Pantages Theatre Snares ‘Lion King’
The L.A. production of Disney’s lauded stage version of “The Lion King” will be at the Pantages Theatre within a year, if all goes according to plan. Previews begin on Sept. 28, 2000, with opening night scheduled three weeks later, on Oct. 19. Tickets are not scheduled to go on sale until April 29.
The blockbuster has been ensconced on Broadway for the past two years, after a tryout in Minneapolis, but other productions were delayed by the availability of director Julie Taymor, who has been tied up with the film “Titus Andronicus” and other stage commitments. She participated only in a limited way on the current Japanese “Lion King” and an upcoming Toronto staging, both of which are co-productions with local partners. Now she’s working on Disney’s London production, slated to open this month.
That Los Angeles will get the second U.S. production isn’t surprising, said Disney Theatrical producers Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher.
“L.A. is our hometown,” Schneider said. “We live here, we like it here.” Schumacher mentioned the region’s large audience base and its media-savvy theatergoers.
What’s more surprising is Disney’s choice of venue. By deciding to bring “The Lion King” to Hollywood’s Pantages, Schneider and Schumacher tipped the balance of power in L.A.’s commercial theater.
Most recent long runs of musicals in L.A. have been at the Shubert Theatre in Century City. “A Chorus Line,” “Annie,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” all were introduced to L.A. at the Shubert, which is operated by Broadway’s most powerful company, the Shubert Organization. “Evita” set the L.A. Shubert’s longevity record, staying two years.
A likely alternative to the Shubert might have been the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, which hosted “The Phantom of the Opera” in the longest and most lucrative run ever in the big theaters of L.A. The Ahmanson also was the place to see “Miss Saigon” for nine months. But the Ahmanson is primarily devoted to its nonprofit Center Theatre Group subscription series, so it’s generally unavailable for runs of many months.
The Pantages, originally built as a movie palace (its 1930 opening included a Disney cartoon), first became a contender for big musicals in 1977, when the Nederlander Organization--traditionally in second place, after the Shuberts, as a Broadway power--became part-owner and chief booker of the theater. But the Pantages hasn’t nabbed many long runs. Its longest tenant was “La Cage aux Folles,” which played there for 39 weeks in 1984-85.
Nearly everyone agrees that “Lion King,” because of its phenomenal success on Broadway and as a movie, can sustain the nine months allotted to it so far at the Pantages, if not more.
Discussing their reasons for picking the Pantages, Schneider and Schumacher focused mostly on its neighborhood. The subway recently opened its Hollywood and Vine station across the street from the theater, and the subway construction that tore up Hollywood Boulevard for a long time, discouraging visitors, is gone. “Hollywood is very easily accessible for everyone,” Schumacher said. He cited Disney’s success with the restoration of the El Capitan movie theater on the same street, a few blocks west.
The Pantages also comes with an advantage in its configuration--it has aisles that lead into the orchestra from the rear. During the first and most famous scene in “The Lion King,” a parade of actors lavishly dressed and masked as animals enters from the lobby and proceeds down the aisles to the front of the theater. By contrast, the orchestra level of the Shubert has entrances only from the sides.
The size of the Shubert, with 2,100 seats, is closer to that of the show’s New York home, the 1,800-seat New Amsterdam. The Pantages, by contrast, has 2,700 seats. This means, of course, that potential revenues per sold-out performance are greater at the Pantages, but Schneider denied that this was a factor in Disney’s choice.
Theater Plans Changes to Accommodate Show
Nederlander has agreed to make some changes at the Pantages to accommodate “The Lion King.” An elaborate mountain that rises out of the stage will require the removal of substage dressing rooms; conveniently, they can be moved to a defunct boiler room adjacent to where they are now. Broadway/LA manager Martin Wiviott said there will be cosmetic changes as well, in an attempt “to restore the theater to what it looked like when it opened.”
Schneider and Schumacher said they were approached about the possibility of taking over and renovating one of the old downtown L.A. movie palaces for “The Lion King,” as they did with the New Amsterdam in New York. But the difference is that in New York, Schneider said, their acquisition of the New Amsterdam “was a piece of a brilliantly organized redevelopment plan. We got credit for being the last piece of a puzzle.” Generally speaking, “we don’t own and run theaters. Our business is to produce. We’re not in the hardware business.”
“The Lion King” is booked at the Pantages through June 30, 2001, but an extension is possible. “We’ll see how business is,” Schneider said. Bear in mind, he added, that “there is a lot of demand for it in other cities.”
“The Lion King” will be offered as an additional option on the next Broadway/LA series, due to be announced in a couple of weeks, and subscribers may be able to buy tickets in advance of single-ticket buyers. Later Broadway/LA offerings, after “The Lion King” opens, will probably take place at the Nederlanders’ other L.A. outposts, the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills and the Henry Fonda Theatre near the Pantages. They weren’t suitable for “The Lion King” because of the shallow stage at the Wilshire and the overall small size of the Fonda.
Disney and the Nederlander Organization are working together on other fronts as well. In New York, the Broadway production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” will move from the Nederlander-owned Palace to the Nederlander-owned Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in order to make room for Disney’s next musical, “Aida,” scheduled to open on Broadway on March 23 after a Chicago tryout next month.
“We love the Nederlanders,” Schneider said.
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