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How ‘The Lion King’ Ushered in the Era of the Blockbuster on Broadway

“The Lion King” turned 20 this month — but that’s not the only big birthday on Broadway. When it opened on Nov. 13, 1997, “The Lion King” was an integral part of the transformation of Times Square from red-light district to family-friendly destination, laying the groundwork for the blockbuster era that defines the New York theater industry today. This month isn’t just the 20th anniversary of “The Lion King”; it also marks two decades of the New Broadway.

On Nov. 5 Disney feted the show’s anniversary by reuniting its creators and surprising the audience with a curtain-call performance by its composer, Elton John. For them it was a celebration of the show that helped legitimize the studio’s stage arm in the eyes of the theater industry, becoming the signature smash of its ongoing Broadway output (including the current “Aladdin” and the upcoming “Frozen”).

“The Lion King” now claims the crown as the top box office title in any medium ($7.9 billion worldwide and counting), something it only could have achieved in a Broadway climate that the show helped bring about.

Back when the musical opened at the New Amsterdam Theater, 42nd Street was a very different place. (The show has since moved to the Minskoff, making way for Disney’s “Mary Poppins” and then “Aladdin.”) Even as late as the ’90s, the block still resembled the Deuce of the HBO series, a place for sex shops and drug deals instead of tourists catching a show.

The theater was a ruin. “There was a watchman who, in order to show you around, lit a roll of newspapers with a match like some medieval torch,” remembers Cora Cahan, the longtime president of the nonprofit New 42nd Street.

The organization was one of the leading players in a massive city-state building initiative launched in 1990 to rejuvenate the block of 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue. New 42nd Street laid the first claim to attracting family visitors to Times Square with the New Victory Theater, the all-ages performing arts presenter that opened in late 1995.

Disney’s deal to renovate and reopen the New Amsterdam Theatre across the street — announced in early 1994 — played an important part in the area’s overall rehabilitation, notes Cahan. “Disney understood that if they were on the block, they would act like an anchor and a magnet for others,” she says, adding that it was the conglomerate’s involvement that helped bring cinema chain AMC to the street.

“‘The Lion King’ laid the groundwork for the blockbuster era of today.”

From the perspective of Broadway insiders, Disney’s move came at a moment when the studio’s stage arm was a one-hit wonder (with “Beauty and the Beast,” which opened at the Palace in 1994). Industry skepticism was high. “It was skepticism of Hollywood in general,” remembers Nancy Coyne, chair of Serino/Coyne, the Broadway ad agency that frequently works for Disney. “It was ‘They don’t know what we do.’”

“Certainly Disney’s decision to take on the restoration of the New Amsterdam showed their company’s dedication to the theater industry, structurally and artistically,” says Nick Scandalios, the exec VP of the Nederlander Organization, which owns the Palace, the Minskoff and the Lunt-Fontanne (where “Beauty” moved in 1999). “At the time, there was barely a company other than Disney that could have done what they did.”

In concert with the New Victory and the opening in early 1998 of the musical “Ragtime” (at what was then the Ford Center, next door to the New Vic), “The Lion King” cemented Broadway as a destination not just for theatergoers but for families and tourists. Those tourists have become a huge force in the health of the Broadway industry, and a big reason that shows like “Lion King,” as well as “Phantom” and “Wicked,” can sustain runs measured in decades.

In tandem with the shift on 42nd Street came similar moves to rejuvenate the bow tie-shaped center of Times Square, all of which, taken together, has made the theater district one of the city’s most popular, and populous, draws. With Broadway as one of its major motors, the area must contend with managing its success.

“Now there are concerns about the fact that people may not want to work here any longer,” Cahan says, “because there are so many tourists and there’s so much happening on the streets.”

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