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L.A. theater: Big and bold is the name of the game

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 2000


Film is king in the court of Hollywood. The average Angeleno would be hard pressed to name a single legitimate theater, while New Yorkers have an entire Broadway district. To play here, shows need more than a great title, they need an angle.

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Nobody knows that better than Los Angeles theater producers who routinely struggle to shed their stepchild status in this movie-industry town: witness two high-profile productions, Disney's first US stop outside New York with its award-winning musical "The Lion King," and a new production of this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, "Dinner with Friends."

When the animated film-turned-stage spectacle opened in Broadway's New Amsterdam theater three years ago, it became the catalyst for a 42nd Street cleanup, still continuing today. In L.A., Disney aims to resurrect the heart of old Hollywood, beginning with a $10 million restoration of the 70-year-old Pantages Theater, one of the last grande dames of the Art Deco movie houses from the industry's heydays.

"That [cleanup] phenomenon is still being felt in New York," says Alan Levy, general manager of the Buena Vista Theatrical Group, a division of the Walt Disney Company. "We hope it will rub off on Hollywood."

"The Lion King" production here has been ratcheted up more than a few notches. "You can't just be good enough in L.A.," says composer Mark Mancina, who was brought in to create the music for the New York stage production, based on songs from the film. "In New York, people are used to going to the theater, they are more forgiving of something new or different."

Mr. Mancina has been in town for months, working to bring the show to what he says are L.A.'s exacting standards. Here, he says, audiences weaned on film are used to a high level of sound and visual production. "To get them to come out in this town," he says, "you have to blow them away. That's what we've tried to do with this production."

Musicians are strategically located to include more of the audience, Mancina says. And "it's on a more grand scale than New York," adds the musician who has helped nurse this new production to life from its inception half a decade ago.

"It's like having a child," Mancina says. " This show needs attention all the time." The biggest challenge has been to create an original work of art, rather than simply transfer an animated film to stage, as Disney did with "Beauty and the Beast."

"[Director] Julie Taymor's idea is unlike anything that had been done," Mancina says. "It's not derivative at all."

The challenge was to combine the African rhythms with European harmonies. Mancina says his goal as a composer was to create one, long piece of music, but in a show as complicated as "The Lion King," which combines so many art forms - dance, puppeteering, music, acting - the performers take the brunt of making the music come alive.