Disney’s Lion King roaring back to San Francisco

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Jelani Remy as Simba and the ensemble in “He Lives in You” from the touring production of Disney’s The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus


According to the Wall Street Journal, the King really is the King of Broadway.

News came down last month that Disney’s The Lion King is now Broadway’s all-time highest grossing show. It’s a title the regal hit stole from The Phantom of the Opera. The cumulative gross is staggering: $853,846,062 and counting.

Timing of the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Lion King‘s Tony Award-winning director, Julie Taymor, happened to be in town with producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions President, Thomas Schumacher. They were with a small group at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville to promote the return of The Lion King to San Francisco this November as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. That’s the same theater where the show made its Bay Area debut in 2004 and ran for 43 weeks.

Schumacher, a San Mateo native, was working in Disney’s animation division when The Lion King first began to make noise. “I realize I’ve been working in way or another on The Lion King, practically on a daily basis for 21 years,” Schumacher said. He remembers reading a four –page treatment called King of the Beasts, which was sort of like an animated National Geographic special. The movie, after the usual years of revisions and rewrites, went on to become an international smash movie with a musical score by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Julie Taymor

When talk turned to the possibility of bringing The Lion King to the stage as Disney had done successfully with Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s chairman at the time, Michael Eisner, whom Schumacher called a “brilliant but nutty guy,” wasn’t at all enamored of the lion idea. Schumacher remembers him saying something like, “Andrew Lloyd Webber already did a musical with cats.”

But Schumacher said he had a great idea. He called up that great idea, who happened to be Taymor, the rather brilliant off-Broadway and international opera director who is one of the last people you’d associate with a Disney musical based on an animated film.

Taymor remembered thinking it wasn’t all that much of a stretch to think of her applying her artistic talents to the Disney project. The film, after all, had a dark beauty to it. “When you think about it, the film is about a young child witnessing the death of his father.”

Having worked in Asia and absorbed many aspects of theater and puppetry there, Taymor was intrigued by the challenge and was delighted that Schumacher and his colleagues seemed open to her aesthetic.

“I don’t think we could open The Lion King today,” Schumacher said. “It took a certain renegade spirit to do it, and we wouldn’t have the same freedom today.”

When The Lion King opened on Broadway in the fall of 1997, it didn’t look like anything else in New York. It still doesn’t. With its extraordinary puppetry, masks, costumes and theatrical effects – many of which are centuries old – it’s an original fusion of international theater techniques combined with Taymor’s overriding vision, which makes it all feel of a piece.

The signature theme of the evening, visually speaking, is the circle – “The Circle of Life” is the centerpiece song of the show (and the basis for its jaw-dropping opening scene) – a theme you see in everything from the rising of the sun to the spinning of wheels as puppet deer leap across the stage on little wagons.

“It would be easy to do a sunrise projection,” Taymor explained. “But that would not be live theater. I wanted to stay away from anything like film. This was already a film. So our sun is bamboo and silk. Our audience knows that, but as it rises, light shimmering across it, it’s filled with spirit and soul.”

She also described the show as “magic and toys,” which are “the spirit of theater. It’s in our DNA going way back. It’s not about thinking. It’s about feeling.”

Taymor calls working on The Lion King “the most enjoyable work experience I’ve had…and here I am 15 years later.”

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Disney’s The Lion King runs Nov. 1 through Jan. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are available as part of SHN’s 2012-13 season package. Subscriptions range from $197.50 to $567.50. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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