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Commentary: no pride in the "Lion King"

St. Paul, Minn. — Word that "The Lion King" was returning to Minneapolis next year didn't send thrills down my spine—I've always thought the Disney musical was a pretty kitty, but one with not much roar. But the news did send me back to the glory days of the 1990s, when the Twin Cities were touted as the pre-Broadway tryout town of choice.

Remember? "The Lion King" practiced its purr at the Orpheum Theatre in 1997 before prowling off to its multi-year, multi-million-dollar success at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre. A couple years before that, Minneapolis hosted the forever-remembered Julie Andrews and the pre-Broadway tryout of the now-forgotten musical "Victor/Victoria."

Folks were quietly murmuring back then that the Twin Cities, with its huge base of sophisticated theater-goers, was going to be the new New Haven, the place where Broadway musicals would be primped and polished before moving on to the Great White Way.

Well, the new millennium didn't exactly bear that out. Broadway shows seldom try out out of town anymore—it's just too expensive. And the ones that do don't seem to be paying much attention to us. "The Producers" did its warm-up run in Chicago three years ago. And when "Hairspray" wanted to shake out its kinks, it did so in Seattle.

What did we get? Well, in 1999, there was that gimpy production of "Martin Guerre" that limped out of the Guthrie Theater. That show was blessedly put out of its misery before it hit New York. And last year, the Children's Theatre Company's production of "A Year With Frog and Toad" made it to Broadway, where it hopped—and flopped.

We Minnesotans have this funny inferiority complex that tells us that we're nobody until somebody—preferably somebody from the East Coast—loves us. And so we're always trying to land that Super Bowl, that national political convention or that pre-Broadway tryout that will prove that we deserve a place at the grown-ups' table.

Though it might make us feel better, trying to bring the world to our door is a fools' errand. And it's not even really necessary if you look at what our cultural landscape produces on its own.

Last year, the Guthrie was named one of the top regional theaters in the country by TIME Magazine, and CTC won the Tony Award® for outstanding regional theater. The Playwrights' Center has churned out dozens of playwrights and scores of scripts that have had success throughout the country and around the world. David Esbjornson, who was born in Willmar, is one of New York's most sought-after stage directors.

Sound provincial? Well, maybe it is, a little. And I'm not suggesting that we either sit smugly on our past accomplishments or that we necessarily stop trying to draw the national spotlight. But, rather than being an importer of culture—I mean, who really cares if the "Lion King" got its start here?—we should focus on building on our arts infrastructure and then exporting that which merits additional attention.

We should do it without looking over our shoulder all the time. The only cultural community we have to be better than is the one we've built ourselves. That is going to take some doing.

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