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Faceoff on the Great White Way

Livent's 'Ragtime' takes on Disney's 'Lion King' in the battle for Tonys between the titans.

June 07, 1998|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

On movie screens around the country, the spawn of a gigantic reptile seriously redecorate Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, on 42nd Street, a Godzilla-vs.-Mothra-size struggle is transforming New York's theater district. This costly competition, which has turned bloody for one of the participants, will, in a sense, culminate tonight, when Disney's "The Lion King" goes head to head with Livent's "Ragtime" for best musical at the 1998 Tony Awards.

Last year, sorting through a mediocre crop of musicals, it was difficult to care at all who won. Tonight's is a hot contest between two shows that are spectacular acts of showmanship, concluding a season in which the configuration of Broadway is redefining itself before our eyes.

Both "Ragtime"--an inspirational, epic history of the American century, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel--and "The Lion King"--director Julie Taymor's breathtaking puppet show, based on the Disney movie about a cub's coming of age--are works that announce their ambitions. They are mighty productions with big themes and large casts, shows designed to last into the millennium (and they'll have to, to make back their $10-million-plus investments). These are not merely shows but proclamations of dominance by the two producing organizations that created them, piece by piece from the ground up.

A half-dozen years ago, both Disney and the Toronto-based Livent were greenhorns on a street still ruled by the Shubert Organization, which in its various incarnations has dominated Broadway since almost the beginning of the century. This season, as Livent's "Ragtime" (13 nominations) locks horns with Disney's "The Lion King" (11), the reigning producing organizations--the Shuberts, Nederlanders and Jujamcyns--seem for the moment like pterodactyls squawking as they recede into the background.

Once the city of New York decided that 42nd Street revitalization was an economic imperative, Livent and Disney moved in for keeps, making excellent deals with the city government and helping to refurbish historic theaters long in disrepair. These two new players--now theater owners as well as producers--have transformed the once-seedy Times Square into a boom street, thick with tourists and money, and featuring two hugely popular, very different new American entertainments.

Even before "Lion King" opened, word had trickled out: Taymor's work in the opening number, "Circle of Life," was so wildly imaginative and intoxicating that audiences were practically hyperventilating. Moving to a gorgeous vocal arrangement, the animals of the African plain (all inhabited or manipulated by humans), make their way down the aisles of the theater, brushing shoulders with the audience. Taymor's puppets move with weird verisimilitude, conjuring simultaneously in the audience the majesty of nature and of art. Strangers turn to each other astonished, with tear-filled eyes, pointing to the elephant's lumbering walk or the careful saunter of the giraffes.

On Nov. 14, 1997, the day after opening, $2.7 million in individual ticket sales reportedly flowed into Disney's coffers (Disney will not confirm this amount). This is a huge figure in the theater economy. The previous record holder, with $1.3 million, was Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." By the end of the day, it was clear to the honchos at Disney that they had not merely a hit, but a contender for one of the biggest moneymakers in theater history.

In the monopoly game played by the big boys of Shubert Alley, Disney surged ahead this season. They spent the most money on a single show, and they made the most; that was just how it played out. In the meantime, Livent's Garth Drabinksy, an old-time impresario who built his nine-year-old company from the ground up, was becoming extremely vulnerable. Drabinsky personally screened and approved every member of the creative team for "Ragtime." He seduced Doctorow, gun-shy after a disappointing 1981 movie version of his popular book, to sell him the rights for a theatrical production. And the company announced an impressive $20-million advance sale for the Broadway opening of "Ragtime."

But Drabinsky didn't have the huge vault behind him that Disney did, and Livent's dramatic expansion was turning out to look like overexpansion. Drabinksy built or refurbished five theaters in Canada and the U.S. (his Chicago theater has not yet opened), and oversaw the creation of three "Ragtime" companies--one in New York, one in Vancouver (which had formerly been in Los Angeles) and a touring company now in Washington, D.C. But all of the expansion left Livent with an alarming debt, reportedly $31 million at the end of last year. Drabinsky's days as the head of Livent were numbered.

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