Three hands grasped the symbolic throw-switch: those of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, New York Gov. George Pataki and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Standing on the darkened stage of Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre surrounded by a phalanx of reporters April 2, they closed the switch and the curtain rose on the auditorium, which has been refurbished over the course of the last two years to an approximation of its original 1903 art nouveau splendor.
The auditorium was dark, but a light picked up a group of African-garbed singers who launched into "The Circle of Life," the opening number from The Lion King, whose stage adaptation will open at the New Amsterdam in fall of 1997.
As the song progressed, spotlights hit various architectural details of the $36 million renovation, all in a peach, light-green and gold motifs. The watchers oohed like they were watching fireworks as there appeared carven peacocks, sprays of roses, gargoyles, painted murals, and, capping the project, a dome supported by four plaster maidens reprepresenting the four points of the compass.
The New Amsterdam Theatre, once home to the legendary Ziegfeld Follies (1913-1928), but for decades lost to movies and then, darkness and decay, has now officially returned to the fold as a Broadway theatre and capitol of the budding Disney theatrical empire. It's also the centerpiece of the 42nd Street revival that has seen the eradication of sex-oriented businesses on the block between Broadway and Eighth Avenue that once were the trademark of the New York City thoroughfare. A street sign on the corner of Seventh and 42nd says "The New 42nd Street. The New Amsterdam is scheduled to open to the public May 15-23 with a limited engagement of the Alan Menken/Tim Rice 30-song "oratorio" concert version of their Biblical musical King David, directed by Mike Ockrent. Marcus Lovett, who will play the title role, performed "New Jerusalem," a number from the show, with backup chorus April 2.
Later in the day, Disney presented highlights from the forthcoming stage adaptation of The Lion King, scheduled to open Nov. 13 at the New Amsterdam. For an account, see "Disney Gives Sneak Preview of "Lion King" in Theatre News.
Eisner also unveiled plans to roll out the company's latest animated feature, Hercules, in an exclusive world premiere engagement June 15-16 at the New Amsterdam. The film has a score by Menken and lyricist David Zippel, whose City of Angels won a Tony Award, and whose The Goodbye Girl is being revived in London in April.
A comedic take on the Greek legend, Hercules tells the Rocky-like story of how an old satyr named Phil trains the young Hercules to become the god-hero he's known as today. The engagement will be accompanied by a Disney-style stage show featuring familiar characters from other Disney films, plus a June 14 Parade on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street that recreates the familiar Disney World Main Street Parade in Orlando, FL.
A quintet of toga-clad singers performed "A Star Is Born," a number from the film, followed by a shower of gold and white confetti on the assembled reporters.
The event was quite different from the initial Aug. 19, 1996 announcement of the King David project, at which reporters gathered around a piano while Menken himself sang numbers from the oratorio at Sardi's theatrical restaurant. Menken, who wrote scores for Disney's Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, performed a seven-minute preview of the King David score.
Rice, lyricist for two other Biblical-themed musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, helped Menken finish his scores to Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast after Menken's partner Howard Ashman died of AIDS. King David will be their first full score together.
Ockrent said King David will have seven leads -- David, his wife Bathsheba (who will narrate), his rival Saul, plus Milcha, Joab, Jonathan and Samuel. The two-hour forty-minute song cycle will be presented with a chorus of 30 and an orchestra of 65. Ockrent said the performers will be costumed and there will be a set, but that the production would not be choreographed or fully staged.
The production will be recorded live and released as an audio CD in 1997, Rice said, explaining that he's following the same developmental route he and Andrew Lloyd Webber went with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, both of which started life as recordings. Evita also was performed in concert before becoming a stage musical.
Co-producer Andre Djaoui told Playbill On-Line that a fully-staged stage musical version of King David is being considered for fall 1998.
Menken described King David as a song-cycle about David, "one of the great heroes of Jewish history," who began as a shepherd boy, slew the giant Goliath, and rose to unite the Israelites and become their first true king in the capital, Jerusalem.
Menken performed a medley of the following songs: "The Man Who Would Be King," "The Enemy Within," "Saul Has Slain His Thousands," "You Have It All," "Sheer Perfection" and "The New Jerusalem." All were in showtune style, with evidences of both gospel and cantorial influences. The songs sound most similar to his score for the unproduced TV musical "Messiah on Mott Street."
Menken said he cancelled King David's planned debut in Caesaria, Israel in September because the score was not complete, and the "dream come-true" opportunity to reopen the New Amsterdam was too good to pass up. Security concerns reportedly also influenced the decision.
Ockrent told Playbill On-Line that he "can't imagine" that the oratorio would be eligible for a Tony Award, "but you never know what the Tony committee will do." King David opens after the deadline for the 1997 awards in any case.
Rice declined to say whether The Lion King would follow King David, explaining "it's the director's show, I'm not that involved in it," though he said he and composer Elton John have completed one of four new songs for the adaptation.
Rice said he's also working with John on their new adaptation of Aida, which he decribed as "in its early stages" and "at least a year behind" King David.
Open-call auditions for both Lion King and Aida were held in June.
The reopening of the 1903-vintage New Amsterdam, where Florenz Ziegfeld once presented his legendary Follies 1913-1927, will come five months behind the originally announced reopening date of January 1997. The theatre hosted its last live stage show in 1937, and has been used for film or lain dark since then. Disney reportedly is spending $34 million to fix up the 1801-seat theatre.
In a statement, the Walt Disney Co. Said the New Amsterdam would host a "variety of live stage entertainment produced by Disney and other production entities. Walt Disney Theatrical Productions plans to launch one new show each year beginning in 1997."
Gov. Pataki said the reopening of the New Amsterdam will provide the centerpiece of the 42nd Street revival, which he envisions as becoming "the number one tourist attraction in America."