Even The Lion King seems political now

Lion King 1
Buyi Zama is Rafiki in the North American tour of Disney’s The Lion King, at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre. Below: Nia Holloway is Nala” with the Lionesses. Photos by Joan Marcus. ©Disney

The “mane” question is this: after nearly 20 years, does Disney’s The Lion King, now the highest grossing Broadway show of all time, still have any roar left? Based on the touring production that has settled into SHN’s Orpheum Theatre for a two-month run through the holidays, the answer is a qualified yes.

From the outset, when the 1994 animated hit leaped to the stage in 1997, the strength of the production has rested solely on director Julie Taymor’s vision for adapting cartoon to live theater. Rather than rely solely on blockbuster special effects, Taymor and her creative team leaned in the direction of traditional and inventive puppetry, gorgeous (sometimes surprising) costumes and masks that rarely cover a performer’s face. The result is something that feels highly theatrical and imaginative but also remains true to the movie, which is a simplified spin on Hamlet set in the African savannah. The score, primarily by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), has a sweet poppy appeal (“Hakuna Matata”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the majestic “The Circle of Life”). But the real heft of the show’s music comes from Lebo M, a South African composer whose contributions, including the rousing Act 2 opener “One by One” and the show’s best number, “He Lives in You (Reprise),” lend an authenticity and uncommon beauty to the Broadway trimmings.

Lion King 2

Having made over a billion dollars worldwide, The Lion King is a massive industry built on solid, crowd-pleasing craftsmanship. The show, at 2 1/2 hours, is a little slow, and pacing in this tour can be patchy. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, there was some unfortunately persistent audio feedback in Act 1 that was followed, about 30 minutes in, by a five-minute break while technical issues were addressed. Not what you expect from a show where top ticket price is over $200, but hey, live theater is truly live.

The spectacle of The Lion King remains mostly undimmed. The opening procession of The Circle of Life still packs a punch, even if the animal parade seems less full than it once was, and the quieter moments in the show – the lionesses in mourning, the grasslands (in the form of enormous hats) swaying in the wind, Simba’s cris de coeur “Endless Night” under the stars – tend to be more powerful than the noisier numbers. The hyenas’ song “Chow Down” has always been a lowlight of the show and is especially so here.

It’s interesting to see The Lion King in the midst of this nightmare election season. Scar, the egotistical, power-hungry villain, seems awfully familiar, and his grab at power just for the sake of power and his wanton destruction of the pride lands to fuel his own needs, seems a stern warning. The kids who grew up with The Lion King both on film and on stage are of voting age now. Let’s hope its lesson to keep the circle of life healthy and free of narcissistic villains intent on destruction.

Disney’s The Lion King continues through Dec. 31 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$228 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Disney’s Lion King roaring back to San Francisco

Lion King 1

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.”

[bonus video]


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.