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Aida, Meet Elton

The Disney musical version of the Nubian princess' story echoes the lives of composer Elton John's celebrity friends. It's a long way from Verdi.

December 05, 1999|PATRICK PACHECO | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar

CHICAGO — Midway through the first act of "Aida," Disney's new Broadway-bound musical trying out at Chicago's Palace Theatre, the Egyptian princess Amneris hijacks the show and takes it on a flight of fancy.

After a rather intense introduction to Radames and his Nubian captive Aida--whom the Egyptian captain is bringing to Amneris, his betrothed, as a gift--the audience is whisked off to a palace spa where the pharaoh's daughter bemoans her fate as a shallow clotheshorse in the song "My Strongest Suit."

As the number proceeds, the bath setting yields to a gigantic grid of closets--featuring dresses, robes and shoes in every color--and finally to an outrageous Gianni Versace-like fashion show, replete with pumping house music and models who might well have leaped out of the latest issue of Vogue.

What does all this have to do with the ancient Egyptian legend best known for inspiring Giuseppe Verdi's classic 19th century opera of the same name?

The short answer? Elton John.

"Aida" is the pop composer's first work created directly for the musical stage. And, in collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice, John has come up with a score that has cued director Robert Falls and designer Robert Crowley to raid John's own life--and his closets--for inspiration. The show pays tribute here to his dear friend, the late Princess Diana, using her as a model for Amneris, a shallow woman who learns on her wedding night that her husband is actually in love with someone else, yet nevertheless grows to be a self-possessed queen. "My Strongest Suit" is also a homage to the peacock fashions of his other recently downed friend, Versace.

"This is a very personal score for Elton," said Falls, sitting in the lobby of the theater the day after the show's first preview here. "And very early on, Bob [Crowley] and I knew we wanted to approach the show in a way that was true to Elton. We're trying to bridge this contemporary visual vocabulary as reflected in the score, with echoes of ancient Egypt, but keeping Elton's world at the same time: Versace, high fashion, Princess Diana and love of outrageous clothes."

In a phone interview from his home in London, John said that his intention simply was "to create the music for a very strong love story" between two people willing to die for love. Nevertheless, he called Versace his greatest inspiration in art, music and fashion for the past 10 years. "I played the songs of 'Aida' for Gianni," John recalled. "And he roared with laughter when he heard 'My Strongest Suit.' That's been the most awful thing in my life, losing someone that inspiring."

Fusing pop-culture camp, star-crossed interracial love between slave and enslaver and cutthroat political intrigue into a cohesive whole is the challenge facing Falls and his team on "Aida," Disney's fourth stage musical since taking on a Broadway presence with "Beauty and the Beast" in 1994. Generating near-impossible expectations is the fact that this show is Disney's follow-up to the phenomenal success of avant-garde director Julie Taymor's "The Lion King." And raising the stakes even more, "Aida" does not have the proven pedigree of having been an animated feature hit first, like "Beauty," "Lion King" or "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the last of which premiered in Berlin in June.

However, it has had five years in development, and by Thursday, when the show officially opens its run in Chicago before a New York bow scheduled for March 23, it will have been nurtured, tweaked, scrutinized and overhauled, with a series of workshops, the release of a concept album featuring major pop stars, and a regional premiere at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre last year. Never mind that the album has drawn moribund sales (170,000 copies sold since March) and the Atlanta foray drew enough criticism that many of the original creative team were dismissed and a new group, led by Falls, had to be brought in.

Throughout those years, "Aida" has always been dominated by the ever brilliant, if mercurial, John. From the start "Aida" has been his baby.

In 1994, Disney optioned a children's book by Leontyne Price, based on the Verdi opera, for development as an animated feature. But John was not keen on working on another animation project after "The Lion King," the stage adaptation of which he considers Taymor's work. When Disney executives suggested a Broadway musical of "Aida" instead, he and "Lion King" collaborator Rice, who is also the veteran lyricist of "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita" and "Chess," immediately signed on, despite some misgivings. "A lot of opera people can be very elitist, so we thought we'd be killed for even trying," John said.

But that made the prospect even more challenging. "We wanted to make it as different as possible from Verdi, not have it all gloom and doom, and we wanted dialogue, not have it sung all the way through. That would have made it much more operatic."

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