‘Lion King’ is road royalty

Others struggling, 'High School' preps

At a time when legit road grosses continue to slide, “The Lion King” still counts as royalty.

“King” is an anomaly on the road as one of the few Rialto tours going strong. The two road productions of “Lion King” raked in about $107 million combined last season — a whopping chunk of the $487 million total road-biz cume for all shows in principal markets tabulated by Variety.

It’s especially significant in the context of a road sector that, aside from rare exceptions like “Wicked,” is generally suffering from a steep slide in ticket sales. But then, Disney’s touring biz has often been considered an entity unto itself, fortified by its strong family drawing power, which places it outside the parameters of standard road attractions.

Such success comes from a business model that looks beyond Broadway for vital sources of income.

“The perspective is really the global one,” says Thomas Schumacher, producer of Disney Theatrical Prods. “That’s how the whole thing works.”

“Beauty and the Beast,” for instance, grossed $1.44 billion worldwide. The show’s two national tours played 90 cities in North America.

“Lion King” has been touring since 2002. “It’s a unique title that seems like it can keep chugging,” says David Schrader, chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical. “Because we’re going after a general, family audience, it’s not the same as many of the other shows that are out there.”

In a year or so, “King” — which still has a few key markets to hit for the first time, including Honolulu, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. — will be joined by the tour of “Mary Poppins,” an in-demand, high-recognition title that looks poised to reap similar rewards outside of Gotham.

Coming without a New York pedigree but looking no less commercially promising is the touring stage production of the smash Disney Channel telepic “High School Musical.”

Helmed by Jeff Calhoun, “HSM” begins a stint in Chi this week and plans to hit more than 60 cities by the end of 2008. The stage version is part of a multiplatform blitz for “HSM” that includes an ice show incorporating elements from the first telepic and the sequel, which preems on the Disney Channel Aug. 17.

“There’s a really Harry Potter-ish desire to see what happens with these characters,” Schrader says. “Once the sequel comes out, does our tour pass its sell-by date somewhere in there?”

Disney execs think not, but they’re working on developing viral marketing geared toward the youthful demo of “HSM.” “It needs the kid version of word of mouth,” Schrader adds.

International biz also figures into the picture for Disney. “Beauty and the Beast” has played 13 countries; “Lion King” has productions up in multiple cities including London and in South Africa; and although “Tarzan” did mediocre biz on Broadway, a retooled incarnation in the Netherlands is helping to extend the life of the property.

There’s also money to be made from stock and amateur licensing rights. “Beauty” has been performed by more than 1,800 school and amateur groups, while last year it was the most-licensed title in the library of Music Theater Intl. And “HSM” also is proving popular — with students performing it as an actual high school musical.

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