Behind the Scenes at Disney's Stage Shows

June 30, 2008

From the Left Coast to the Dirty South, musical theater dancers with Broadway aspirations who happen to live outside of Manhattan dream about one day making the big move. For these dancers, however, there are stage opportunities in other places besides the Great White Way. Case in point: Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre. Several times per year, dancers are hired to bring Disney movies to life in kid-friendly, high-energy stage shows. We went behind the scenes of Herbie: Fully Loaded, the theater’s most recent production, to give you an inside track.

Dancing, Disney-Style

“[In conjunction] with Disney film releases, we do a production that takes the audience inside the movie they’re about to see,” says show director Barnette Ricci. “We want audiences to have fun, so we hire dancers that show us they’re having a blast onstage. Being Disney, we like a fresh, bright performer with a lot of personality and smiles.” 


Most of the Disney stage shows employ between 15 and 25 dancers, including principal cast dancers, swing cast members and costumed character dancers. Though many are hired on a recurring basis to perform at what they affectionately call the “El Cap,” it’s not impossible to get in the door. Dancers with strong personalities plus an ability to adapt to different styles are always in demand, says Herbie assistant choreographer and line captain Dani Wylie. 


For the show, Wylie and choreographer Mic Thompson were charged with designing dance numbers that reflected Herbie’s onscreen journey through the decades, so it was important to find versatile dancers who could pull off everything from popping to the pony. Dancer Kevin Sateri says his broad training background (which includes Disney shows such as Toy Story) helped him land the Herbie gig and adjust to its fast-paced rehearsal schedule. “Musical theater is about knowing how to perform and pick up steps quickly,” Sateri explains. “We learned the show in its entirety in about three days.” 


The stability offered by such stage shows is worth the long rehearsal hours. “In L.A., you [usually] have gigs that last a few days or weeks,” says dancer Kelley Parker, who has performed for Buena Vista Special Events for 10 years while also assisting choreographer Vincent Patterson. “[The Disney shows] run for several months, so it’s one of the most stable jobs you can land.”

Nailing the job

Getting onstage at the El Capitan may be as easy as listening to the radio or browsing through industry trade publications such as Backstage West for casting notices. Ricci says that Disney holds major auditions at least once a year, making sure to advertise publicly in order to attract new talent. She encourages dancers with a wide range of experience to give it a shot: “Sometimes you see a dancer that may not be technically trained, but shows joy and a certain style and attitude,” Ricci says. “It’s refreshing to see that kind of expression, so we always try to find a place for that person.” 


Sateri adds that even older dancers who may be considered past their primes in other areas of the industry have found a home with Disney doing character work. “The characters don’t have to dance as extensively, which gives older people starting out a better shot at getting into a show like this,” he explains. When casting characters, height and personality are also considered.


When hiring choreographers, Ricci considers both budding choreographers and current performers. “If a performer wants to move into choreographing, I’ll give [him or her] the opportunity to be an assistant choreographer first and see how well [he or she deals] with cast members,” says Ricci. “Sometimes I also assign smaller-scale shows or shows that just need one number [at first].”

Reaping the Rewards

Besides the stability and exposure, performing live onstage for a flock of enthusiastic families can be very rewarding. “The kids go crazy for the characters,” says Parker. “It’s like a rock concert for kids, and they’re screaming, ‘Mickey! Minnie!’ It’s so much fun.” Parker adds that being part of a seasoned cast is another boon, especially for dancers new to the scene: “[Disney shows are] good for young performers because there is some structure to them. The caliber of dancers is excellent, so it’s a good place to learn how to conduct yourself professionally from other dancers.” Another perk is the opportunity to perform for a live audience in a city that mostly revolves around dance on film. “I don’t think you can beat live stage shows,” says Wylie. “I love the fact that anything can happen at a moment’s notice and you have to keep going. Seeing the audience enjoying themselves is priceless.”


If you’re wondering if you have what it takes, take a cue from Walt Disney himself: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”