On today’s date in history the Lion King debuted on Broadway in 1997. Even though this animated film was not one of my favorite Disney stories, (I prefer the “Lion King 1&1/2” prequel), I think the musical’s staging, costumes and scenery are absolutely wonderful! I was fortunate to have seen the production twice and it was just as exciting seeing it the second time with my children and the whole family enjoyed the show.
As mentioned, “The Lion King” musical is based on the 1994 Disney animated film and featured music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice with an additional musical score by Hans Zimmer. The theatrical production was directed by Julie Taymor and the story is brought to life by actors dressed in animal costumes and also features cleverly designed puppets with some very unique staging. The musical was previewed at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City before officially opening on Broadway on November 13, 1997.
The play’s original director and costume designer, Julie Taymor, had become fascinated by the elements of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, Bunraku, shortly after graduating from college in 1974 while she was on an extended trip to Indonesia and Asia. When she returned to the United States after five years to begin a career in the theater, she began mixing the traditional form of Western storytelling with the Asian techniques of using rod puppets and masks creating a new and innovative mixed-media style of production and staging. During the 1980s, she was very successful as a costumer/set designer and later as a playwriter and director. She eventually came to the attention of the Disney Theatrical Company in 1994 when they decided to turn “The Lion King” story into a large scale musical production for the stage.
By 1995, Taymor had proposed an ambitious production blending actors wearing elaborate masks with oversized puppets and an innovative set design of the African plains as depicted in the Disney animated film. With a huge budget of almost $29 million, Taymor was able to expand the 75 minute animated film storyline into a dramatic and at times humorous two act stage production with a brilliant staging and unique design concept.
For the musical stage adaption, several changes were made, such as the character of Rafiki from a male mandrill monkey to a female character because it was felt that the addition of another female lead was needed in the story. In addition, several songs and scenes were added, such as the “Madness of King Scar” scene and the “Shadowland” song that depicts Nala asking and receiving permission to leave the Pride Lands after she refuses and rejects Scar attempts to make her his mate.
There were over 300 puppets specially created for the production and Taymor took inspiration from the look and style of the animated film as well using the influences from African tribal design in the pattern of the cloth used in fabricating the costumes and puppets. Taking into account the style of each individual character, the design the Mufasa mask appears strong and powerful while the Scar mask is extremely angular and asymmetrical in design to signify his hostile personality. Both the Mufasa and Scar costumes had a mechanical device that with the press of a button can be lowered and raised to give an illusion of these lion characters lunging at one another during a dramatic scene. Some of the animals in the production were portrayed by actors with extra devices to create movement, such as the giraffes with the actors on stilts or numerous gazelle attached to the actors who leap across the stage creating an illusion of a stampeding heard at a climatic point in the production. In addition to costumes, Taymor and her creative team used music and choreography as well as set design and lighting to bring “The Lion King” musical to the Broadway stage.
“The Lion King” Musical went on to win six Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Director for Taymor, who became the first woman to win in that category. She also won a Tony Award for Original Costume Design, which I think was well deserved! “The Lion King” Musical has gone on to become one of the highest grossing Broadway musicals of all time earning $853.8 million. Currently there are several national and international productions worldwide in over 15 different countries.