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It's a Theatrical World, After All

With stage vets and fans in executive positions, Disney is more suited to shows like 'Lion King' than you might think.

October 08, 2000|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | Susan Freudenheim is The Times' arts writer

Broadway is big business in Burbank.

It might seem an unlikely site to compete with London and New York as Theater Central, yet this is where some of the strongest-selling musical theater productions in recent history have been conceived and nurtured into global operations.

The vast, dense Walt Disney Co. lot revolves around a movie studio, television network and theme-park headquarters. But with the presence on Broadway of "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and now "Aida," the corporate face of Disney also is taking the place once held by such impresarios as David Merrick, the Shuberts and Cameron Mackintosh.

Musical theater--unlike movies, which tend to have a limited shelf life--has the potential to be evergreen and therefore extremely lucrative, as Andrew Lloyd Webber proved with the 17-year Broadway run of "Cats," said to have brought in billions.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 11, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong date--An article about Disney theatricals in Sunday's Calendar included the wrong date for the Meat Loaf album "Bat Out of Hell." It was released in 1977.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 15, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong date--Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell album was released in 1977. A story about Disney Theatricals in the Oct. 8 issue gave an incorrect year.

Still, Disney's interest in theater may also be due in large part to the fact that people who know and love theater are running the show. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner grew up going to Broadway, and he's put two top studio executives who cut their teeth on the boards in charge of the company's theatrical division--Peter Schneider, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, and Thomas Schumacher, president of the company's feature and television animation departments.

Under Schneider and Schumacher, whose guidance of Disney's theatrical division began with the creation of the stage production of "The Lion King," the company has taken risks. Not only has it hired some of the biggest and most provocative names in the performing arts to create new works, it has successfully and creatively marketed them under the potent Disney name with skills honed in other realms.

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Disney's first show was "Beauty and the Beast," which opened in 1994. Since then, the enterprise has grown exponentially. When "The Lion King" premieres at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on Oct. 19, there will be six standing productions of that show and three of "Beauty" plus a national tour. "Aida" currently dominates the heart of Times Square, and there's also a single production, in German, of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which opened in June 1999 in Berlin. Another half a dozen new works are in various stages of development.

Disney won't disclose financial matters, but company officials say the 90-person theatrical division, a unit of Disney Studios, is making money--or they wouldn't be doing it. Sources within the show confirm that "The Lion King" has already recouped its investment on Broadway, even though the show is estimated to have cost between $20 million and $25 million to mount, and is expensive to run. Bringing in nearly $1 million a week, "Lion King" has been mostly standing room only since it opened in November 1997, leading Broadway grosses. "Aida" is second, and "Beauty and the Beast" has been playing solidly since it premiered in New York six years ago.

When the Los Angeles production of "The Lion King" opened its box office at the Pantages in May, first-day sales reached $3.7 million. Although officials won't say how much they've taken in since, one source close to the show joked that it is "so much money, you can't even imagine."

"In the entertainment business it's feast or famine," says Eisner in a conversation in his office. "But it's a blockbuster business, and [on stage] we've had two blockbusters, and maybe a third, in 'Aida,' and the success has been monumental both critically and very nice financially. So even though we're a very big company, and there are other things that make more money on an ongoing basis, this has been very good for the Disney brand."

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Theater may be big business in Burbank, but it's also a passion for the people running it.

What did studio chief Schneider do on a Sunday afternoon in late August, right after getting off the plane from vacation? He went to Hollywood Boulevard to check in on a rehearsal for the new production of "The Lion King." He says he just wanted to meet some cast members he didn't know and talk to the resident director. While he was there, he helped solve a problem for one of the puppet masters.

What does animation chief Schumacher do every chance he gets, wherever he travels? He goes to the theater to see new work. Ask him, he's seen everything. He even serves on the board of the Rachel Rosenthal company.

What did Eisner do when he had a free evening in Denver recently? He stopped in to see the touring production of "Beauty and the Beast," even though he says he's seen it hundreds of times. He just likes the buzz.

Schumacher, Schneider and Eisner certainly spend more time on other enterprises: the recent unrolling of "Remember the Titans." Building the California Adventure theme park, set to open in Anaheim in February. The release of "Dinosaur" in Europe last month, or the holiday releases here of "102 Dalmatians," "Unbreakable" and "The Emperor's New Groove."

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