An international production of The Lion King coming to Auckland is a vote of confidence from the world that New Zealand is the ideal place to put on live performance during a global pandemic. But what are the implications for the local theatre sector, asks James Wenley of the Auckland theatre blog Theatre Scenes.
As a musical theatre obsessed kid in the 90s and early 2000s, the dream was always to get to see The Lion King onstage. The Disney box office behemoth is credited with saving and cleaning up Broadway when it opened in 1997. Families flocked to the mean streets of Broadway to see director Julie Taymor’s Disney cartoon meets avant-garde theatre spectacle.
The franchise hit Sydney in 2003. I remember the news media here at the time celebrating the New Zealand actors cast in the production. Jay Laga’aia played Mufasa. A 21 year old Vince Harder, later to feature on P Money’s ‘Everything’ hit, played Simba. Māori and Pasifika actors were in demand for the multicultural work set on the African savanna.
Would it ever tour here? I remember being told by people in the know that we didn’t have a stage large enough to accommodate the Pride Rock sized production. Or maybe the potential profits to be made here were never large enough to justify such an expensive show jumping over the ditch. We’d eventually get the Wickeds, the Jersey Boys, the Priscillas, the Poppins, even the Aladdins, but never the King itself.
I had to travel to the source to see it. In NYC in my early 20s, The Lion King was still in the top tier of my show wishlist. The high point was the opening number, as a parade of anthropomorphised creatures and puppets filled the auditorium around us.
But now the circle of life for the Broadway franchise has been turned upside down. After playing for over two decades, the NYC production has been closed since March 2020. And this week, it was announced that “the world’s #1 musical” was touring to Auckland’s Spark Arena in June 2021.
Finally. It only took a pandemic to get here.
Theatre, meet politics
The news of The Lion King’s imminent arrival turned into the political scandal recently, with minister of immigration Kris Faafoi grilled over his decision to approve border exemptions for 126 international cast and crew to enter New Zealand for the production as critical workers.
The government has deemed their skills are not readily obtainable in New Zealand and that there will be a significant wider benefit to the economy. With spaces in managed isolation and quarantine at a premium, RNZ’s Susie Ferguson put it to the minister that it appeared Lion King performers could get approval to enter the country more easily than doctors and nurses. Faafoi said of 6500 MIQ places offered to critical workers, 4500 of those went to critical health workers. But stories have also emerged of New Zealanders overseas needing to return for funerals unable to book spots in MIQ as well as families being split (while The Wiggles and a Queen tribute band also get spots). There is the appearance of special treatment and a lack of transparency around how our MIQ allocation is decided.
For the local theatre sector, the sheer number of international cast and crew travelling here for the production has rankled. Equity New Zealand has requested a meeting with the minister, and say “while it’s always great for New Zealanders to see international productions we want New Zealand performers to be able to build their careers by being able to audition and be cast for these shows”. The ministerial claim that the skills cannot be readily found here is obviously false. After all, we’ve been exporting our fair share of musical theatre performers to The Lion King and other international productions.
The talent is here
As a theatre writer, I’ve often questioned the prevailing model of musical theatre production in Aotearoa which is dominated by a “pro-am” structure which sees the majority of the cast and crew go unpaid. In October last year, G & T Productions’ Mary Poppins at The Civic could claim that they were the biggest show happening anywhere in the world at that point in time. A shame that it still meant most of the company couldn’t be paid. New Zealand’s would-be professional musical theatre performers have mostly had to rely on The Court Theatre’s end of year musical, or head overseas.
But with our borders shut, what better opportunity to support the incredible talent existing within Aotearoa?
Last year The Shows Must Go On quickly got off the ground for a national tour, showcasing world class NZ musical theatre performers, some of whom had come home from overseas stages due to the pandemic. One of the cast, Anika Edmonds, is now starring as Angelica Schuyler in the Sydney production of Hamilton, which has gone into previews this week (where she is joined by fellow New Zealander Matu Ngaropo as George Washington).
To its credit, G & T Productions is embarking on something almost unheard of in NZ: a professional tour of Jersey Boys to Auckland (from April, The Civic) and Wellington (From May, Opera House) starring our own actors.
Well, mostly. In another remarkable story of what producing theatre looks like in a global pandemic, the crucial role of Franki Valli is being played by Hayden Milanés who arrived direct from New York and had previously performed the part in USA and international touring productions. Director Grant Meese said of Milanés’ casting: “As the role is unique in the world of musical theatre, we decided we’d go after the best in the world… With Broadway and the West End remaining closed, and New Zealand being one of only a few countries in the world where people can enjoy live performance, Hayden said yes. We then had to apply to have him come into the country. All the correct processes were followed and we were given the green light.”
In the case of The Lion King, the producers Live Nation argue that they require actors who are already familiar with the production, and thus, with the exception of five roles for children, will not be casting locally. Using an existing touring cast (who were touring Asia prior to the pandemic) allows them to rehearse the play in six weeks vs four months for a new cast. The producers hope the company will be able to continue elsewhere internationally following the Auckland season.
Supporting the sector
We can take Live Nation and Disney’s decision to send us The Lion King first as a huge vote of confidence that New Zealand is a place that the world wants to bring theatre and live events to. Alongside Australia and South Korea, New Zealand is one of the very few places in the world right now where it is possible to do shows of any kind of scale. The UK’s talking a big game of reopening in June (will a production of Hamlet starring Sir Ian McKellen in the title role be the saviour of British theatre?) and Broadway is also aiming for June. But New Zealand is one of the few countries where the gamble that big events will be able to go on in June is relatively low risk.
However, The Lion King announcement has unleashed the anxieties that our local performance industry is feeling right now. We’ve dug in our claws, but we’re just holding on, and those wildebeest below don’t show any signs of slowing down.
The other big theatre story to have made the mainstream press recently is the demise of the Pop-up Globe, now in receivership with $1 million in liabilities. With 750,000 ticket sales across New Zealand and Australia over five years, the Pop-up had been a runaway commercial success story. In making the liquidation announcement, the company played a superb PR game: “Covid-19’s wrecking ball” had ended their last Auckland season and destroyed their international touring opportunities.
What wasn’t mentioned was the Pop-up Globe’s pre-Covid decision to exit the domestic market in favour of international production. It was cruel timing for the company that the global pandemic halted these ambitions. But what better place in the world to be than New Zealand over the past year? The company chose not to pivot and get local productions back off the ground, although the list of receivers (including Camelspace, Elephant Publicity, Ellerslie Event Centre, Eventfinda, Phantom Billstickers, and Superloo Sanitation) suggests outstanding issues in paying off their previous Auckland season. The company maintains that even in heading overseas they would have continued to employ New Zealanders in some roles.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand theatre industry has weathered a disrupted summer of shows with Auckland going two stretches at level three lockdown and the rest of the country at level two. This occurred just as we were in the swing of Auckland Pride and Fringe, and as the Auckland Arts Festival and Wellington Fringe were getting going. The Arts Festival rescheduled a bunch of events, but not everything could be salvaged. The Spinoff collected insights from artists on the lockdown’s “cruel blows.” Shows big and small were impacted across the country. Level 3 means no live performance. The three-day length of the first 2021 Auckland lockdown meant many affected in the performing arts did not qualify for government assistance, and while performances can go on safely at level two with physical distancing, capacity is vastly reduced and extra time and money is needed to accommodate. While artists continue to demonstrate resilience and go to great lengths to get work to an audience, nobody is making much money right now.
Despite arts rescue packages and the funding floodgates being opened last year, Creative New Zealand funding cannot meet the demand and need. The Lion King tour will likely have a net positive. It is promised 300 locals will be employed behind the scenes. Those five local kids will have the gig of a lifetime playing the Spark Arena. Hospitality will be a winner. So will domestic travel to Auckland. If you want to fill Spark Arena and offer work to the casual staff, better to have a longer running theatre show then a one-off concert.
But what do The Lion King, the Wiggles, and Rod Stewart have in common? The NZ government not doing enough to back our own.
What stings is seeing the government give preference to an international tour. It’s hard to sing hakuna matata when there is so much need in the local performance industry. The Lion King cannot be the only show in town. Live Nation can absorb the financial risk of New Zealand changing alert levels during the season. It is substantially more difficult for our theatre groups. To fully support the local performing arts sector, the government needs to take away this risk. Introduce a fund that would underwrite or insure productions in the event of a change in alert level. Give the industry the confidence to invest, employ our talent, and offer audiences the live experiences they’re craving.
That would really help us roar.
This piece was originally published on Theatre Scenes and is republished here with permission.