Disney’s Campy Aida : of Fashionistas and Pharaohs

Aida , the new Disney musical (“suggested by the opera”) with music by the Liberace of Rock, Elton John, and lyrics by Tim Rice, the Man Who Was Never Young, is, alas, a waste of good camp. Good camp is the one we always enjoy, provided it is bad in the right way.

For example, the opening scene in the musical is based on the Egyptian Room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a stuffed Amneris in a glass case (Sherie René Scott in grave mood) comes to life to sing solemnly about a “love that flourishes in a time of hate, of lovers no tyranny could separate.” So far, so good camp.

True, the idea for the museum scene that opens the show–and closes it with the re-incarnated lovers Aida and Radames looking weirded out in the museum crowd–has been lifted from the 1943 musical fantasy One Touch of Venus in which museum-quality gods also come to life. But Venus (with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, book by S.J. Perelman and Mr. Nash, choreographed by Agnes de Mille and directed by Elia Kazan–what a team!) would be considered first-rate camp today, so Aida is definitely in the right, classy spirit.

In scene two, however, things begin to drift quickly toward overearnestness on a pretty slave ship where the enchained Aida (Heather Headley, who’s divine) is being transported to Egypt by dashing Radames (Adam Pascal, who isn’t divine). Mr. Pascal, a wooden performer costumed throughout in Versace Egyptian Military Wear, is believed to be half alive. In the name of downbeat cool, he does not care to extend himself. When he shows off his bare chest to the balcony, the girls squeal and he is content. With his raspy neo-rock voice left over from Rent , all his songs sound the same. All his songs are the same. Radames’ opening number is entitled “Fortune Favors the Brave,” and that should tell us something right there. It tells us Radames is too young to be so wise.

Nothing is an accident

We are free to have it all,

We are what we want to be

It’s in ourselves to rise and fall

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Radames’ wicked dad, Zoser (played by John Hickok who’s doing the best he can under the circumstances), is hatching a devious plot to poison the Pharaoh. “Only a few drops,” goes the memorable instruction. “We don’t want him dying just yet!”

Radames has fallen for proud Aida, the enslaved Nubian princess. (And all things, including Verdi, can therefore be morphed into a Disney cartoon, half-living or animated.) But their illicit love later inspires another great line in the lexicon of camp. As Aida scrubs Radames’ back, he coos: “You are much better with a sword than you are with a sponge.”

But Radames is betrothed to Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris, whom we first met in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And here the entire creative team behind the show pulls out all the stops. This is the moment. This is the moment when we see Amneris lounging beside a Hollywood swimming pool. Be honest: This musical version of Aida could go any place at any time, but could any of us have predicted Hollywood? No, siree. We could not. They could!

The most distinguished set designer, Bob Crowley, does not paddle in the obvious. He has skipped the pyramids to give us instead a vertical Hockneyesque swimming pool, which I thought much superior to the pool in Sunset Boulevard even though you can see the wires attached to the swimmers during their charming water ballet. Some people might miss the atmosphere of Egypt. But Mr. Crowley doesn’t. He shrewdly believes that we can always go to Egypt if we want. We can take a Love Boat down the Nile, stopping off at Sharm el Sheikh. Besides, before Disney fired a lot of very important people during an earlier incarnation of the show, there was a mechanized pyramid, but it got out of control. It ate the actors.

When it comes to camp, I thought things were looking really good with the Hollywood swimming pool. Our pleasure in the pool resides in it having absolutely no relevance to whatever else is supposed to be going on–including the fashion show. In another camp coup by Aida ‘s amazing creators, they have made Amneris a fashionista. Her slaves put on a fashion show for her, dressed more like Vegas drag queens in Easter bonnets than à la mode Egyptians .

“A slave who knows her fabrics. I’m keeping her!” Amneris gasps about her new handmaiden, Aida. The lovely Aida has much on her tragic-heroine mind–the internment camp, the sponging process, the colonial history of slavery, the fate of her people, the price of love, the Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England. We’d guess the last thing on her mind would be fabrics. And there we would be wrong. “I’ll say this for you Egyptians,” she announces. “Your thread count is amazing!” Were Aida not a slave, she could work for Women’s Wear Daily . But Amneris is the true fashion freak–”first in beauty, wisdom and accessories”–who appears to have been re-invented as an airhead combination of Princess Diana and Elton John himself.

By the way, you may be wondering whether the creators of Aida are, strictly speaking, sane. I’ll come to that in a moment. The director, Robert Falls (of last season’s Death of a Salesman ) describes his Aida as follows: “It’s a mythic story of doomed love set against extraordinary times, against battlefields, warring countries and racial prejudice. It’s as contemporary as today’s headlines.” Have it his way. We’re in Bosnia. But where does that leave us?

It leaves us at the fashion show in the palace with the Amneris lyric: “I would rather wear a barrel, than conservative apparel.” But the fashion parade disappointed, darlings. It reminded me of a better one. I refer, of course, to the revered “Springtime For Hitler” scene in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, The Producers . The chic, choreographed fashion parade with its catchy melody and lyrics–”Be a smarty, join the Nazi party!”–its strapping German fräuleins modelling giant pretzel hats and the brilliant Busby Berkely swastika climax bring everything to the boil in perfect camp. But then, The Producers is about a man who produces a bad show on purpose.

Did Disney produce Aida badly on purpose? It’s not good enough for that. If only it were true, though! It could have been hysterical. But unfortunately, they are all too sane to make it so. The bookwriters–Linda Woolverton of Beauty and the Beast , David Henry Hwang of M. Butterfly and Mr. Falls of the Big Statements–try their best to lose it, helped by Wayne Cilento’s faboo Tae-Bo dance routines. But as Amneris sadly puts it toward the end: “How have I come to this?”

You know something? I haven’t a clue.

I know that all the wonderful things you have been hearing about Heather Headley as Aida are true. I first saw her last May playing the ingenue in a concert revival of Do Re Mi , one of City Center’s Encores ! musical concert series, and wrote of her: “She is the first musical performer I’ve seen in memory about whom I’d say, If she doesn’t make it, we all better give up and go home.” This fresh, young, electric talent of great beauty possesses many qualities, and the most important of them is dignity. She keeps her dignity, and we are glad.

She has made it. She is home. And the rest?

Too bad.