Broadway musical finds global niche

NEW YORK — If Simba were real, he’d have grandchildren by now.

Ten years ago this week, the furry protagonist of “The Lion King” first pounced on Broadway, and he’s been royalty ever since. The musical has grossed more than $3 billion worldwide, and Disney Theatrical Prods. plans to continue its international expansion.

At home, the show is practically the lifeblood of the regional touring market, pulling in almost a quarter of last year’s North American road grosses. Meanwhile, it often roars past $1 million a week on Broadway.

In fact, the tuner’s success could even be considered something of a stumbling block, particularly for the Disney projects that have come along in its wake.

“Aida,” for instance, played more than 1,800 perfs on Broadway, but comparison to “The Lion King,” currently at 4,100-plus, makes it seem like an underperformer. And thanks to Simba’s staying power, expectations are even higher for December’s bow of “The Little Mermaid,” the latest stage adaptation of a beloved Mouse film.

Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical, concedes that “The Lion King” puts pressure on everything around it, but adds that each show carries its own set of expectations.

“If you look at it as a portfolio, you’d be very happy if you’d invested in ‘The Lion King,’ ” he says. “But you’d also be damn happy if you’d invested in ‘Aida’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

” ‘The Lion King’ is sort of the perfect storm of elements. You could kill another show by trying to make it appeal to too many people.”

The show’s cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal has been largely attributed to director-designer Julie Taymor, whose highly stylized production blends everything from African dance to Japanese puppetry.

“We believe the show is truly international because it’s not built on a set of Americanisms,” Schumacher says.

He jokingly recalls that Taymor — long known for her bold, experimental style — was initially considered a risk. “I thought it had the lowest possible expectations you could have,” he says. “The popular anecdote is that everyone said to Julie, ‘Why are you working with Disney?’ and everyone said to us, ‘Why are you working with that Taymor woman?’ But to us, it seemed perfectly logical.”

Auds and critics were quick to agree. Since opening, the show has grossed $500 million on Broadway, and surprisingly, locals are still buying the lion’s share of tickets.

“The population of Manhattan is not static, so there are always people who haven’t seen it, or maybe people who want to see it again,” says David Schrader, managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical.

Business has been equally strong on the road. Two tours and a lengthy L.A. run have played a total of 580 weeks, raking in $770 million. Schrader says some markets soften a bit when “The Lion King” comes through for a second run, though “softening” means running at 90%-95% capacity and playing five weeks instead of six. There are still a few cities the tuner hasn’t visited — Washington for instance — but it’s enjoying its first trip to Hawaii, thanks to a financial strategy that minimized the costs of traveling to the islands.

Similar considerations affect “The Lion King’s” international life. Though overseas runs have netted $1.7 billion, only a few cities, including London and Hamburg, have seen the full-scale Broadway production. Otherwise, Disney has been forced to reconfigure the show for what each market can support.

In January, Schumacher and Taymor will begin developing a reduced version that can tour to countries like Singapore and Spain, where demand and interest are not guaranteed.

“You have to be careful when you go around the world,” Schumacher says. “You have to ask, ‘Is there enough of an audience for this?’ “

Often, of course, there are audiences aplenty — “The Lion King” is the longest-running show in Tokyo history, for instance — but success is never a given. A berth in Seoul struggled for auds, and the current Paris production, locally produced by Stage Entertainment, must overcome the general French resistance to musical theater.

Schrader says the goal is to keep expectations realistic. He notes that just under 100,000 people have seen the Paris run since it opened Oct. 4. That’s not a blockbuster number. “But part of the strategy is to hang on,” he says. “The challenge is cultivating a musical theater habit.” To that end, Taymor has been on hand to speak with the Paris press, and Schrader says media coverage has been ample.

But even if he never warms Gallic hearts, Simba will still have plenty of kingdoms to rule.

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