• U.S.

Theater: Hooray, Big Spenders

4 minute read
Richard Zoglin

A few years ago, it was home to hookers, dirty bookstores and grungy B-movie palaces. Now a little stretch of 42nd Street west of Broadway in New York City is the most happening piece of show-biz real estate in the world. On one side of the street is the refurbished New Amsterdam Theater, where Disney’s The Lion King, a stage version of Simba’s tale that opened to raves in November, is the hottest-selling show in Broadway history. Just across the street, at another rebuilt theater dubbed the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the eagerly awaited Ragtime has just opened. The musical version of E.L. Doctorow’s novel–adapted by Terrence McNally, directed by Frank Galati, with songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty–has already had successful runs in Toronto and Los Angeles (and was named by TIME as best theater event of 1997). Finally, Broadway audiences can see the object of all the fuss–a brilliant work of musical storytelling, social comment and canny staging that marks a glorious culmination for the American musical at the end of its first century.

It also marks an exciting rejuvenation this season for Broadway–by which we now mean mainly the Broadway musical. Led by The Lion King, Ragtime and half a dozen other sellouts, ticket sales for New Year’s week were the highest ever recorded. Attendance so far this season is up 5% over last, and 40% higher than 10 years ago. Rosie O’Donnell plugs Broadway shows regularly on her popular talk show; rock stars like Paul Simon are plunging in for the first time (Simon’s musical The Capeman opens Jan. 29).

The boom is being fueled largely by two relatively new corporate players: the Walt Disney Co., which has two shows pulling in the family audience (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King); and Livent Inc., the Canadian company run by impresario Garth Drabinsky that has produced Ragtime along with such crowd pleasers as Barrymore and the hit revival of Show Boat. Both companies have brought fresh ideas–economic and artistic–to Broadway as well as deep pockets: The Lion King cost a reported $20 million to mount, a Broadway record; Ragtime came in for about half that, but Drabinsky has spent $2.25 million just to publicize the show in New York. Both have bought and refurbished theaters in which to house their shows. And both have mastered the art of exploiting their hits around the country and the world, treating Broadway as just one stop on the entertainment-and-merchandise express.

Neither of the companies is a member of the League of American Theatres and Producers, and so they can negotiate more favorable union contracts. Each is rethinking the Broadway business in creative ways. Livent has set aside a block of VIP seats for each performance of Ragtime; at $125 a pop, high rollers get access to such amenities as a private lounge, free drinks and bathrooms that don’t have lines snaking into the orchestra pit. To satisfy the overwhelming demand for Lion King seats, Disney chairman Michael Eisner has suggested starting a second company in the same theater to give extra matinee performances on weekends and nights when the theater is now dark.

Of course, they don’t call it the “fabulous invalid” for nothing, and there’s a half-empty part to Broadway’s current cocktail. Some of the Old Guard fear that the rich corporate players are making it harder for independent producers and smaller musicals (not to mention straight plays–remember them?) to compete. “The danger with $20 million musicals,” says veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg, “is that you have to run for 28 years, have five companies around the world and play to the lowest common denominator.” Azenberg’s Side Show was one of two decent little musicals (the other was Triumph of Love) that recently closed, unable to keep pace with the fast crowd. (Azenberg is mulling the unusual step of reopening Side Show in April, in hopes of snaring some Tony nominations.)

Yet blockbusters do not necessarily squeeze out small productions–which appeal to different audiences and can get some of the spillover from sellout shows. “I don’t think we’re stomping out competition,” says Peter Schneider, head of Disney’s theatrical division. “Good product will out.” What is indisputable is that Disney and Livent have brought good–maybe great–product to Broadway even as they have helped introduce the fusty old business to the modern world. And for that, the only proper response from a theatergoer is “Bravo!”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com