LOS ANGELES, June 24 - Departure time was set for 5 p.m., but it was 6:30 when the Disney Magic cruise ship actually pulled out of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, at a quick clip to make up for lost time. The cast for the cruise line's newest musical was in the middle of rehearsing, said Kevin Eld, Disney's vice president for creative production, when the ship suddenly listed.
"It was interesting to try to brace yourself when you're in the middle of a tap number and the floor is lifting 10 degrees," Mr. Eld said. "It was quite unsettling."
Cruise line entertainment has come a long way since Julie was the recreation director on "The Love Boat." Cirque du Soleil, the Second City troupe, Tommy Tune, Andrew Lloyd Webber productions and even the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London (which sends recent graduates aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2), have all performed for affluent seagoing vacationers. Now Disney has upped the ante with its latest attempt to gain a competitive edge in the crowded and growing cruise market: a musical premiere, "Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story," with 21 performers and a backstage crew of nine - double the cast of a typical show on a ship.
"Cruise lines are trying so hard to bring in younger, sophisticated people, and they can't serve up the same stuff they have on traditional cruises," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of cruisecritic.com.
Disney Cruise Line has an edge in creating top-flight productions because its parent company is an entertainment behemoth, enabling it to draw on huge financial resources as well as a rich trove of copyrighted material.
"We are an entertainment company, so everything we do has to be over the top," said Tom McAlpin, president of Disney Cruise Line.
Disney is promoting "Twice Charmed" as a Broadway-style musical packed into the 52-minute performance that is typical of cruise ships. The show presents a version of the classic tale, giving Cinderella a wicked fairy godfather who sends her back in time to see whether she'll have her happy ending if the glass slipper breaks. (This is Disney, so of course she does.)
In part, cruise lines are following the lead of the Las Vegas hotels that have raised the bar on entertainment. "We are floating resorts, and one of our biggest competitors is Orlando or Las Vegas," said Dietmar Wertanzl, senior vice president of fleet operations for Celebrity Cruises. "When it comes to branding today, it's all about how you differentiate yourself."
Celebrity commissioned Cirque du Soleil, the premier entertainment organization in Las Vegas, to design a floating version of the VIP Tapis Rouge lounges it offers before shows, where patrons wine, dine and watch.
As part of a six-year deal, Cirque created theme lounges for two ships. The first "Bar at the Edge of the Earth" set sail aboard the Constellation in December with surreal characters like The Wave Correspondent and The Lantern Tuner, who interact with passengers in a club heavy on ambience. An early review on cruisecritic.com reported that guests were divided, with some passengers saying they weren't seeing a show. The circus theater company says it is exploring ways it might mount a Cirque-flavored show scaled down to fit a ship.
When Second City in Chicago learned of Cirque's deal, the improv troupe approached Norwegian Cruise Line, an innovative company that had worked with Lord Lloyd Webber to customize shows for its ships. Second City began offering performances and workshops on the Norwegian Dawn in January and plans to expand to the Norwegian Jewel in November.
For theater companies like Second City, cruise lines offer a valuable marketing opportunity. "I see this as a way to reach a different audience, who might not know what Second City is because we don't have a TV show," said Kelly Leonard, Second City vice president.
Disney brought in a theater professional to design their shows. In 2000, Anne Hamburger, the founder of the Off Broadway company En Garde Arts, joined Disney Creative Entertainment, which creates new productions for the company's theme parks, resorts and cruise line. As the division's executive vice president, Ms. Hamburger said she had been tapping her theater contacts to put a fresh spin on the Disney characters audiences expect to see. She declined to comment on the cost of the productions.
Ms. Hamburger recruited the director Joe Calarco, for example, after catching his production of "Shakespeare's R&J" Off Broadway. She also hired the authors and composers Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary, Disney regulars who are collaborating with Rupert Holmes on a Broadway-bound musical of "Secondhand Lions" for New Line Cinema. They wrote six original songs for "Twice Charmed," which also features two classics from the animated film "Cinderella" - "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes."
Disney Magic has a 977-seat theater with a 40-foot-wide proscenium stage, full flying capabilities for scenery, a projection system for animated backdrops and scrims, stage lifts and even the capacity for pyrotechnics.
"You can make scenery and performers arrive and disappear the way you can on land," said Mr. Eld, a former production manager who helped stage "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats" for the London producer Cameron McIntosh.
But doing so is trickier at sea. "Twice Charmed" has 10 automated scenery changes that are minutely calibrated so that pieces don't bang into each other when the boat rocks. And despite a backstage that is only three-quarters the size of an average theater's, the venue has to provide storage for two other shows that are staged in rotation. Performers must act, sing and dance and be versatile enough to play different parts in all the shows. And they must be willing to uproot themselves for two months of rehearsals in Toronto and six months at sea.
Such a scenario tends to attract more young performers, who may consider a cruise an exciting side trip as they're embarking on their careers. "A friend had mentioned how much she liked doing cruise ships and traveling and singing and said, 'I think that would be a good place for you to go next,' " said Rebecca Larkin, 24, an ensemble member. "It all just clicked in."
When she went into the field, Ms. Hamburger, who made her reputation producing works designed for particular sites, like New York rooftops, may not have envisioned creating musicals for a cruising public, but she said her new role isn't as odd as it might seem. "I feel like I'm doing site-specific theater of a different kind," she said.