‘High School Musical’ hits Britain

Show racks up $39.5 million in advance sales

It may not be the last word in cutting-edge innovation, but Disney’s “High School Musical” has every right to feel pleased with itself. The stage version spun from the telepic franchise just arrived in town for a 10-week season at the Hammersmith Apollo (a venue traditionally used for live concerts), racking up a reported record-breaking £20 million ($39.5 million) advance.London, home to at least 7.5 million people — almost twice that if you include the surrounding metropolitan area — has never been an automatic territory for all things Disney. “Beauty and the Beast” ran just 2½ years at the hangar-like Dominion, small fry in comparison with its 13-year Gotham stint. And although “Mary Poppins” started here — thanks to joint producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had the rights to P.L. Travers’ original book — neither “Aida” nor “Tarzan” have made the journey.

The outstanding exception is “The Lion King.” A production that opened in 1999 might be expected to have dipped somewhat by now. Not a bit. Even after all this time, the musical jockeys with “Wicked” as the West End’s highest grosser.

Both shows are playing in large houses by London standards — the Lyceum, home of “The Lion King,” seats 2,089, while the Apollo Victoria, where “Wicked” is running, has a capacity of 2,304, making it the largest venue in London after English National Opera’s Coliseum.

Thus even though new kid on the block “Jersey Boys” is reportedly doing impressive business (West End theater grosses are not officially released), its 1,635-seat capacity means it’s unlikely ever to rival the leaders. Spare a thought, too, for “Dirty Dancing.” Twenty months into its run at the Aldwych, the show is still carrying a $19.8 million advance, but the theater seats a mere 1,163.

Meanwhile, Disney is angling to follow “High School Musical” with another London-bound show. If the rumors are to be believed, the Mouse House is making moves on the London Palladium as its U.K. berth for “The Little Mermaid.”

That venue is currently home to “The Sound of Music,” whose erstwhile leading lady Connie Fisher is now in rehearsal to play opposite Alistair McGowan in London’s first revival of “They’re Playing Our Song” at the Menier Chocolate Factory, opening Aug. 4.

David Babani, the Chocolate Factory’s indefatigable producer, has his hands full. He’ll follow the Neil SimonMarvin HamlischCarole Bayer Sager tuner with a change of pace: Rising director Jonathan Munby will helm John Webster‘s macabre Jacobean revenge tragedy “The White Devil.” And, subject to contractual agreement, that production will be followed at Christmas by Trevor Nunn‘s revival of Stephen Sondheim‘s “A Little Night Music.”

Babani also is finalizing plans for a West End run for his revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” Early talk of a non-theater space to match the club-like ambiance of the initial SRO Chocolate Factory run appears to have foundered. Casting is under way for a transfer to a more traditional theater.

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