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Broadway hits not averse to retooling

'Lion King' goes leaner as creatives hone winning formula

Broadway theatergoers at “The Lion King” probably won’t spot anything different about the long-running Disney Theatrical tuner. There’s Pride Rock; there’s the wildebeest stampede; there’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” But check your watch at curtain call: The show’s about nine minutes shorter than it used to be.

As of June 15, a series of trims and changes to the musical — including the elimination of the song “The Morning Report” — were worked into the Gotham production of “Lion King” following their earlier incorporation into the current Vegas staging.

Minor creative rejiggering is to be expected at long-running musicals as the byproduct of new thesps, staging solutions and newly developed tech. Sometimes producers tweak as a money-saving measure to extend a show’s lifespan, while for those that have earned a rep as “troubled,” major retooling is usually a given.

But the work incorporated into “The Lion King” reps one of the rare instances when changes that add up to a noticeable reduction of running time were effected solely to satisfy the creative instincts of those involved in the production — which, judging from its unflagging B.O. tallies, would have gone on just fine without such adjustments.

“Though implementing changes into current companies obviously incurs costs, we believe that the careful stewardship of our titles is at least partly responsible for their continued success,” says Thomas Schumacher, producer of Disney Theatrical Prods.

Retooling a production that’s already a hit doesn’t happen very often. It’s far more common for changes to be initiated as a part of cost-cutting downsizing, as when the creators of “Les Miserables,” more than 13 years into its run, trimmed the show by 14 minutes in order to bring it in under the three-hour mark that prompts overtime pay to kick in for thesps and running crew.

Likely the best-known example of art-driven tinkering is the original 1964 run of “Hello, Dolly!” The show opened to raves and proved a major hit, but as theater lore has it, an aside in Walter Kerr’s review led director Gower Champion to rethink the sequence that included the song “Come and Be My Butterfly.” Eventually the tune was nixed in favor of dance number “The Polka Contest.” (Legit history buffs point out that “Butterfly” left its legacy on the cover of the first print of the original cast recording, which shows an image of the scene as it was initially staged.)

More recently, “Wicked” — the unqualified smash that hardly seems like it needs to nip and tuck to stay afloat — has never shied away from creative rethinks. For the launch of the 2005 national tour, new choreography for the song “Dancing Through Life” was created and then worked into pre-existing versions of the show. After the tuner opened in London in 2006, changes to one scene and to the construction of the song “Wonderful” filtered back to Broadway.

According to producer Marc Platt, the show’s original creatives frequently revisit the tuner’s multiple incarnations. Ideas for improvements are encouraged — even though such retooling leads to extra costs, including rehearsal and tech time.

“Our theory is, if we continue to deliver the most satisfying experience we can for every audience that goes in, ‘Wicked’ will continue to be the phenomenon it’s become,” he says.

The “Lion King” changes grew out of a meeting among the show’s original creators a few years ago. As they considered the Vegas production (which opened in May 2009), creatives knew they wouldn’t cut the staging down to the local 90-minute standard, but saw the value in trimming a bit of time to keep “Lion” lean.

The changes, a series of tweaks and trims to several elements of the show, worked well enough in the eyes of the creators that they were later incorporated into the Paris production (which opened in 2007) and into the national tour.

When several new cast members were skedded to join the Broadway incarnation June 15, the rehearsal hours — already required to fold the thesps into the show — also seemed a good time to streamline the Main Stem version.

That kind of constant spit-and-polish seems likely to become standard procedure as hit shows begin to run longer and longer (thanks to a variety of economic factors). Witness “The Phantom of the Opera,” which just celebrated its 22nd birthday.

“It seems to us that the only thing that would prevent ‘Wicked’ from going on and on and on is if we failed to deliver a satisfying theatrical experience,” Platt says.

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