Lion King Eats Symphony?

The Honolulu Symphony’s displacement from the Blaisdell may well propel it to a new circle of life.

No, the Lion King touring musical didn’t eat the 107-year-old Honolulu Symphony. It just mauled it a little, tossing it aside for half of the symphony’s 2007-2008 concert season.

illustration by Matt Mignanelli

City officials asserted that revenue from The Lion King would bring an estimated $30 million to the local economy. Honolulu Symphony ex-chairman Robert Levy, and others, pointed out that most of that revenue would come from Hawaii and end up on the Mainland. But Mayor Mufi Hannemann had already announced, “The Lion King is coming!” as a cast member costumed as Rifiki sang “Circle of Life.”

Jim Becker, a longtime AP correspondent and broadcaster, was a friend of Mayor Neal Blaisdell when Blaisdell first planned building on the Ward Estate property. “Neal was more interested in sports than in music,” Becker recalls. “Russell Cades [a prominent lawyer and arts supporter] convinced him that a first-class city needed a first-class symphony, which deserved a concert hall. Funds were raised and the hall was built expressly as the Honolulu Symphony’s permanent home. For years, the symphony ran it and booked its events.”

But today, the city’s Department of Enterprise Services operates the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, and the symphony’s events can be displaced with just eight weeks’ notice. Since major concert artists often require contracts two to three years before performance dates, the situation is far from ideal.

The Lion King’s ticket sales met expectations, and the voices of those decrying the city’s decision have been replaced by those praising the show. Nevertheless, the symphony staff has had to scramble to book alternative venues to the Blaisdell, its home since 1964.

Moving On

When she first heard about the displacement, symphony board member Sharon McPhee’s first thought was that the symphony might be doomed, but she quickly moved to her second thought, “We’ll just have to move on.”

Moving on meant presenting the broadest spectrum of concerts possible in smaller venues while, McPhee says, “honoring our symphony and supporting it.”

Tom Gulick, the symphony’s executive director, is in charge of the retrenchment, including moving concerts from the 2,100-seat Blaisdell hall to much smaller theaters, such as the Hawaii Theatre (approximately 1,400 seats) and Mamiya Theatre (about 500 seats). But Gulick is also thinking about a long-term strategy.

“The Lion King is an anomaly,” Gulick says, noting that few shows could warrant a three-month Blaisdell booking. “The city has its financial responsibilities, and we have our own. We’re looking at some extraordinary fundraising, and using this year to reach out, to show the orchestra is worthy of support from the entire state, not just Honolulu, with concerts on Neighbor Islands and in new places on Oahu.”

The orchestra, Gulick says, is “the musical backbone of Hawaii, for children as well as for adults. It performs concerts that inspire young people and provides hundreds of students with skilled teachers. We’re excited that John Magnussen returned home in August to lead the expansion of the educational component of the symphony.”

Another step toward energizing the symphony was the long-awaited selection of a new principal conductor, Andreas Delfs. Delfs took over the podium at the Masterworks season premiere, held at the Blaisdell in August. He will be responsible for planning all future concert seasons during his tenure with the symphony, and he acknowledged that without firm dates, that’s a difficult task.

A new concert hall?

For decades, the Honolulu Symphony has dreamed of a grand concert hall, one that would bring in audiences from all over the world. Such a hall could anchor an entire arts center for groups such as the Hawaii Youth Symphony and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, whose need for rehearsal and performance space is as urgent as the symphony’s own. The center could house hula halau, theatrical groups without theaters and visual artists who lack adequate studio and gallery space.

The perfect site for such an arts center—part of the state-owned 150-acre Kakaako Makai waterfront property—nearly became another upscale residential development. But citizens’ groups lobbied against the project, and state legislators eventually killed it. The Legislature then mandated its Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA) to conduct community meetings to determine alternate uses for the land.

One of the leaders championing the arts center vision is Mark Wong, president and CEO of Commercial Data Systems and a longtime supporter of the arts. Of Kakaako Makai, he says, “Because this property is enormous, many stakeholders can be involved.

The land sees daytime use, but an arts complex could also bring in nighttime revenue for the state, and draw people to Hawaii.”

Nancy Bannick, another Hawaii arts supporter, envisions a center that would, like Sydney’s iconic opera house, be architecturally splendid as well as functional and inclusive.

Bannick and Wong are members of the Community Planning Advisory Council, which is actively meeting under HCDA’s auspices to help decide the future of the Kakaako Makai lands and, hopefully, find a future home for the symphony and countless others of Hawaii’s talented artists.

In the end, The Lion King may have been just the wakeup call to action that will propel the symphony toward its dreams.

Honolulu freelancer E. Shan Correa writes for children and adults. Peachtree Publishers recently acquired her middle-grade novel, Gaff, for 2008 publication.