Sunday, November 12, 2006 Broadway is Disney's world As 'The Lion King' lopes into L.A. for the second time, some wonder whether Disney is saturating the musical-theater market.
By PAUL HODGINS
The Orange County Register
"Too Many Spoons of Sugar?" asked a recent headline in Variety magazine. The question neatly summed up a scenario that may or may not play out over the next year, depending on how much of an appetite remains in New York, Los Angeles and the heartland for a steady diet of Disney musicals.
The touring version of "The Lion King" that opens next weekend at L.A.'s Pantages Theatre is one of two roaming around the country (Disney employees have nicknamed them "cheetah" and "gazelle," though they're supposedly identical). Their granddaddy – the enduringly popular production that inaugurated Disney's Broadway venue, the New Amsterdam Theatre, back in 1997 – is giving way to another potential Disney blockbuster. "Mary Poppins" will open there Thursday after a well-received London debut. (The Broadway "Lion King" isn't closing – it moves to the smaller Minskoff Theatre.)
Factor in "Beauty and the Beast," faithfully drawing in the crowds in New York since 1994; "Tarzan," an expensive extravaganza that opened to underwhelming reviews in New York last May; and an upcoming live-musical version of "The Little Mermaid," which bows in Denver next June, and you've got five – count 'em, five – Disney products all angling to separate musical-theater fans from a big chunk of their wallets. Whether you live in New York or Newport Beach, Berlin or Shanghai, you're likely to be within driving distance of at least one Disney musical in the next 12 months.
All that competing Disney product has some observers predicting trouble. "There is that question of whether the Disney (musicals) will cannibalize each other," wrote Gordon Cox in Variety on Oct. 22.
But Thomas Schumacher – producer of Disney Theatrical, which is responsible for the company's live shows – isn't concerned. " 'Mary Poppins' is one of the jewels in the Walt Disney crown," he told Variety. With an eye-popping New York advance of $18 million, "Mary Poppins" may well have a spillover effect, repopularizing other Disney offerings, Shumacher believes.
David Schrader is also a strong believer in the magic of the Disney name on the marquee. Schrader, the managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical, says he is constantly surprised by the staying power of Disney's musicals – "The Lion King" in particular.
"It's amazing that even though we played in Los Angeles not too long ago, when we come back, people are still excited. I think that part of it is that the story is universal. A lot of people identify with it. It's not a niche thing."
Indeed, "The Lion King," after almost a decade of life, is showing signs of "Phantom"-like longevity and near-universal cultural appeal: It's still going strong in New York (over 90 percent of capacity during a recent week this fall), and in addition to the two American tours it has enjoyed long runs in London (seven years), Hamburg (five years), Japan and Australia.
The Sydney company recently went on to Shanghai, where "The Lion King" ran for 101 performances – a runaway hit by Chinese standards. "It was an incredible run in a market that's just beginning to open up to Western musicals," Schrader said.
A South African production, cast in-country, will open next June. The idea of featuring South African actors, dancers and musicians is not unique to that nation's "Lion King" staging, Schrader said.
"We've had South Africans in every 'Lion King' wherever it's played – it just sounds so authentic with South African performers – so after nine years there's quite a population of them," Schrader said. "We've maintained connections with them."
The plan isn't simply the result of Disney goodwill. Schrader revealed that the company wants to break some barriers with its South African "Lion King."
"We're trying to do something in South Africa that nobody's ever done before. 'Phantom' and 'Cats' have played in Cape Town and Johannesburg for 10 or 12 weeks. We want to run a lot longer with a sit-down show." EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Though nobody at Disney Theatrical is admitting it, recent box-office numbers warrant a little trepidation. While "Lion King" has undeniable legs, newer and more expensive properties are showing signs they may not have the same staying power.
Some sources estimate that "Tarzan" cost $15 million to $20 million to produce (Disney never reveals such trade secrets). Like "Aida," there were challenges and changes of creative personnel during the design process. Yet its weekly attendance figures through the fall season have routinely dropped below 80 percent of capacity – well below the Broadway average and unusual for such a new Disney musical.
And "Mary Poppins," which was expected to do well in the country of the story's birth, didn't hit the home run that was expected of it. While the London production sold well initially, midweek sales started to soften about a year after its opening in December of 2004 – a sure sign that a show has plumbed the depths of its must-see fans.
But success, of course, is relative. Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida" is generally considered the least successful Disney musical. It endured a troubled design period marked by extended rewriting and high-level firings, and the critics were not kind. Yet it ran for more than four years on Broadway, it's still going strong in Germany and Japan, and a popular eight-month run recently closed in Korea.
" 'Aida' wasn't a bust," Schrader said. "What makes things work for us is the long term, the big picture. Whereas another (producer) would be counting on a show running at peak for as long as possible on Broadway, we're also involving our international partners from the early days on." Smaller countries with strong markets such as Holland, which are out of reach for most producers, are a regular stop for Disney musicals.
"We're also licensing ('Aida') for performance in the schools," Schrader said. (The scholastic market also proved lucrative for "Beauty and the Beast" – more than 1,000 high schools signed up to produce a simplified version in the first year after it was published.) "Because we have a toe in so many different kinds of markets segments, we're able to help move a musical along in several different directions."
While he's bullish on his musicals' long-term prospects, Schrader admits that predicting how a show will do in a particular market is a crapshoot.
"In Los Angeles, we feel that 'Lion King' is at an advantage because it's Disney's hometown and we were there already, so the show has a very high awareness factor."
But Southern California is a notoriously tricky environment for big-budget musicals. "Ragtime" flopped here despite a tsunami of advance publicity and good preopening buzz. "The Producers" slowly lost air, even with stars chosen to appeal to L.A.: Martin Short and Jason Alexander.
Theories abound about why this part of the country isn't more receptive to musicals.
"In Southern California, one of your options is to be outdoors, no matter what time of year," Schrader said. "We're competing against peoples' desire just to hang out at the beach."
Though Schrader is evasive about future projects, he revealed a hint: "Expect some surprises." Disney Theatrical may develop some properties that aren't from the Disney movie vault, he said.
One thing Disney has learned from "The Lion King" is the need to take artistic risks. Avant-garde theater designer Julie Taymor was considered an oddball choice to bring one of the company's most popular animated films to life onstage, but her vision and daring were crucial to the musical's singular success.
"That's what we want to do – to keep challenging our audience a little bit," Schrader said. "In theater you don't always want to be literal. You want to get your ideas across to the audience in a way that lets them use their imagination."