‘Lion King’ is Broadway’s all-time box office king

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NEW YORK (AP) — Very quietly, almost stealthily, a new king has been inaugurated on Broadway.

Box office figures released Monday show that “The Lion King” last week swiped the title of Broadway’s all-time highest grossing show from “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The cumulative gross for “The Lion King” is $853,846,062, according to the show’s numbers. Its chandelier-swinging rival’s cumulative total is $853,122,847, according to the musical’s publicist. The “Lion King” surged past “Phantom” after netting over $2 million at the box office for the week ending Sunday, while “Phantom” pulled in about $1.2 million.

What makes the achievement all the more remarkable is that “The Lion King” chased down and grabbed the title despite “Phantom” having almost a full 10 years’ head start. The Disney show opened in November 1997, while “Phantom” debuted in January 1988.

The upstart’s victory is due in large part to its higher average ticket prices and a slightly larger theater. Monday’s data shows “Phantom” had an average paid admission of $98.97, while “The Lion King” fetched $155.09.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Cary Ginell, a music historian and biographer who edited the seventh edition of “Broadway Musicals: Show By Show.” He compares “The Lion King” to a Disneyland ride.

“It’s a spectacle that satisfies on many different sensory elements — audio, visually, emotionally. It’s also good for all ages — just like Disneyland is. For the kids, it’s the visual elements — the colors, the costumes and the puppetry. For the adults, it’s ‘Hamlet,’ basically. And the music is not geared to one age or gender or race. It’s as universal a show can get.”

Disney Theatrical Productions was gracious when contacted about reaching the milestone, saluting “Phantom” song writer Andrew Lloyd Webber and “Phantom” producer Cameron Mackintosh, who also co-produced Disney’s hit “Mary Poppins,” and calling their show “a global phenomenon of historic proportions.”

Thomas Schumacher, producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions, also gave credit to Julie Taymor, the director, costume and mask maker of “The Lion King.” ”Her vision, continued commitment to the show and uncommon artistry account for this extraordinary success,” he said in a statement.

“This accomplishment belongs to our audiences, millions of whom are experiencing their first Broadway show at ‘The Lion King,'” Schumacher added. “Surely, introducing so many to the splendor of live theater is our show’s greatest legacy.”

The Broadway League, a trade group that collects revenue from theater owners, has slightly different numbers, putting the cumulative grosses of “The Lion King” at $854,038,152 and “Phantom” at $853,122,847 as of Monday. The League in 2009 changed the way it calculates grosses, which may explain the discrepancy. None of the figures are adjusted for inflation.

To be sure, “Phantom,” now in its 24th year, is still the longest-running show in Broadway history, with more than 10,000 performances and it has sold many more tickets than its Disney rival on the Great White Way, a staggering 14.8 million so far.

In comparison, “The Lion King” looks like a pup: It is the sixth longest-running show on Broadway with over 5,900 performances over 14 years and has sold just over 10 million tickets.

“The Lion King” may now have won on Broadway, but “Phantom” is still a juggernaut elsewhere. Its producers have even declared it the most successful entertainment venture of all time, with revenues higher than any film, including “Titanic,” ”Star Wars” and “Avatar.”

The total worldwide grosses for “Phantom” are estimated at over $5.6 billion, while the worldwide haul for “Lion” is $4.8 billion. “Phantom” has also been seen by 130 million people worldwide, while “Lion” puts its number at 64 million. Those gaps may also close: “The Lion King” has seven — soon eight — productions worldwide, while “Phantom” has seven productions around the world: London, New York, Hungary, Japan, South Africa, Las Vegas and a UK tour.

Ginell points out that about 40 percent of “Phantom” tickets are sold to repeat customers, an extremely high number. Plus, 68 percent are women. “‘Phantom is kind of a live-action romance novel,” he said. “I think that’s what’s attracting a huge percentage of women to the show.”

H. Todd Freeman, vice president of operations at ticket broker Applause Theatre & Entertainment Service, Inc., said the success of “The Lion King” is due to its family draw, big visuals and ticket prices that were double those for “Phantom” when it started.

Both shows now use premium pricing — offering deep-pocketed theatergoers the best seats for a hefty mark up. On Monday, both shows had top premium tickets of about $200. Even so, “The Lion King” still commands a higher average ticket price and shows no signs of softening.

“Will it make 25? I don’t know,” said Freeman, who admits he never thought rival “Phantom” would last this long. “It holds up pretty well all year long but the times when it is the strongest is the Christmas breaks, the Easter breaks, the Spring breaks and the summertime.”

The two share some attributes: Both have musical giants behind them: “Phantom” has songs by Lloyd Webber and is directed by Harold Prince, while “The Lion King” features music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice and the vision of Taymor.

Both have multiple Tony Awards, movie tie-ins, simple-to-understand stories and are spectacles — important for attracting tourists whose command of English might be weak. Both are not dependent on having stars on stage. And both call home in similar-sized theaters, “Phantom” at the 1,605-seat Majestic and “Lion” at the 1,677-seat Minskoff.

The staying power of each is remarkable. Over their first 750 playing weeks — which “The Lion King” has recently reached — they’ve played to roughly the same number of people: “The Lion King” at 10,092,235 and “Phantom” at 9,241,333.

Most shows that have achieved a ripe old age never appear in the top 10 by this point in their ages, but both “Lion” and “Phantom” are still routinely among the top earners, week in and week out. On the other side of the ledger, over 500 shows have opened and closed on Broadway during lifetime of “The Lion King.”

Ginell tips his cap to the new box office king and doesn’t see a time soon when it abandons its kingdom. “‘Lion King’ is the perfect family musical and I think it always will be as long as expenses don’t go so far up that they won’t be able to afford to put it on anymore.”

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