Exclusive Interview with D23′s “Broadway and Beyond” Performers

| June 29, 2013 | 2 Replies

In addition to this year’s previously announced D23 Expo concert featuring Alan Menken and Richard Sherman, D23, the Official Disney Fan Club, has also announced a second special theatrical performance, “Broadway and Beyond,” a musical look at Disney’s history on the stage and beyond.  The concert, which is a one night only performance, will take place on Friday, August 9th at 6:30PM on Stage 23 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Thomas SchumacherThomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical President and Producer
Photo: The Walt Disney Company

The concert presentation, hosted by Disney Theatrical President and Producer Thomas Schumacher, will feature an all-star line-up of Broadway performers including Heidi Blickenstaff (THE LITTLE MERMAID), Ashley Brown (MARY POPPINS and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), Merle Dandridge (TARZAN® and AIDA), Josh Strickland (TARZAN®) and Alton Fitzgerald White (THE LION KING).

According to a Disney Theatrical spokesman, “The song list for the D23 Expo event is far from set,” but they will sing beloved songs from the award-winning musicals they starred in as well as classic tunes from the Disney on Broadway catalog.  Hopefully there will be some sneak peaks from Disney’s anticipated new musical, Aladdin.

 timrice_group_Walter-McBride1The New York Times Times Talks “Sir Tim Rice & Friends” evening / January 7, 2011
Photo: Walter McBride

On January 7, 2011, all of these performers were also part of an evening with “Sir Tim Rice & Friends,” sponsored by The New York Times “Times Talks” series, singing songs by Sir Tim Rice.

The DIS Unplugged caught up with some of the performers in this year’s “Broadway and Beyond” concert for an exclusive interview about their Disney stage careers and what’s coming up next for each of these talented singers.

JOSH STRICKLAND

Josh StricklandJosh Strickland

In May 2006, Josh Strickland made his Broadway debut as Tarzan in Disney’s musical Tarzan.  The show ran for 14 months at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City.

“I definitely owe everything to Disney and Thomas Schumacher for giving me the opportunity and for believing in me,” said Josh. “I have so much respect for him, the company, his business sense and for all of the creativity from him and his team. It was truly an amazing experience and will obviously be a part of my life forever.”

stricklandtarzanJosh in Disney’s TarzanThe Broadway Musical
Photo: Disney Theatrical

 There were some truly amazing moments in the musical including the opening scene when the infant Tarzan and his parents are found washed up on the beach and the numerous jungle scenes.  “A moment I will never forget,” said Josh, “is swinging over the audience for the FIRST time.  The feeling of rush, apprehension and excitement all rolled into one is something that I will never forget. Along with doing it every night, which was special in its own right, to be able to tell the story to the audience… now THAT was a gift in itself.”

 Phil Collins, the multi-award winning singer/songwriter (and 2002 Disney Legend), wrote five songs for the animated feature and wrote an additional nine songs for the musical.  Although picking a favorite song by a performer in any musical is difficult Josh said, “My favorites were ‘You’ll Be in My Heart,’ ‘Trashin’ the Camp’ and ‘Strangers Like Me’ were ALWAYS fun.  However, the song that became a part of my soul as Tarzan was a song Phil wrote for specifically for the show, ‘Everything That I Am.’  It’s the pivotal moment where he finds out and discovers where he came from and who he really is. I especially connected with the character and this song as I was adopted myself, so the emotion and the reality were there every night.”

Many would think that being hooked up in a harness and having to fly, sing and act would be difficult, but for Josh it came easy.  He says, “Actually that all came so natural to me. I absolutely LOVED being up in the air and swinging and singing! There was something so freeing about it. Now, learning how to act like a monkey didn’t come so natural, though!”

One of the highlights at the “Sir Tim Rice & Friends” concert was when Josh sang “My Strongest Suit,” originally sung by Sheri Rene Scott as Amneris from Aida.  Even though he doesn’t know which songs he’ll be singing at this years D23 Expo, he says that he loves singing Disney songs and enjoys learning and singing them with his fellow performers.

"PEEPSHOW" Debuts New Headliners Holly Madison And Shoshana BeanJosh Strickland in Peepshow
Photo: Ethan Miller

Since 2009, Josh has been in Peepshow, the longest-running live show at Las Vegas’ Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino.  It’s an amazing show from the Tony Award winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.   “It truly has opened more doors for me. Peepshow has been an amazing experience and I’ve met and worked with so many talented dancers and singers, including the incredible and über talented director/choreographer, Jerry Mitchell!” says Josh.  “Since being in Las Vegas I’ve met one of my BEST friends, Holly Madison, and she was so gracious in asking me to be a part of her reality show on the E! Network. We did two seasons and recently did a special, “Holly Has a Baby.” From doing that I was introduced to Grammy-winning producer Damon Elliott and created two songs, with one making it all the way to #2 on the iTunes Charts. I have been so blessed to have given the opportunities, and even more blessed to be back at home doing what I love with my Disney family!”

 Josh released his first iTunes single “Report To The Floor” in 2011 and it made the iTunes Top Ten Chart. “I was really proud of “Report to the Floor,” says Josh.  “It reached the #2 spot on the iTunes chart. That was an incredible feeling to have reached that accomplishment!”

Josh Strickland - Last Dance (Official Single Cover)

He followed that with “Last Dance,” which became an international chart-topping dance song.  Josh says, “It was also great to see my other track “Last Dance” become an international hit. It’s even known here in the states through YouTube where people thought it was Christina Aguilera, which is definitely a compliment! I was very happy and blessed with how people responded to them.”

Last week, Josh was back in the studio with Damon Elliott to record several new songs for an EP that will be released within the year.  “There are definitely some new club anthems in there, says Josh” “I just hope everyone enjoys the music as much as I love making it!”

Although Josh frequents Disneyland, he has never been to a D23 Expo.  He says, “I can’t wait to experience this with everyone! It’s really going to be great!”  You can follow Josh on Twitter @joshuajstrick.

ALTON FITZGERALD WHITE

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 8.21.08 PMAlton Fitzgerald White
Photo: altonfitzgeraldwhite.com

Since making his Broadway debut in Miss Saigon, Alton Fitzgerald White has been a part of the Broadway community for the past 22 years.  He became part of the Disney Theatrical family when he originated the role of Mufasa in the 1st National Tour of The Lion King.

“I met Julie (Taymor) when she was casting the original Broadway Company,” says Alton.  “Although we made a great connection, I had just been offered the role to replace Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the Toronto Company of Ragtime opposite the great Audra McDonald.  After a few years, I was back auditioning for The Lion King, but this time it was for the 1st National Company.  Since Julie was already familiar with my work, this particular audition was a little more relaxed than the other.

Alton was cast as Mufasa in the 1st National Tour of The Lion King.  On the first day of rehearsals Alton said, “There was a ‘meet and greet’ with everyone. It was a great Disney touch and certainly a nice way to start.”

“A lot of us were intimidated because of the phenomenal success of the Broadway production.” says Alton.  “We sat down and introduced ourselves and then had our first read-through.  Afterwards came the singing.  The principals were in one room and the ensemble was in another room.   The two groups didn’t come together until about the second week.  There is nothing like the first run through.  We were all cheering and supporting each other.  Then we added the props and the puppets.  One of the things I loved was scheduled time with just a mirror, yourself and your puppet.  It was really challenging trying to incorporate the action of the puppet into your own physical actions – making it as natural as possible with your body.  Eventually everything started to click in to place and it then went from intimidation to a natural extension of ourselves.”

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 8.17.04 PMAlton Fitzgerald White as Mufasa
Photo: Disney Theatricals

According to lionking.org, Mufasa is described as regal, commanding and majestic. Mufasa is a great king with a kind, generous heart. Concerned with teaching his son Simba to be a wise, responsible adult and king, Mufasa can seem a bit stern at times, but it’s only because he loves Simba and wants to keep the youngster on the right track.

 2011_01_NYT_ALW_TimRice_StricklandWhite_resizedJosh Strickland and Alton Fitzgerald White perform at ”Sir Tim Rice & Friends,” New York Times “TimesTalks”
Photo: Matthew Arnold

After five years of playing Mufasa, Alton was cast as the character of Mister in Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple on Broadway.  In contrast with Mufasa, Alice Walker’s character of Mister in The Color Purple is described as brutish, sexually aggressive, unloving, foolish, bumbling, and lazy. For three weeks, he continued to play Mufasa in the evenings as he rehearsed the diametrically opposite character of Mister during the day.

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 8.46.21 PMAlton Fitzgerald White as Mister in The Color Purple
Photo: altonfitzgeraldwhite.com

When asked what it was like playing these two different characters, Alton said, “Playing someone as hurt as Mister in The Color Purple was a great challenge for me as an actor.  He was the complete opposite of Mufasa.”

After a brief break from the theatre, in 2009, Disney Theatricals offered Alton to reprise the role of Mufasa when The Lion King debut in Las Vegas at The Mandalay Bay Hotel.  After a year in Las Vegas, White returned to the Broadway Company where he currently continues playing Mufasa.

In 2011, Alton was on a Transatlantic Disney Cruise performing a one-man show of songs from the Disney Songbook.  Directed by Jeff Lee, the original production stage manager for The Lion King on Broadway and director of the “Tim Rice & Friends” concert, the show incorporated songs from a wide range of shows.  “After the concert,” said Alton.  “I had grown men and women coming up to me in tears telling me how amazing the show was and how moved they were hearing a baritone singing these songs.”

After the cruise, Alton approached Tom Schumacher and asked him what he thought of taking the concert idea and turn it into a CD.  Tom told Alton he was behind it and thought it was a great idea.  So much so that he told Alton that he could pick any song from the Disney catalog to sing on the CD.

Alton went to work on the CD with Jim Abbott, the musical director for “Tim Rice & Friends” concert.  The result is Disney My Way!, a collection of songs, many with new arrangements.  The 13-song CD, backed by a 12-piece orchestra, includes such favorites as “Feed The Birds,” “A Whole New World,” Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious,” “They Live In You,” and “If I Can’t Love Her.” Click here to purchase a personally autographed copy of Disney My Way!

disney-my-way-cd-case-2

Tom Schumacher even wrote the liner notes for the CD.  He says, “Listening to Disney My Way! is, for me, a visit with old friends.  First up, of course, is the spectacular Alton Fitzgerald White—actor, singer, and gentleman. A long-time member of the Disney Theatrical family, Alton is well known to our audiences on Broadway, in Las Vegas, and across America as King Mufasa from The Lion King. He is an actor of extraordinary craft, and is blessed with a stunning voice.”

“Alton is joined on this collection of songs by the great Jim Abbott, who has guided the music on Disney projects in New York and around the world, including Phil Collins’ Tarzan and Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida. His arrangements and orchestrations heard on this recording are spot-on.”

“And finally, my friends represented here are the songwriters, and their songs, to which Alton brings his fresh and surprising take.”

This is Alton’s second time at the D23 Expo.  His first time was in 2009 when he was performing “They Live in You,” backed up by a local choir at “The Music of The Lion King” presentation.  You can follow Alton on Twitter @whitealton

HEIDI BLICKENSTAFF

blickenstaff_heidi_50rtHeidi Blickenstaff

Heidi Blickenstaff has been in a number of Broadway shows including The Full Monty, [title of show], and The Addams Family.  Her Disney claim to fame was when she played Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

 heidi-13Heidi Blickenstaff as Ursula
Photo: Jenny Anderson / Broadway.com

In 2009, Heidi took over the role of Ursula from Sheri Rene Scott.  This was the first time she played an evil character.  She says, “Evil characters are the most fun to play!  They get all the good material.  It was a pure joy to play Ursula.  She’s such an iconic bad guy and I loved every second of her.”

When asked why that was Heidi said, “She’s the most delicious combination of funny and deadly.  It was very freeing to play a character that’s so wildly evil and unscrupulous.  It taught me to trust my instincts and just go for it on stage. Allowing myself to push my own boundaries as an actor made me braver to play all my subsequent roles.  I think there’s a little bit of Ursula in all the characters I play now, or at least her unabashed confidence.  I’ve never grown more as an actor from a playing a part.”

Looking at Ursula from the audiences’ perspective, it looks like the actor just steps into the costume and that’s it.  Not so.  Faith Prince, who took over the role after Heidi, talks about how one time part of the costume came apart and she was fin-less.

 TLM_bowPhoto: Sean Palmer as Prince Eric, Sierra Boggess as Ariel, Heidi Blickenstaff as Ursula and Norm Lewis as King Triton
Photo: Jenny Anderson / Broadway.com

“I remember Faith coming to me in a panic saying, ‘How do you do this??!!,’” says Heidi.  “Navigating that costume was a huge undertaking for sure, but I come from a dance background and I actually loved it.  You’re dealing with an awkward fat suit, a 10 pound wig, a back brace apparatus that attaches to 3 different tentacle “skirts” at different times, and 8-inch platform heels. Manipulating the tentacle skirts were the most challenging for me.  There was one for “Poor Unfortunate Souls” that had a 40 foot train until you whipped it open and it became a huge spider-webby-looking-thing with legs that towered above all of us.  It was gorgeous.  I had to learn how to make it behave like it was part of me.  It took a tremendous amount of upper body strength and control.  It was a stunning costume.  I felt so powerful in it.  I never had any problems with it but it’s not hard to imagine how one would.  It was a fantastic challenge night after night.”

Rehearsing for a normal Broadway show is a difficult task, but then add complicated costume and set changes and it becomes quite daunting.  “I had understudied the role under Sherie so I knew her Ursula because that was my job.  The trickiest part was unlearning all of her awesome choices, and recreating Ursula from my point of view,” said Heidi.   “I was very supported by my creative team, though.  They were extremely encouraging and they trusted me to do my own thing.  I had a couple of weeks of watching the show and following Sherie backstage and working privately with the associate director and the music director and then I had one ‘put-in’ rehearsal, where I was the only one going through costume changes but all the other actors were running through the show with me, and then I was in that night.  BOOM!  It’s always a nail-biter.  I don’t think I’ve gone through anything more surreal.  You can’t really believe it’s happening.  You feel like you’re trying to jump onto a speeding train.  It’s exciting and terrifying and it sort of feels like you’re in a dream, and then it’s over before you know it and you have to think about doing it again in about 20 hours.”

2011_01_NYT_ALW_TimRice_HBlickenstaff_resizedHeidi Blickenstaff performing at “Sir Tim Rice & Friends,” New York Times “TimesTalks”
Photo: Matthew Arnold

Even though the song list isn’t set yet, Heidi thinks that “Poor Unfortunate Souls” will probably be on the menu.  She says that, “I’m sure there will be some more surprises as well!”

I asked Heidi if she could play any character in a Disney musical what would that be? She said,  “I’ve always been totally fascinated and terrified by Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.  She scared the bananas out of me when I was a kid.  Nothing’s better than a good bad guy.  We need to write her some ferocious songs though!”

This year’s D23 Expo will be Heidi’s first and she says she is so psyched to experience it, however from July 11-27, Heidi will be up in Weston, Vermont at The Weston Playhouse playing Diana in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award Winning Musical, Next To Normal.  She says she is “terrified and excited beyond belief!”  You can follow Heidi on Twitter @HBlix.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: California Events, Disney World, Events, News

About the Author ()

Originally from Philadelphia and now living in New York City, Chuck has worn many hats including pastry chef, hotel manager and his current position as a publicist. Ever since he was a kid, Chuck had a passion about everything Walt Disney including going on a local Philly quiz show when he was twelve where his area of expertise was Walt Disney. He loves going to see great performers, amazing museums, seeing Broadway shows, eating in all kinds of restaurants and traveling. Chuck's favorite cities to visit are Paris, London, Las Vegas and Turin. He, of course, loves Walt Disney World and Disneyland.