Normally, when a Broadway show is billed as a “Landmark Musical Experience” there is a bit (or, a lot) of promotional optimism at play. But that is so not the case with Disney’s timeless masterpiece The Lion King. On October 15, 1997, the musical had its first preview. The story of Simba, the cub who would be king, staked its claim as an unprecedented Broadway phenomenon—a feast of unbound imagination, stirring storytelling and pure, visceral joy.
Now, at the venerable stage age of 25 and counting, the production’s reputation for being one of the Broadway’s most coveted tickets remains intact, as does its status as a show that crosses all generational lines: a timeless musical must-see that mesmerizes kids and grownups alike.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
The reason for this is simple: from the show’s opening moments—marked by the shaman Rafiki’s hypnotic chant “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” (“Here comes a lion”) against a golden daybreak on the South African savanna—audiences are spellbound. Within moments, the visual ante is quadrupled with the rapturous arrival of bounding animals in the wild: birds soaring, gazelles leaping, zebras, lions, giraffes, and on and on… a brilliantly abstract menagerie that beckons you to enter the “Circle of Life.”
Of course many of today’s theatregoers became acquainted with the characters through Disney’s 1994 animated film. And while the movie version remains a beloved staple in countless family DVD collections, anyone who has seen both will readily admit that the theatrical artistry of the stage version catapulted the story into a compelling new dimension.
Which brings us to director/conceptual mastermind Julie Taymor, who designed the costumes and collaborated with Michael Curry to create the show’s masks and puppets, using the film’s animated characters as a jumping-off point.
Describing them as “expressive” and “very human animals,” she said, “I had to play with keeping some of the ‘character’ of the Disney originals so that they’re recognizable. But I was also very inspired by African masks… [and] because we’re doing three-dimensional theatre, I didn’t want the faces to look flat… So I used texture and organic materials, fibers, wood. Things that would make it less cartoon-like.”
To ensure the actors’ facial expressions wouldn’t be lost, the masks in The Lion King are worn over the head, leaving the performer free to register a wide range of emotions for what Taymor calls the “Double Event”: the coming together of the human spirit and the mask—something not lost on actor Alton Fitzgerald White, who played Simba’s father, Mufasa, from 2002 through 2015.
“The regular headpiece isn’t heavy. It’s kind of like paper mache, only with carvings,” he notes, adding that the mechanical version does need some getting used to, as it’s weighted down with a battery pack. “Whenever an actor first goes into the show they’re given time to work in front of mirror making peace with it.”
Other elements that continues to fascinate are Taymor’s use of Indonesian shadow puppetry and Japanese Bunraku puppetry, offering yet another exotic layer to the procession of conceptualized fauna.
Add to this is the score, blending lush South African sounds represented by the merging of new music by Lebo M and Mark Mancina with the Elton John-Tim Rice songs from the film—like the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and the buoyant “Hakuna Matata”—and it’s no wonder Disney’s greatest stage production to date has yet to vacate Broadway’s most coveted ticket list.
Concludes White: “I love how people keep coming back, how new generations are taking in the show for the first time, getting to experience life on the African savanna. Phenomenal.”
The Lion King is playing at the Minskoff Theatre, 1515 Broadway (Seventh Ave.). For tickets or more information, call 866-870-2717, or visit lionking.com.