There are certain graceful moments that make a true basketball fan gasp: Michael Jordan dunking from the foul line. Dikembe Mutombo swatting down a jumper. And . . . young Simba crooning “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”? Maybe this last example (from “The Lion King”) is pushing it, but the NBA is betting that its fans will thrill to the Broadway classics. During this year’s All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden on February 8th, the usual gyrating cheerleaders will be sidelined at half-time to make room for the casts of eight musical hits, including “The Lion King,” “Chicago” and “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk.”
“We got the idea from ‘Broadway on Broadway,'” says NBA Entertainment President Adam Silver, referring to the annual outdoor concert in New York City given by casts of current musicals. “We asked them if, instead of an hour-long show, they could do a medley in just 10 minutes.” Home audiences will have to accept an even quicker Broadway lightning-round. NBC will broadcast only about half of the show, says Silver, so it can save room for its own first-half recap. But it’s a big step that the network is covering any of the production, considering that the NBA never before attempted a glitzy half-time extravaganza.
An arena filled with some 20,000 psyched-up sports junkies might not seem like the ideal audience for musical theater, but the organizers are convinced that this group of fans will gladly mix foul lines with chorus lines. “The All-Star Game isn’t your typical basketball crowd,” stresses Silver. “It’s more corporate. Plus, you don’t have as many hardcore fans rooting for their home team.”
Considering the growth in Broadway ticket-sales since “Rent” opened two years ago, you can’t underestimate the wide appeal of musicals, says Robert Viagas, managing editor of the online edition of Playbill. Viagas was surprised by the audience reaction when the cast of “The Lion King” appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” last week. “When the actors came out in lion masks, I cringed and thought, ‘The audience is gonna laugh,'” says Viagas. “But the song grabbed people, and at the end, the audience erupted.” Maybe, come February, “The King and I” will even earn The Wave.