The Mouse That Roared

One of the trickier parts of being a savvy content provider is keeping up with fluctuating business argot. Five years ago, for instance, the smart set peppered every breakfast meeting with knowing references to synergy--i.e., the conceit that cobbling together a conglomerate of separate but complementary businesses equals boffo profits. But now that spin-offs and streamlining are standard issue, using synergy as the rationale for a deal invites arched eyebrows.

Unless you're an Imagineer at Walt Disney, of course. The Mouseketeers have been so successful at cross-promoting movies, theme parks, and toys for so long that they even sound a little bored explaining the concept in their annual report to the SEC: "The Company's [sic] other operations benefit substantially from the Creative Content segment, and those operations in turn promote the Company's films, television programs and merchandise. The products and services of the Creative Content segment often contain elements highlighting the Company's theme parks and resorts, and the theme parks and resorts will often promote recent releases of motion pictures through parades, stage shows and other attractions."

None of which is news to anyone who's done her duty as a red-blooded consumer in the last decade, and shelled out for Mickey wristwatches and trips to the Magic Kingdom--or simply watched an episode of Disney-produced Home Improvement. Or Homeboys in Outer Space, for that matter. Disney will start offering cruises in 1998. Imagine the luxury of it all: Will Goofy please come to the Annette Funicello Lounge with an Orange Crush?

This is all worth remembering in order to put the hoopla about Disney's stage treatment of The Lion King in perspective. The folks paying up to $65 a head to watch Simba and Mufasa's live-action counterparts at the Orpheum aren't just watching a theatrical debut; they're also seeing the roll-out of a new product line.

That process begins before the curtains even go up. Just by replacing the original film's logo with a woodcut-style lion's head design, marketeers have already created a new line of watches, pillow cases and stuffed animals. This according to Kevin McCollum, a Disney vet himself who produced Rent and runs the Ordway Theatre in his spare time (and is himself no stranger to the magic of accessorizing "art"). "What they do by making a live version of any of their product, is they create a whole bundle of toys to exploit,"McCollum explains. Though any parent who's ever wandered the aisles of Toys 'R' Us with a tot in tow has a pretty good idea of how this works.

Locals are more than happy to help, of course. There are the hired guns at Disney affiliate KSTP-TV, who produced and aired a half-hour, behind-the-scenes "special." Other people would probably call it an infomercial. In either case, it features chipper reporter (and erstwhile weatherman) Rusty Gatenby and an exciting trip to New York City(!). It commends local theatergoers on their discerning taste. In the psycho-geography of Minnesota, a little flattery goes a long way: The city of Minneapolis, which owns the Orpheum, essentially handed over the renovated playhouse, and nervously allowed producers to rip a 30-by-50-foot hole in the stage to accommodate the show's hydraulics (Disney has promised to return the theater to its previous incarnation before they leave).

And anyone who's skeptical about the benefits of serving as a test market for Broadway--that is the other Broadway besides the so-called Twin Cities Broadway Theatre Season--just needs to listen to Fred Krohn, who manages the Orpheum and the State for the city as head of Historic Theatre Group (HTG). If the Twin Cities market can successfully host a world premiere, he explains, it will make it that much easier to convince bookers that people in flyover land deserve to see other big-budget shows. "It means more to us in terms of the future bookings than people might realize," he explains. "It puts us on the national map."

The love-in isn't universal. "I'm not a big fan of theirs," says Matt Rice, business manager at Stage Employees Local 13. Rice says Disney, through HTG, tried to wring concessions out of the stagehands union, threatening to take the show elsewhere unless the local agreed to changes in their standard contract, particularly regarding working hours and the definition of overtime. (Disney officials, who eventually acquiesced, wouldn't comment for this article.)

It's natural for any producer to try to shave costs, but union officials say the financial gap between the sides' proposals was at most $10,000; stagehands, meanwhile, are expected to draw more than $1 million in wages from the King by the end of of its eight-week run. And it's not as if Disney is putting the show together on a shoestring. By all accounts, the production is crammed with the kind of big-buck bells and whistles--hundreds of puppets! a thousand lights! three elevators and a rotating mountain!--that audiences expect. The set alone is estimated to cost more than $7 million. (By way of contrast, the Guthrie's Babes in Arms--the previous yardstick for local theatrical budget bloat--rang in at something over $2 million, total.)

Rice instead suggests the contract squabble stems from a Disney mind-set that equates negotiating a stage show with haggling over the syndication rights to Blossom. "I'd say it comes from being new to the business," he says. "They do movies, they do the ice shows. But legitimate theater is something new to them."

In the end, though, there's no reason to expect Disney not to be as successful with Lion King as any other of their ventures--EuroDisney notwithstanding. Disney brought Beauty and the Beast to the stage to decidedly mixed reviews in 1994; at last count, the play had generated about $150 million in profit. And despite public fretting that under the direction of MacArthur "genius" grant recipient Julie Taymor the musical might be too difficult for an audience trained on theme-park shows, the production has already set a local record for single-day ticket sales, raking in more than $1 million.

And with Disney, of course, the play's not necessarily the thing anyway. Or not this play. Soon, Uncle Walt's minions will be premiering a work directly on the stage: an Elton John-scored adaptation of Aida. "By making it not exactly the film, they are doing what Disney does best, which is making a whole new line of merchandise,"says an admiring McCollum. "What's great is after the show, the audience walks out, and there's already a retail shop set up."

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