A Roaring Success and Its Effects on Broadway

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Even if you've never seen the musical "The Lion King," you might have heard rumbles about why for so long it's been, um, a rather Big Deal:

· It's a tireless Broadway phenomenon, so beloved (and still selling all its tickets) that it opened the Tony Awards telecast this year a full decade after it opened.

· It's such a precious treat, reducing young and old to blubber, that only now is it reaching Washington (the better to keep pilgrims flocking to New York, plus the tour was tricky to engineer). The widely lauded masks, puppets and mythic sensitivity of director-designer Julie Taymor are finally on view at the Kennedy Center.

· It's the crown jewel of the increasingly prominent Disney Theatrical Productions, which has three cash cows on Broadway, with "Mary Poppins" and "The Little Mermaid."

But did this lord of the Broadway jungle also spark a wave of creative and economic changes?

Depends on whom you talk to. Curiously, Disney Theatrical Productions President Thomas Schumacher says no.

"We're successful at it, and for the most part it's going well," Schumacher says. "But we didn't invent anything. If you say we invented [technical] vocabulary, I say, 'Cats.' If you say we invented going after this audience, I'll say, 'Annie.' "

Broadway 10 years prior to "The Lion King," in fact, looked remarkably as it does today. June 1988 and June 2008 both featured a Stephen Sondheim musical, a David Mamet play and a "Macbeth," along with an exuberant, culturally specific musical hit ("Sarafina!" then, "In the Heights" now). And 20 years ago, Broadway was no stranger to theme-park extravaganzas ("Starlight Express") and whiz-bang megamusicals ("Cats" and "Phantom"). Plus ca change. . .

But "Lion King" Technical Director David Benken thinks that the show "really opened up a lot of people's eyes as a different way to treat material." That's been the consensus: Animated-movie hits for kids could be made into surprisingly sophisticated theatrical fare for everyone, if a visionary such as Taymor took the reins.

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