Issue: Issue Spring 2009

Witches & Lions & Phantom! Oh My!

It’s the stuff of Hollywood fantasy, right? To be more precise it’s the reality of musical theatre in Hollywood. Those are the themes of the musicals “Mamma Mia”,“Phantom Of The Opera”, and “Rent” which will be part of the 2009 season at the historic Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Legendary Hollywood is synonymous with the silver screen. But, within the real Hollywood, as opposed to the reel (on screen) Hollywood, a wide variety of musical shows are thriving. During a recent packed weeknight showing of “Wicked” at the Pantages Theatre a middle-aged woman gushed, “This is my third time seeing the show. I’m always saying to my friends, ‘Let’s go see ‘Wicked’”. It’s the untold story of the witches of Oz.

There are 92 theatres that, at some point, produce musicals in the Hollywood area, according to Douglas Clayton, Programs Manager for the LA Stage Alliance. Those that produce the most musical theatre are the Pantages, The Hudson Backstage, and Sacred Fools Theatre Company, he said.

Hollywood has a long history of staging musical theatre according to Miles Kreuger, president of The Institute Of The American Musical, Inc. “It dates back to when The El Capitan was built as a theatre for touring Broadway shows,” Kreuger said. “It opened in 1926. The Music Box on Hollywood Boulevard also opened in the 1920s. Many major stars like Fanny Brice appeared there over the years.

“It’s wonderful that these shows are finding big audiences,” Kreuger said. “Going to the theatre itself is a festive occasion, even if it’s something you do all the time.”

Kreuger’s seventeen-room home near Hollywood contains the world’s largest archives dedicated to the Broadway and Hollywood musical. The mission of the Institute is to preserve the heritage of musical theatre and film. The Library of Congress has referred to the Institute as “a national treasure”.

The crown jewel of the Institute’s collection is 16mm silent film shot during performances of approximately 175 Broadway musicals from “The Ziegfeld Follies” of 1931 through the curtain calls for “A Little Night Music” (1973).

“The Pantages is rapturously beautiful,” Kreuger said. “Lots of the smaller theatres in Hollywood do musical theatre. I’ve been to some of them. There’s a kind of joyous enthusiasm of younger performers. And that’s a very exciting thing. To do musical theatre well is very, very tricky. You have to have a great deal of skill.”

Kreuger pointed out, ”The American musical theatre is distinctly a work of this country in that, like every aspect of this country, it has absorbed influences from all over the world. We have the ballet and the dancing from France and from Russia, we have the jazz from the black community; elaborate scenic design which was often European. And
somehow, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it started to be fused into something
that became our own. It had an American vigor and a kind of joyous optimism.

“I think the American musical theatre is an amalgam of whatever our tastes are at the moment. You can learn a great deal about American aesthetics and American philosophy and tastes by seeing what was created on the stage at any given time. It’s wonderful that these shows are finding big audiences.”

Musical theatre is a major American art form, and Hollywood is the place to present it, according to David Green, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Nederlander West Coast. The Nederlander Organization owns and operates the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, which first opened in 1930. “The Pantages is the center of the genre on the West Coast,“ Green pointed out.

“James Nederlander bought his original interest in the Pantages in 1977,” Green said. “Immediately thereafter he started purchasing additional property near the Pantages for parking and alternate development. He did this because he believes in Hollywood as the place to present theater.

“He spent more than ten million dollars renovating the theater in 2000 for ‘The Lion King’ engagement. The goal was to return the theatre back to its original grandeur. I think it’s one of the most beautiful art deco structures I’ve ever seen. And others have told me the same thing.”

Hollywood was not flourishing prior to the opening of the Lion King, Green noted. But the musical helped turned that around by bringing a million people a year to Hollywood. “Disney’s ‘Lion King’ played twenty seven months and grossed over $150 million in ticket sales, he said.

“Theatre is important for Hollywood because it brought people here to see the development that was going on and it peaked their interest,” Green said. “It started people talking
about the good things that were happening. It filled the parking lots and restaurants. It created a vibrancy.”

Broadway/LA is the Los Angeles theatrical division of The Nederlander Organization. The company owns nine theatres on Broadway in New York, three theaters in London, and operates Broadway Seasons in several other U.S. cities.

“Musical theatre is like a magnet,” Green said. “It will draw people to Hollywood and continue to assist in the further development of Hollywood.” What’s it like being a leading lady in a major musical in Hollywood? Before Megan Hilty came to the Pantages to co-star in “Wicked”, as Glinda the witch, she was told LA isn’t a theatre town. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “‘Wicked’ practically has been sold out every night for two years. It’s like playing a rock concert with the screaming energy the audience is giving us, they’re so excited about the show.”

Sometimes it’s the unexpected that captivates the audience. Even a “witch” can’t always control what happens when it comes to musical theatre.

During one performance, when Glinda twirled her giant wand, it accidentally went flying into the audience. “The audience was screaming with laughter,” Hilty recalled. As if on cue, a man in the audience simply picked up the wand that had landed in the aisle, walked to the stage, and handed it back to Glinda. It delighted the audience.

“I feel really honored to be doing this musical in Hollywood,” Hilty said. “The fan base for the show here has been overwhelming.”

Eden Espinosa, who is co-starring in “Wicked” as the green witch Elphaba, grew up in Southern California. She’s especially happy to be part of “Wicked” in Hollywood because it gives her family and friends a chance to see her perform in her hometown.

The actress loves the character she plays. “I think she’s so passionate about what she believes in. She’s been ostracized all her life, and regardless of that she wants to do good things for people.

“What I love about Hollywood is the history that’s here with the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Academy Awards was
held, and the Pantages itself is a Hollywood landmark,“ Espinosa said. “When I walk into the lobby I get a sense of that old glamorous Hollywood lifestyle.”

“Wicked” will be concluding its Hollywood engagement in January 2009. The 2009 season at the Pantages will spotlight seven shows. These will include the West Coast Premiere of the Broadway musicals“Dirty Dancing” and two of the most popular shows “Legally Blonde The Musical” and “Grease”.Also on stage will be the first Los Angeles engagement of the Broadway musical stage extravaganza “Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas”.

“The Phantom of The Opera”, will return to the Pantages for the first time in a decade. The theater will spotlight a new touring production of“Fiddler On The oof”, starring Topol. “Mamma Mia” will return. Also featured will be“Rent” and “Rain—The Beatles Experience”.

The Pantages Theatre General Manager Martin Viviott said, “All these stories have been told on the big screen as well as on the live stage. Broadway is having a love affair with Hollywood. But, at the Pantages the reverse also is true. Hollywood loves Broadway.”

Rena Dictor LeBlanc is an award-winning journalist and author whose
articles have appeared in major magazines and newspapers worldwide.
Four television movies based on her stories have aired on ABC, NBC
and The Lifetime Channel.