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Disney changes theater for 'Lion King'

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NEW YORK (AFX) - For most of its Broadway life, "The Lion King" made its home at the New Amsterdam, the ornate Art Nouveau theater whose restoration by The Walt Disney Co. helped ignite the rebirth of 42nd Street. 

Now the show's logo, a lion mask against a large, lighted yellow backdrop, looks out from the wide Times Square window of the Minskoff, an antiseptic 1970s-modern theater that has been transformed into a more inviting space with the arrival last week of the Disney megahit. Why move a show that has been a hot ticket since it opened in New York nearly 10 years ago, transferring it from an 1,800-seat theater to a smaller 1,600-seat house?

Tom Schumacher, the ebullient producer of Disney Theatrical, is ready with an answer.

"We get a gigantic amount of visibility. We get to be right here where the bulk of the audience is (the center of Times Square). We reduce our capacity slightly, but we stay neutral on our gross potential and it creates a home for `Mary Poppins,' giving it a big Disney embrace," he says.

That embrace includes putting "Mary Poppins," a Disney co-production with Cameron Mackintosh, into Disney's flagship theater, the New Amsterdam, beginning this fall.

"It came down to creative concerns," says David Schrader, Disney Theatrical's managing director, in discussing the move. "Mary Poppins' is more like a play. It's about the interaction of a family.The Lion King' is more about the visual."

And that visual gets a new, expansive display inside the Minskoff, located in a 55-story office building that straddles a prime piece of real estate on Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets on the west side of Times Square.

The theater opened in 1973 with a revival of the 1920s musical "Irene," starring Debbie Reynolds.

While it's had notable shows, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" and the most recent revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," the Minskoff was long thought of as too cavernous and the home of more than a few flops. Does anyone remember such musical-theater esoterica as "Rockabye Hamlet," "Got Tu Go Disco," "Marilyn: An American Fable" and "Metro"?

Yet the theater's owners, the Nederlander Organization, undertook an expensive renovation to make the theater more palatable to Disney. The two have had a special relationship for more than decade, with such high-profile Disney shows as "Beauty and the Beast," "Tarzan" and "Aida" all playing in other Nederlander Broadway houses.

But Schumacher wanted something special as the new home for his most successful theatrical offering.

"I need this place to feel like there is an event happening," Schumacher said of his requirements for the Minskoff. "I need it to feel warm."

Not an easy job, particularly for the theater's entrance, a sterile passageway linking 44th and 45th Streets. Design consultant Mariuca Brancoveanu brightened what had all the appeal of an airport terminal, circa 1963, with gold rectangles, and a new marquee was added on the 45th Street side of building. Those gold rectangles reappear inside the theater, complementing the new red carpeting and a new paint job.

Despite the smaller size, weekly grosses for "The Lion King" in the Minskoff should be about the same as in the New Amsterdam.

"The math makes it work," says Schrader. "There are more seats in the orchestra level in the Minskoff than in the New Amsterdam," which means there are more seats at the top price. And unlike the New Amsterdam, the Minskoff doesn't have a second balcony, where ticket prices are lower.

"The Lion King" most likely will become the Minskoff's longest running tenant. It gave its last performance -- number 3,571 -- June 4 at the New Amsterdam, shut down for a week and then reopened on June 13 in its new home.

An entire new physical set for "The Lion King" was built for the Minskoff, while the show continued to play two blocks to the south at the New Amsterdam. That allowed the production -- including its 52 cast members and 24-member orchestra -- to make the move with only one week off. And it gave the backstage crew, including stagehands and costume people, more time to get used to their new, larger behind-the-scenes surroundings. Nothing has been changed in the show, which has the same visuals, designs and sets.

The transfer was accomplished without a drop in business. In fact, for the musical's first week at the Minskoff, the period ending June 18, the show set a new house record, grossing more than $1.19 million. And no audience members were confused, mistakenly going to the wrong theater to see the show.

Schumacher may have had an inkling on the first night for "The Lion King" in its new theater.

"When we finished the show, people didn't leave," he said. "The whole lobby was filled with theatergoers for another 45 minutes. You feel like you are getting a full New York experience." Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be

Copyright 2006 AFX News Limited. All Rights Reserved.

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