Broadway musicals return with a big roar

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Lion King returns to Broadway. First day of show, Photo TDW+Co

NEW YORK – As Julie Taymor’s stunning animal puppets made their way up the aisles of the Minskoff Theatre on Tuesday night, the circle of Broadway life moved one graceful leap closer to normalcy. A packed house of happy theatergoers roared along with Mufasa, Simba and Nala, in giddy celebration of “The Lion King’s” return – and theirs.

It was re-emergence eve for other shows that qualify as veritable city landmarks: “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “Chicago” all marked their first performances since mid-March 2020, when a lethal virus extinguished the footlights. “Lackawanna Blues,” a play written, directed and starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson, drew its initial public breath Tuesday, too. The coordinated “reopenings” may have had the whiff of a public relations cabal, but is that really a surprise? This is Broadway, baby.

When I was contemplating which show I should see on this pivotal occasion in the restoration of New York cultural life, my emotional GPS pointed me inexorably toward the march of the elephants, giraffes, rhinos and antelopes. In 1997, when the show bowed on Broadway, my 5-year-old daughter, Lizzie, was my plus-one, as we say in the trade. She had watched the animated movie version so often on videocassette (remember those?) that we could sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” in captivating unison. (Memory autotunes the quality of the vocal delivery.)

So here I was again, now in Row G on the aisle, hearing over my shoulder the guileless commentary of another 5-year-old, Theodore Matthiessen, who happened to be sitting behind me with his dad, Alex, an environmentalist and a friend of Taymor’s. His sweet musings sounded so familiar: “He’s pretending to die, but he really isn’t,” I overheard him say of Mufasa (played by L. Steven Taylor), the lion king murdered by his brother, Scar (Stephen Carlile). I was transported back to the visage of my own 5-year-old beside me, watching the same scene, her eyes wide in wonder.

The circle of life.

“It is time for us to live again!” director Taymor said in opening remarks to an audience of about 1,600 sprinkled with luminaries: Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie, Kristin Chenoweth. (Michael Curry designed those amazing puppets with Taymor.) To reinforce the pitch, Taymor made the publicity rounds in Times Square earlier on Tuesday with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton,” and Stephen Schwartz, composer of “Wicked” – a trio of Broadway heralds, summoning us back to the ramparts.

In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Taymor sounded breathless with excitement at the prospect of seeing the show back onstage. “You have no idea,” she said, of her own joy. “This week has been so amazing. We have 20 performers who have been in it for 24 years. This is a coming home for us.”

Still, Disney and the producers of the other shows have their work cut out for them. Broadway, which pumps $15 billion a year into the New York economy, may be beseeching us to restart our relationship, but many theatergoers may not be ready to commit. AMS Analytics, a Connecticut-based company that studies audience behavior, said in a report released this month that a survey of 11,623 patrons of 48 arts centers nationwide found that 47 percent of vaccinated respondents will not attend live performance until infection rates drop.

“Overall comfort with attending continued to decrease further through August with the prevalence of the delta variant,” the report said.

Indeed, the Theater Development Fund’s popular TKTS booth, which offers discounted day-of-performance tickets, reopened Tuesday, too, and already had tickets to three shows available: The plays “Pass Over” and “Lackawanna Blues” and the musical “Waitress.” (“Pass Over” started up Aug. 4, and “Waitress,” along with “Hadestown,” on Sept. 2.)

Taymor acknowledged the magnitude of the challenge in her address to the masked-and-vaccinated first-nighters. “I want to applaud the audience,” she declared. “You all have the desire, the enthusiasm, the courage to lead the way.” In our interview, she also observed how the musical, with its homages to nature and African culture, remains relevant.

“If you listen to a lot of lines anew, you will be shocked at how much they speak to where we are in the world,” Taymor said, adding that the timeliness extends to the pandemic and an awareness of death. “You start in the ‘Circle of Life,’ which says we die, but we become the grass. And the animals eat the grass.”

Plugging into a communal heartbeat is why we go to the theater. “Coming to the theater helps us along the way because it’s so filled with the life force,” Taymor said.

The opening number of “The Lion King” is well-nigh unsurpassable. You can feel your chest swell and your nerves quicken as the orchestra and singers conjure the show’s pop and African beats, courtesy of Elton John. Then those magnificent puppets appear – the slinky cheetah, the lumbering elephant with its baby in tow, the birds fluttering above like kites. In my seat, I could feel the tug on my sleeve from 24 years ago of my 5-year-old, on whom I was bestowing the gift of musical theater.

We’ve shared that gift so many times, round and round, in our own circle of life.

 

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