What would a meeting between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky have been like? In “Small World, playwright Frederick Stroppel imagines such an encounter, and the sparks fly. Disney and Stravinsky, so unlike one another as colorfully performed by Mark Shanahan (Disney) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Stravinsky), have much to fight about.
Stravinsky is depicted as outraged that Disney will co-opt his “The Rite Of Spring,” being in the public domain, for his ambitious “Fantasia,” the animation king’s bold effort to blend his cartoon art with classical music. Stravinsky is appalled at the idea that his music will wind up as accompaniment for dramatizing the beginnings of the world and subsequent dinosaurs roaming the earth. For Disney the idea is glorious, for Stravinsky it is sacrilege. (Actually, Disney also used the work of various other classical composers as well, although the play implies that Stravinsky’s was the only one.)
There is much humor in the dialogue between the two men, Disney with his enthusiastic populist approach to art, and Stravinsky with his hauteur about his position in the classical music world, far from the likes of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. (“Fantasia,” released in 1940, received mixed results from critics, failed at the box office at first, but eventually made money and has emerged with classic status.)
Leopold Stokowski was the maestro associated with the film, and in the play Stravinsky expresses contempt for Stokowski’s descending to Disney’s level. The dialogue between Disney and Stravinsky is cleverly written, and director Joe Brancato keeps the confrontations between the men lively. Not surprisingly, the two begin to bond despite their artistic differences.
“Small World” makes a misstep by tacking on a superfluous coda, with the men, having died, meeting in the afterlife. That section is labored and it would have better to have figured out an ending without the clumsy ploy. But even so, the play is filled with enough wit to make seeing it a very enjoyable experience, with special appreciation for the fine acting. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Tickets: 212-279-4200. Reviewed September 18, 2017.