Celebrate 25 Years of Disney Musicals in Australia
In 1995, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast began its Australian premiere season in Melbourne. In addition to marking the professional debut of one Hugh Jackman, it was also the first time a Disney musical was staged outside of the United States.
In the 25 years since then, Disney, through its theatre division Disney Theatrical Productions, has brought many blockbuster musicals to Australia, entertaining millions of theatregoers. As Disney prepares to open Frozen in Sydney in December, we look back on Disney musicals in Australia.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Just over a year after its Broadway premiere, Disney’s first Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast opened at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in July 1995.
The cast was led by Michael Cormick as Beast and Rachael Beck as Belle – but also saw Hugh Jackman – a recent graduate of WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) – make his professional debut as Gaston.
After a year in Melbourne, the production moved to Sydney’s now-demolished Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1996 (without Hugh Jackman, who had moved on to star in Sunset Boulevard).
While footage of that production is not available, below is a clip of Hugh Jackman singing his big song ‘Gaston’ during his recent concert tour.
The Lion King
Disney’s biggest hit musical The Lion King took a little longer to make it to Australia, opening at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre in 2003, six years after its Broadway debut.
Boasting an international company, led by New Zealand actor Jay Laga’aia as Mufasa, the late South African actor Andile Gumbi as Simba and fellow South African Buyisile Zama as Rafiki, the show was nominated for 11 Helpmann Awards, winning Best Musical.
The production ran in Sydney for over 18 months before moving onto a year-long season at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.
Mary Poppins was the next Disney title to delight audiences in Australia. Six years after its world premiere in London, the show made its Australian debut at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre.
With P. L. Travers, the author of the original Mary Poppins books, hailing from Australia (Maryborough in Queensland, to be precise), the show represented something of a “coming home” for the high-flying nanny.
Verity Hunt-Ballard played Mary Poppins, in her first leading role, while the rest of the cast was loaded with stars of Australian musical theatre, including Marina Prior and Phillip Quast as Winifred and George Banks, Matt Lee as Bert and Debra Byrne as the Bird Woman.
The show played for over two years, with successful seasons in Sydney (at the Capitol Theatre), Brisbane and Perth, in addition to a 10 week run in Auckland.
The Lion King (returns!)
Ten years after its first successful outing, Disney’s mighty The Lion King made a welcome return to Australia’s shores in 2013.
Opening again in Sydney before moving on to Melbourne, this time the show also played seasons in Brisbane and Perth.
The cast was led by Rob Collins, in his professional stage debut, as Mufasa, making him the first indigenous Australian actor to play the role. New Zealander Nick Afoa played Simba (a role he would go on to play in London’s West End), while Buyisile Zama again played the role of Rafiki.
When they weren’t thrilling audiences, the Australian cast broke the internet in 2014 when they spontaneously sang Circle of Life to delighted passengers on a flight from Brisbane to Sydney, launching a thousand similar videos around the world. Relive that moment here.
Hot on the heels of The Lion King, Disney’s Aladdin made its way to Australia next, opening in 2016. The Broadway spectacular starred Bathurst’s own Ainsley Melham as Aladdin (a role he would go on to play on Broadway and in the upcoming live streaming of the show) with Michael James Scott as Genie and Arielle Jacobs as Jasmine, both straight from Broadway.
Opening at the Capitol Theatre, it toured Australasia for three years, playing hit seasons in Melbourne (at Her Majesty’s Theatre), Brisbane, Perth and Auckland.
Here is a clip of Ainsley singing the show’s big ballad “Proud of Your Boy,” from the streets of Melbourne!
Next up… Frozen!
Although postponed from July to December 2020 due to Covid-19, Frozen looks set to take Australia by storm (see what I did there?) this summer.
It will open at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, and will star Jemma Rix (best known for playing Elphaba in Wicked) as Elsa and Courtney Monsma (straight from the cast of SIX The Musical) as Anna. Disney favourite Matt Lee will play everyone’s favourite snowman Olaf.
While you wait for the Sydney premiere, here is a taste of what to expect.
What comes next?
Upcoming Disney productions in the U.S. include a revival of Beauty and the Beast, so it could be next? Rumours abound of new adaptations of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Hercules, and The Jungle Book – plus there are still many shows that have never made it to Australia in professional productions, including Newsies, Aida, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, and The Hunchback of Notre Dam
One thing for sure, you can bet that Disney musicals will continue to entertain theatre-loving Australians for another 25 years.