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

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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.

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.

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"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.

On the other end of the scale from spectacle, the intimate, four-person show "Dinner with Friends" is running at the cozy Geffen Playhouse, starring film and TV personalities Rita Wilson (wife of actor Tom Hanks), Daniel Stern ("Home Alone"), and Dana Delaney of "China Beach" fame.

All this star power, however, is in the service of what playwright Donald Margulies calls "the essence of life." The highly realistic play explores the tremors sent through the lives of two couples who have been best friends for a dozen years, as one couple splits up.

The play has resonated with audiences around the world. Productions have run in Japan and France, and the playwright is fielding requests from Israel, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and Spain, among other countries.

Audiences appear to relate to the seemingly simple trauma of four people being shaken out of their assumptions about the permanency of love and friendship. But Margulies is quick to point out that of all four of the characters, he identifies most closely with the one who is most bewildered and upset by the changes.

"I try to give voice to things that are unspoken, but I'm not a sociologist. I don't pretend to know the answers," he says. "I offer dramatizations of problems. People might recognize things about themselves."

Although Margulies was moved to write the play after watching many of his own friends divorce, the writer says it's important to realize that even with a realistic portrayal, the play is not a documentary.

A longtime fan of British playwright Harold Pinter, known for his deceptively simple prose, Margulies says he is not what he calls a glib writer, although his works have humorous elements. "I don't go for the easy joke," he says. "Everything I've written has been a way for me to analyze more of my life through drama." His early plays focused on his own identity search.

"I focused on my own past life, my Jewish identity, and the role of the artist," says the 40-something father of two. "Dinner With Friends," he adds, is his most autobiographical play to date. "It is the most reflective of the way I live now," he says.

Winning the Pulitzer after a career of some 16 plays, not to mention a lucrative diet of writing unproduced screenplays, is particularly gratifying, Margulies says. It has taken that long to find what he calls his own voice. "It took me a few plays to find my own point of view," but it has given him confidence in what he admits is an increasingly rarefied vocation.

"I'm a rarity in this town," he says. "I'm a playwright who writes screenplays."

But in spite of the pressure to find a gimmick to stand out, theater provides a depth of experience that, Margulies says, people need - even in the backyard of the film industry.

"There's a lot of theater going on in L.A., in spite of the fact that it's not what people do [here]."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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