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Disney's Great Leap

'Lion King' opens on Broadway next week: Can it merge commercial instincts with artistic ambitions?

November 03, 1997|PATRICK PACHECO | Special To The Times

NEW YORK — In Disney's new Broadway musical "The Lion King," the usurper Scar, suffering from a splitting headache, asks Zazu to sing something to cheer him up. No sooner does the feathery courtier launch into "Be our guest . . . " (from that other Disney musical five blocks away) than Scar holds up his hand: "No, no, no! Anything but that!"

Good to see that the Walt Disney Co. can have a sense of humor about itself. But then, right now in the theater world, it can afford to. Despite a tepid critical welcome three years ago for what was roundly labeled "theme park entertainment," "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" is still grossing more than half a million per week at Broadway's Palace Theatre, with six additional productions touring internationally.

And now, come Nov. 13, Walt Disney Theatrical Productions hopes to have another blockbuster on its hands when its stage adaptation of "The Lion King" opens at the New Amsterdam Theatre. And if out-of-town reviews and preview audience buzz are any indication, Disney may also be on the verge of achieving unexpected artistic respectability in the theater world.

" 'Lion King' leaps to theater's cutting edge," ran the headline of a feature story by USA Today critic David Patrick Stearns about a pre-Broadway stop in Minneapolis. "An audacious, cross-cultural re-envisioning of the film," wrote Mike Steele, the Minneapolis Star Tribune's theater critic.

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Cutting edge? Audacious? . . . Disney? While New York critics may yet rain on the parade, it still wasn't supposed to be this way. Three years ago, when "Beauty and the Beast" bowed, the "Disneyfication" of Broadway was something to be decried, as a corporation with deep pockets was expected simply to substitute bludgeoning special effects for artistic invention. (The budget for "The Lion King" is rumored to be about $15 million, making it the most expensive musical ever created.)

Yet now, as the 1997-98 season revs up, lo and behold, "The Lion King" appears to be in a position to challenge the until-now shoo-in for prizes, "Ragtime," Livent's acclaimed musical, which opens at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts in January.

"We always try to have an artistic success, to do something original," said Disney Chief Executive and Chairman Michael Eisner in a recent telephone interview. "Before 'Beauty and the Beast,' the Walt Disney Co. had never before translated an animated feature to the Broadway musical stage. Having done that, we had to find a whole new conceit for 'The Lion King.' "

If Disney's "Lion King" is to become, as many are predicting, a landmark musical, it will be largely the result of two pivotal decisions: first, an internal shuffle two years ago that led Eisner to name Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher, president and executive vice president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, respectively, to also head up Walt Disney Theatrical Productions. And second, Schumacher made the critical choice of naming as director Julie Taymor, a 44-year-old experimental theater and opera director and costume and puppet designer ("The Green Bird" and "Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass" as well as L.A. Opera's "Flying Dutchman"). She has chosen to tell the story of "The Lion King" onstage through techniques of masks, puppets and shadow play.

The show opens with a pageant of extravagant visual and vocal elements, a rendition of "The Circle of Life" punctuated with South African choral chants and percussive explosions as a huge silk sun rises over the Serengeti plain to reveal a stylized parade of animals: majestic giraffes (people on stilts), a lumbering elephant (worked by four people), leaping gazelles (sculptures strapped to dancers' bodies), galloping zebras (actors harnessed with lightweight sculptures), a sinuous, life-size wooden cheetah (extending from the midriff of the dancer visibly working her on wires), thundering wildebeests (gigantic masks), swirling birds (propelled on wires by actors) and, of course, lions, played by actors whose faces are visible, their masks hovering above them like ancient headdresses, cable-operated to shoot forward at dramatic moments.

It is such a stunningly original opening that audiences invariably have burst into excited cries and applause. Yet immediately after a blackout, Taymor switches to a single small object in the simplest form of theater--a mouse puppet in shadow play. And this mixture of simplicity and animatronic sophistication is a metaphor for the synthesis of Taymor's odd coupling with Disney.

"I'd known of Julie's work since 1984 when I tried to present her 'Liberty's Taken' at the Olympic Arts Festival," says Schumacher, who himself has an extensive background in nonprofit theater, both at the Mark Taper Forum and in helping to present Peter Brooks' "Mahabharata" and Ingmar Bergman's stage production of "Miss Julie."

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