The Lion King opens this week at the newly refurbished Pantages Theater, and many in our local theater world are hoping, as a result, to see an improvement in public perceptions of Los Angeles as a “theater town.” The Shubert Theater and the Los Angeles Theater Center were expected to have similar transformative effects when they arrived on the scene, and — for very different reasons and very different eras — each offered a sobering lesson in keeping expectations realistic.
Still, if money brings hope, there are reasons today for optimism. Largely based on an anticipated 100,000 additional visitors per month drawn to Hollywood because of The Lion King, the Shubert Organization has announced a season of Broadway musicals at the Henry Fonda Theater (two blocks from the Pantages), which hasn’t functioned as a legitimate theater for the better part of five years. Also, The Lion King arrives amid the kind of financial investment in the area that was once intended for — but never materialized on — Spring Street downtown, when LATC opened its doors in 1985. Now, it’s all about Hollywood: TrizecHahn Corp.’s $385 million Hollywood and Highland project, Pacific Theaters’ $90 million entertainment and retail complex next to the Cinerama Dome, to say nothing of construction already under way for developer Tom Gilmore’s renovation of three retail outlets near Hollywood and Vine, and the upgrading of buildings along Hollywood Boulevard. Add in the Nederlander Producing Company of America Inc.’s $10 million make-over of the Pantages, and you have a conservative estimate of more than $500 million being sprinkled over Tinseltown — and that’s not including the cost of the new subway station at the theater’s doorstep, or The Lion King’s undisclosed production budget (estimates range from $10 million to $15 million).
Posing the question of what The Lion King can do for Hollywood in general, and for local theater in particular, the Weekly spoke to several leaders in L.A.’s stage community. Here are some excerpts:
Lars Hansen, president of Theater League Alliance of Southern California:
I think that Disney Theatricals being headquartered in Los Angeles, that The Lion King is financed by a company with three shows on Broadway whose corporate seeds are in Los Angeles, is significant. That can only be good for us. Maybe the next show will open here. The Lion King already has more of an advance than it had in New York. There’s the mall â analogy — that if the anchor stores do well, the smaller stores do well. One hit feeds another. A searchlight the size of The Lion King waving into the air is going to be good for everybody.
Frédèrique Michel, artistic direc tor of Santa Monica’s City Garage:
Our theater is right next to the Third Street Promenade, and those people never come to our theater. Our audiences are loyal to us, but they come from other places. When we first opened here, the mall had funky independent bookstores and was a pleasant place, and we’d get a few patrons from there. Now it’s all franchised, greedy and aggressive. The Lion King itself is a cartoon for kids who don’t want to grow up. It has nothing to do with the human interactions of adults. I think it’s ridiculous, the attention the press is giving this thing, as though it’s the greatest event in the history of theater. The show and the redevelopment are all part of the greed and the way we’re losing ourselves to it.
Barbara Beckley, producing director of Burbank’s Colony Theater Company:
I’ll be fascinated to see if there’s a spillover effect [to the smaller theaters]. I don’t know if there will be a direct, measurable jump in our box office, but The Lion King is certainly good for raising the level of awareness about L.A. theater in general. Eventually, the audiences will find their way to us. Crossover? Maybe.
Bart DeLorenzo, artistic director of Westlake’s Evidence Room:
I’m of the wait-and-see school. Of all the Broadway successes, this is the one that heartens me the most. The liberating energy of the piece could have an impact, but particularly on projects that are of the same ilk. It’s said that if you go to one theater, you’ll want to go to other theaters, but I don’t really think that’s true. My belief is that if you create a scene, then people come to be a part of that scene, and anything that contributes to the scene is good for everyone. I see The Lion King as contributing to the scene rather than having an immediate benefit.
Ron Sossi, artistic director of West Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theater Ensemble:
I think that The Lion King will do a lot to revitalize Hollywood and its commercial sector, but that has nothing to do with L.A. theater. Just as the Ahmanson has nothing to do with us. There’s absolutely no crossover. I think it’s great if it creates a kind of Broadway situation in Hollywood. But when you’re talking about that kind of theater spectacle, you’re talking about the tourist trade in terms of people who go to the theater once a year — it has nothing to do with building a theater audience in L.A.
Gordon Davidson, artistic direc tor/producer, Ahmanson Theater and Mark Taper Forum:
I’d hate to see any single show held up as a beacon for transforming the city. There’s a particular magic in The Lion King. They’re playing in a large house. They can appeal to a foreign-speaking audience, tap into the tourist trade, something we’ve never been able to do here. But the dilemma of L.A. is that it wants to be, and should be, a significant theater town and cultural mecca, and every time something happens that gives a hint that it is or isn’t happening, it’s held up as a standard. I also know that a lot of this [hype] is written in the sand. It comes and goes, and our expectations shouldn’t be based on that.
Martha Demson, artistic director of Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater:
I want to support [Lion King director] Julie Taymor, because she came from roots of experimental theater very much like our own. Also, The Lion King is billed as much for children as for adults, and I think that we’ve lost a couple of generations of theatergoers — my own [Gen-X] generation doesn’t have an appetite for theater. We know that most audiences who go regularly to the theater had their first theater experience as children. If The Lion King can play some kind of role in nurturing that audience, it certainly isn’t going to hurt.