Faceoff on the Great White Way

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.

In April, Hollywood honcho Michael Ovitz made his move, taking control of Livent by purchasing 12% of its stock (2.5 million shares at about $20 million), with the intent of purchasing another 13% shortly. Once Ovitz entered the scene, the press was quick to turn the story into a gothic tale of Hollywood rivalry. Ovitz had been famously fired a year and a half earlier from his post as president of the Walt Disney Co. by CEO Michael Eisner. Now Ovitz is, theoretically at least, establishing a base across the street from Eisner ( Disney's refurbished New Amsterdam faces Livent's Ford Center for the Performing Arts). Meanwhile, the fate of Drabinsky, the most intriguing figure to emerge in the commercial theater in the '90s, is unclear. Official word is he'll continue producing at Livent, but no one knows if that's true.

After years of producing and touring shows like "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Show Boat," Drabinsky put together a show that was all his own. "Ragtime" has a book by Terrence McNally and score by Steve Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, but Drabinsky is the principal force behind the show, just as Taymor is behind "The Lion King." It's hard to think of another producer working today of whom that is true.

"Ragtime" is the work of a producer with a passion for history, unafraid of a tragic ending, and who possesses a strong commercial sense. Producing the show may ultimately have cost him his company, but Drabinsky dreamed big, and "Ragtime" is a grand achievement. The show's detractors say it is stiff and humorless and too dependent on anthems. But they miss the more delicate underpinnings that are also there. "Ragtime" laces big themes of American justice with more intimate observations, such as how societal change is preceded by an innate sense of fairness in individual human beings.

One such moment takes place in the first act. A wealthy white woman finds a living black infant buried in her flower garden. Rather than handing over this upsetting problem to the authorities that are quickly at her beck, she decides to take in both the baby and the wretched young mother, whom the police are about to arrest. The white woman's absent husband, she knows, will strictly disapprove of this action, but she feels strongly that she must perform it. "You would have gently closed the door," she sings, imagining her husband's behavior. "And gently turned the key./And gently told me not to look/For fear what I might see." Then comes the chilling analysis that is the root of her transformation and of all the action that follows: "What kind of woman/Would that have made me?"

Disney's Broadway power-base now seems firmly established while Livent's is suddenly much more volatile. Now that the tremendous hoopla surrounding "The Lion King" has calmed down (though it's still virtually impossible to get a ticket), the individual achievements of these two important shows can be weighed. Tonight is an important date in the official sorting-out process.

After seeing both shows several times each, I think the Tony voters--who snubbed Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in 1994, awarding it only one Tony (for costume design) out of its nine nominations--will again display some of that antipathy, despite Julie Taymor's head-spinning work. Because when Taymor's hand is quiet, or when it is ineffectual (such as in the insipid, floating ballet number that adorns "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"), "The Lion King" is revealed to be a show that renders its themes simplistic, and one with a weakness for pandering jokes.

On Broadway, this was a strong season all around. Another musical contender, "Side Show" is closed now, but it offered a passionate score and two blazingly good performances, by Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, as Siamese twins looking for love (they are nominated together for best actress in a musical). London's Donmar Warehouse gave us an exciting, hard-hitting revival of "Cabaret," which will surely take best revival. It was a year of plenty: Two works by major playwrights were shut out of the nominations (David Hare's "The Judas Kiss" and David Mamet's "The Old Neighborhood"). This year's nominations reflect a healthy theater economy, showing a good blend of old, new, straight play and musical, American and British.

The best play award will come down to a struggle between two imports: "Art," by the French playwright Yasmina Reza, and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," by 28-year-old Martin McDonagh. The first is a stylish contemplation of the relationship of taste to intimacy--three old friends almost come to blows over a disagreement on the value of a white painting. But just when it appears to get tough, "Art" pulls its punch and ends up polite. "Beauty Queen," on the other hand, is a blood-and-guts struggle for dominance, even for life itself, between a 40-year-old woman and her apparently deranged mother. I predict that "Beauty Queen," a far richer play that goes fearlessly for the dramatic jugular, will win.

It's just been that kind of year.

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"Broadway '98: Launching the Tonys," a preshow with some of the awards airs on PBS tonight at 8 p.m. "The 52nd Annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards" follows on CBS at 9 p.m.

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