela began her The Lion King journey in Australia as Rafiki’s understudy, before becoming the only actress to perform in four different companies.

Buyisile Zama was the first actress in The Lion King’s history to move from standby to a leading role when she performed as Rafiki in Australia ­– it is a role she continues to perform, most recently across North America.

All in all, Australia’s first production of The Lion King featured an incredible array of Australia and international talent bringing this much-loved story to life on stage. So much so that the musical was nominated for a whopping 11 Helpmann Awards in 2004, winning Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Choreography in a Musical, and Best Costume Design.

Mary Poppins, 2010

It is fair to say that the 1965, Julie Andrews-led film Mary Poppins is one of Disney’s most-loved of all time, so of course, when news about the musical’s onstage Australian debut landed in 2010, it was certain to be a hit.

The West End production opened in December 2004, receiving two Olivier Awards for Best Actress in a Musical and Best Theatre Choreography. It was at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on 29 July 2010 that Mary Poppins first treated Australian audiences.

The cast included a stack of Australian theatre icons including Marina Prior as Winifred Banks, Debra Byrne as The Bird Woman, Phillip Quast as George Banks, Matt Lee as Bert (he also went on to perform as Bert in the UK tour) and Verity Hunt-Ballard in the title role as Mary Poppins herself.

The production went on to celebrated seasons at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane, Crown Perth and at the Civic Theatre in Auckland where it wrapped up in December 2012.

Following the Melbourne season, Mary Poppins absolutely dominated the 2011 Helpmann Awards, winning eight of the 12 categories it was nominated in. The show’s stars Matt Lee and Verity Hunt-Ballard both scored Best Actor awards, while the production was also awarded Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Choreography in a Musical among others.

The Lion King, 2013

Australian audiences loved The Lion King so much that in 2013 it returned to our stages for a magical two-year-long revival – it is The Circle of Life after all.

Once again, the show opened at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre where it stayed from December 2013 until August 2014, before travelling to Lyric Theatre in Queensland, Melbourne’s Regent Theatre and Crown Theatre, Perth.

A decade after its first Australian visit and a whole new generation of musical theatre fans were enjoying Disney’s brilliance.

Over 4000 submissions for potential cast members rolled in across Australia and New Zealand, and of the group, 34 were selected for ensemble positions, 11 for the principal roles, and eight young performers would share the roles of Young Simba and Young Nala.

Leading the principal cast were the likes of exciting new discovery Rob Collins in the pivotal role of Mufasa, Nick Afoa as Simba – which he has reprised on The West End – Josslyn Hlenti as Nala– and the incredible Buyisile Zama, who reprised her role as Rafiki, the only principal cast member to feature in both Australian productions of The Lion King.

At the time, the production featured the most multicultural cast of any Australian-produced stage musical, with performers from 13 countries across five different continents.

Aladdin, 2016

A three-year stretch of glorious Arabian Nights arrived Down Under when Aladdin the musical took to Australian stages.

Opening at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in 2016, Aladdin toured the country, entertaining fans at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, QPAC Brisbane, Crown Perth, and Festival Theatre Adelaide, where it finished in 2019.

As far as mind-blowing musical productions go, Aladdin is right up there with some of the most spectacular Australia has seen. Breathtaking sets, awe-inspiring special effects, more than 300 lavish costumes, and an incredible cast all brought the magic of the Academy-Award winning film and its much-loved soundtrack to life.

The crowning jewel of Aladdin’s cast was, of course, Broadway performer Michael James Scott in the iconic role of Genie. WAAPA graduate Ainsley Melham starred as Aladdin in his mainstage debut, thrilling audiences so much that he was offered the role in the Broadway production, where he re-joined Michael James Scott and Arielle Jacobs who also performed as Jasmine in the Sydney season of the production.

Nominations and award night wins were rightly deserved – including seven Helpmann Award nominations in 2017, with Michael James Scott taking home Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical and the production scoring Best Costume Design.

Frozen, 2020

The next musical spectacular ready to continue Disney’s 25-year legacy in Australia is none other than Frozen.

Based on the 2013 film of the same name, with a soundtrack that has topped the charts and scored Grammy and Academy Award wins alongside Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critic’s Choice accolades, the anticipation for Frozen the musical’s Australian debut is growing as it’s December opening draws closer.

The Broadway production has already become a classic in its own right, featuring a creative team that has a collective 16 Tony awards to its credit.

Sensational special effects, stunning sets, gorgeous costumes, and powerhouse performances are only the beginning, as Anna, Elsa, and Olaf come to life before your very eyes.

A powerhouse cast has been assembled for the Australian production including Jemma Rix as Elsa, Courtney Monsma as Anna, Matt Lee as Olaf, Thomas McGuane as Hans and Sean Sinclair as Kristoff.

Oh, and did we mention that alongside all the iconic songs from the film’s soundtrack there are also a dozen new songs created exclusively for the stage by the original songwriting team?

We have goosebumps just thinking about it.

The production will land at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre from December 2020.

Disney has gifted generations of Australian audiences with magical memories on stage for the last 25 years, and this December the magic continues. Tickets to Frozen The Musical are on sale now via Ticketmaster.com.au.