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Merry Christmas, Walt!

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Merry Christmas, Walt!

During this Christmas Season, I could not help but notice that The New York Times' default metaphor for anything a critic finds objectionable in the arts is none other than Walt Disney. It is as if Uncle Walt was the anti-Christ of Art. When his name appeared once again the other day, I stopped to think about what that might mean.

It surely is unnecessary to say that The New York Times is a great newspaper--the paper of record. It is also my hometown newspaper, so my quarrel with it is what the Rev. William Sloane Coffin would call "a lover's quarrel."

On December 18, Amanda Katz, in reviewing the book Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman, wrote "With some of the best-known stories Mr. Pullman's greatest contribution is simply to rescue the stark original from the sweetening effect of Disney."

On December 9, Gia Kourlas, reviewing Alexei Ratmansky's production of The Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre wrote, "No matter the cast, the acrobatic choreography poses a problem. The most frightening is a lift in which the ballerina is held by one leg like a trophy as her partner dashes forward. Are the relentless lifts that melt in swoons, flamboyant turning jumps and unsupported pirouettes what a young girl imagines love to be? It feels Disney. In the end such difficulty serves little purpose; the dancers look tense, never expansive or free."

That has got to be the first time frightening and unsupported pirouettes have been blamed on Disney.

On that same day, Patrick Healy's article entitled, "Broadway on the Elbe," told of the amazing expansion of mega-musicals in Hamburg. "(Disney's) Tarzan has proved that even out-and-out flops on Broadway can go on to lucrative afterlives in this destination city for Germans, as long as the shows have the spectacle and pageantry that theater producers here say enthrall people across the country."

The article goes on to remind us of the evils of commercialism - in the theatre, of all places! "Yet just as some New York theatergoers denounce the so-called Disneyification of Broadway into a cultural theme park of shiny baubles instead of groundbreaking musicals, the evolution of Hamburg has divided people here on matters of taste as well as commercialism." He then goes on to mention the great non-commercial writers of the past, among them Shakespeare, Goethe and Brecht.

OK. That did it. How can one even begin to embrace all that anti-Disney, coming from a book review, a ballet review, and a business-news story?

We could start with Cinderella. This is a story that was told in China around 850 A.D. (remember the little feet part?), to brides on their wedding nights in Iran and Afghanistan, to 19th century opera goers in Italy (Rossini's la Cenerentola), to Soviet balletomanes (Prokofiev's 1945 ballet for the Bolshoi), to families watching television in the 1950s (Rodgers & Hammerstein's adaptation for CBS), and in countless movies, books, songs, and other works of art. Each time the story is told it carries something that is the same, and yet always something that speaks to its time, its culture, and to its audience. In Rossini's version (the composer hated magic, so there is none of it in the libretto) when Cinderella learns of the deceit of her sisters and stepfather, she finds grace, and as thanks for marrying the prince, she forgives those who persecuted her. The chorus sings, "Now she is worthy to rule us." This then is the Catholic version: Like Jesus, she forgives and as a result proves she can become royalty.

Disney's version captures the post-Word War II American dream. Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1957 version made use of America's fascination with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on our television sets and cast a very English-accented Julie Andrews as the queen-to-be.

And when this musical returned to television 40 years later, the casting was multi-racial, with Brandy replacing Julie Andrews in the eponymous role. And in Disney's 2002 direct-to-home video sequel, Jacques (the mouse) wants to be bigger but learns that there are some things small creatures can do that big ones cannot do, the ugly stepsister Anastasia falls in love with a common baker who helps her find her inner beauty, and Cinderella is now a veiled reference to Queen Elizabeth's daughter-in-law, Diana. When this Cinderella says, "I want to be myself," she opens the palace to commoners and becomes the people's princess.

Hollywood - and Disney, of course - is frequently blamed for the forced or fake happy ending to all stories. It is worth remembering that 99% of all romantic symphonies end in a major key, no matter how dramatic the materials that precede that last moment are. Beethoven's Fifth goes knocking, kicking, screaming and thinking from c-minor to C-major. Maybe the Walt Disney ending to Cinderella should be called the Beethovenization of Cinderella.

The Brothers Grimm had their way with the story too, which includes the sisters hacking off part of their big German feet to fit into those tiny Chinese slippers. Should we call that the Germanization of Cinderella, or just look at it as another example of how we use and adapt our great stories for our audiences? Whatever one's answer to that question, it's not Disney's fault.

And when Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1957 television show opens in a new version on Broadway this spring, let us just judge it on its own terms. May it succeed - and be a commercial success!
As far as blaming ABT's pirouettes for being too Disney, I am reminded of the barrage of criticism aimed at its current production of Sleeping Beauty, when, in 2007, Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay reviewed its premiere. "The designer Tony Walton has provided sets, especially the Sleeping Beauty's tiny castle with its fat little towers, that are very Disney indeed.

The unashamedly bold, often cheerfully clashing colors in both décor and costumes (by Willa Kim) are Disneyesque too, though surely Walt's artists would have imitated Corot much less crudely in the autumnal treescape behind the Hunt scene."

OK. I get that Mr. Macaulay did not like the way it looked. He is a critic, after all, and is paid to give his opinion. What makes me wonder is why this is blamed on Walt Disney. His company's Sleeping Beauty, by the way, was inspired by the most probing research into colors, fabrics, and clothing worn in medieval Europe, and eschewed the "fat little towers" of Snow White to create a different style. One may not like Disney's Sleeping Beauty, but I wouldn't blame it on, say, the medievalization of Cinderella.

Are we afraid of bright colors and equate our childlike joy in them with the corrupting influence of low art? In 2010, another Times critic (Rosalyn Sulcas) went farther than Mr. Macaulay by describing Willa Kim's costumes as "remarkably ugly, garishly colored." With the restoration of masterpieces like the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, what was brown and dark orange is now brilliant reds, greens and violets. The Disneyfication of Michelangelo, perhaps.

As far as the classics being the polar opposite of commercial art (Shakespeare versus The Lion King,) do we need reminding that Shakespeare ran a commercial theatre and depended on the mob to support it? If the Pope himself was displeased with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Signore Michelangelo might have lost more than the support of his patron.

All artists have bosses and those bosses are the mob or the capo of the mob - and that mob can be seen as good or bad - or, in an enlightened way, as just being, well, the mob. "I always write for the mob," Irving Berlin is reputed to have said, "and, as far as I am concerned, the mob is always right."

And if you think The Lion King is just a meaningless, commercial entertainment, you are probably unwilling to understand all it is saying to young people about life and death and about possibility. If nothing else, a show in which 90% of the cast is comprised of people of color and was under the total direction of a woman should be enough to ensure the health of Broadway (and Hamburg) for the countless youngsters who might have otherwise felt left out because of their gender or their color.

Art is a lie. It is always fake. The Brandenburg Gate is a fake Greek architectural monument built in the 1790s and designed by Berlin's superintendant of buildings. The Cologne Cathedral is mostly something from 1880, not 1473, completed a mere eleven years before Carnegie Hall. And, hold on to your categories!, the very architectural symbol of Germany, the castle known as Neuschwanstein, is a 19th century romantic interpretation of the middle ages, designed by a stage designer, Christian Jank. It was considered to be ridiculous at the time it was opened to the public when it was new in 1888. It was the closest thing to a theme park then. It is now high art and, most important to this story, it was the model for the very fake castle that is the symbol of Disneyland - built 67 years later in Anaheim, California. Opera enthusiasts will also know that the man who commissioned Neuschwanstein was the same person who paid for Richard Wagner's epic opera cycle, der Ring des Niebelungen. The completion of Wagner's Ring, and the historical implications of it, and the theatre designed to present it, are rightly seen as seminal works of art. And that means that the kitsch castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and the kitsch castle dominating every Disney theme park, has the same common denominator. The other common denominator is that both Wagner and Disney reached new career heights by updating an ancient story about dwarves who mine precious metals and turned the tale into musical stories about the power of human love. I am sure it makes some people cringe to realize that both scores contain a musical setting of "Heigh Ho!"

In this unbroken and sometimes ironic series of lies is our truth - our fantasies tell us who we are, simultaneously reaching backward while also striving forward, and thus helping us to understand where we are right now. Yes: Let's pretend!

We support and save the things we value. We translate all the time--ever-evolving stories being the medium of this continuity. We sometimes call it art. Call it whatever you like, and if you want to blame Walt Disney, blame him and all those who carry on his genius, for telling us stories about ourselves - who we are and who we aspire to be.

And, if you don't like it, then tell me another story. I am here to listen.

John Mauceri
December 21,2012