How The Lion King got to broadway and ruled for a quarter-century and counting

A surprising collaboration between an entertainment giant (Disney) and an avant-garde artist (Julie Taymor) birthed the most successful musical in history



NYT
NYT

By Michael Paulson

Published: Fri 9 Dec 2022, 10:53 PM

Last updated: Fri 9 Dec 2022, 11:10 PM

A quarter-century is about twice as long as the life span of your average wild lion. But there’s nothing average about The Lion King.

In the years since it opened on Broadway, the musical, thanks to 27 productions that have filled 112 million seats and have played on every continent but Antarctica, has grossed nearly $10 billion, more than any other stage show and more than any film. It is still going strong on Broadway, where it is currently the third-longest running show in history (behind The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago) and is consistently among the best-attended and highest-grossing shows each week.

And New York, where The Lion King had been performed 9,812 times as of November 13, is home to just one of the nine ‘Lion King’ productions running around the planet; last month, an international tour settled in for a 24-day United Arab Emirates run, the show’s first visit to the Middle East.

The show, adapted from the hit 1994 animated film, is the outcome of a seemingly improbable relationship between Disney, an entertainment colossus best known for movies and theme parks, and Julie Taymor, an avant-garde director whose work in opera and nonprofit theatre had won her a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1991. Her work on The Lion King earned Taymor an important distinction in theatre history: In 1998, she became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical.

In interviews in recent weeks, many of those involved in bringing The Lion King to Broadway in 1997 spoke about the show’s genesis. This oral history contains edited excerpts from those interviews.

In 1994, three developments paved the way. That February, city and state officials reached a deal with Disney to restore and reopen the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater on a sleazy stretch of 42nd Street. In April, at the nearby Palace Theater, Disney opened its stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which was dismissed by critics but became a hit. And in June, the animated film ‘The Lion King’ opened to strong reviews and even stronger sales.

MICHAEL EISNER (then-chairman and chief executive of the Walt Disney Co.): I’m walking to our Monday staff lunch next to Joe Roth, who at that time was head of the motion picture division, and he said to me on the way in, “I don’t understand why you’re not doing ‘The Lion King’ for Broadway.” And I walk in, and I sit down with the heads of each of the departments at Disney, and I said, “We’re doing The Lion King on Broadway.” Everybody laughed.

ROGER ALLERS (one of the film’s directors and the musical’s book writers): Every person around that table said, “We think it’s a terrible idea.” All we could ever picture were people hopping around in fuzzy costumes. We thought it would be awful.

PETER SCHNEIDER (then-president of Walt Disney Animation and Disney Theatrical Productions): He [Eisner] said, “If you don’t do it, I’ll find someone else to do it,” which is Michael’s style.

THOMAS SCHUMACHER (current president of Disney Theatrical Productions): I made the most important phone call in the history of the stage version of The Lion King. I called Julie Taymor. I’d been seeing her work, so the idea that she understood myth, legend and lore, the idea that she understood scale, the idea that she had already explored this realm of creating animals onstage — it’s logical that this piece of theatre-cum-pageant is something that sat so neatly in what she could do.

JULIE TAYMOR (the musical’s director as well as costume, puppet and mask designer and lyric contributor): I was in LA, working on an opera, and he called me and asked me if he could talk about it, and I told him I had not seen it, which shocked him. “Oh, my God, she hadn’t seen the animated film!” In those days, if you were doing the kind of theatre that I was doing, you weren’t really interested in Broadway. I didn’t watch a lot of Disney stuff then.

SCHUMACHER: I sent her the clamshell video, the soundtrack to the movie and the second album we made, called Rhythm of the Pride Lands, mining the field of all the music that didn’t make it into the movie.

TAYMOR: I was pretty much impressed and knocked out by it. It’s quite beautiful. It was powerful. The songs that existed, with the Lebo combination, attracted me. And I think the thing that really got me was the stampede. I thought, “Wow, how do you put a stampede onstage?” I like challenges.

SCHNEIDER: It took us a long time to get the company on board with Julie. She didn’t come out of this commercial world — she came out of the opera world, she came out of the not-for-profit world, she came out of the avant-garde world.

MICHAEL CURRY (puppet and mask designer): When they mentioned her name, the first thing that went through my mind was, “Are you ready for her?” I wondered if they really knew what they were getting into. We had done Beauty and the Beast, and, with great respect, it was a slideshow from the film. And I knew Julie wouldn’t be doing something conventional. She’d have to take it through her own psyche and lens, which, obviously, she did.

SCHNEIDER: I remember going with Michael [Eisner] to see [the Taymor-directed] “Juan Darién” at Lincoln Center, and of course it was not Michael’s cup of tea — too avant-garde for him — and then he turns to me in the middle of the show and he says: “Oh my God. We’ve picked the right director.”

The film is about a lion cub, Simba, who flees his home, Pride Rock, because he wrongly believes he is to blame for the death of his father, Mufasa. After a sojourn in the jungle, Simba returns to fight his uncle, Scar, to become the lion king. The film was 88 minutes long, with five original songs; the stage show would be nearly twice as long, with three times as many songs.

EISNER: I was adamant that we stuck with the narrative.

TAYMOR: I felt that the story really wasn’t complete. If this is a hero’s journey, it’s really not a journey. He didn’t go through a dark enough time.

SCHUMACHER: She came into my office and said, “Not enough happens in this story.” And she’s right. It’s a very humble myth. And she said, “I think what we want to do is dig deeper on what happens to Simba when he leaves.”

TAYMOR: I came up with an outrageous idea that I still would like to do. They had said “you’re completely free,” and I thought the original script wasn’t just short, but it was sketchy. So I had this idea, when Simba becomes the teenager, he’s so morose and lost, he looks out at the desert, and in the shimmering — like you see in the desert when you go out to Nevada — he saw this incredible mirage of light, this glimmering city, and he starts to run.

CURRY: Julie’s first notions were wild. Simba was a prizefighter in a Vegas world. I was there the day she pitched it, and their jaws were on the floor.

TAYMOR: I thought this would be a ball to create: a city where you have half-human, half animals — humanimals. I used all kinds of lounge lizards, alley cats, and I made a substitute father figure in Papa Croc, who was this Don King character. It’s so insane now, when I tell it, that I kind of have to laugh, but it was freeing. They put Simba as a gladiator in the ring, and he becomes the lion king — the toughest boxer, wrestler, the biggest star, and all the pussycats love him. Timon and Pumbaa are caught and are getting groomed to be put in the gladiator ring. And then, I made a character called Natasha, who was a leopard, half-human and half-car, that was rushing from the Disneyland/Vegas-y place back to Scar, who had sold the water rights to Papa Croc. Nala comes to find Simba, who is supposed to fight Timon and Pumbaa in the ring, and the four of them get together, go back, and there’s a fight with the hyenas.

SCHUMACHER: I said no. I don’t want to change the story. We need to tell the story of the movie. Of course, she was just exploring. It was a giant artistic idea: the fact that we could see the human characters and the animal parts and they become one. And if she hadn’t had the big idea, we would never have The Lion King.

CURRY: That strong left turn she took set a tone: We’re not going to do it straight. Everybody understood. They also understood Julie’s range and her audacious ambition.

TAYMOR: I didn’t feel like it was Big Disney cutting off creativity. Instead of telling me the limits, they gave me freedom to find out what their limits were.

Taymor had other concerns, too, and here she prevailed. She wanted a stronger African look and sound, and found a sonic starting place on ‘Rhythm of the Pride Lands’. And she insisted on stronger female characters: Rafiki, in the film a male mandrill, became female for the stage version; Nala, a childhood friend of Simba, was made more forceful, and the strength and centrality of lionesses to the pride was emphasised.

TAYMOR: There weren’t enough female characters. I knew I would strengthen Nala. This is the thing that I always had to grapple with, which is that female lions are the lion kings. Male lions don’t do the hunt. They sleep. They’re not kings of the jungle — that is a patriarchal concept. But you know, there’s just so much that you’re going to deal with. But the female character of Nala can be as strong as we need her to be. And she does shame Simba in the second act, and she helps him find his strength, and this, then, gives their relationship depth.

HEATHER HEADLEY (Nala): It came to me later that I think Nala was her little baby, like “How can I make Nala almost like the lion queen?” She wanted her strong, and she wanted her fierce, and Nala was going to change the way Simba looked at things. And Julie was very much a force for that with me. At times we would butt heads, but as I grew up in the part, and grew up as a performer, I saw that this was Julie saying: “You’re representing all these little girls. All these women.” And I’m very appreciative of that now.

TAYMOR: So I’m on the phone with Thuli Dumakude, who is a South African phenomenal actress and singer, and a light bulb goes off. I was thinking: “Who is Rafiki? Is he just the butler? No, the butler is Zazu. Rafiki can stand outside the story.” And, “Who is going to sing The Circle of Life?” In the movie it’s an abstract female voice. It’s not a character. So I asked her about shamans. I said, “Thuli, are there any female shamans in South Africa?” “Are you crazy? Of course!” And she goes into how they’re the most powerful; they’re called sangoma. I called Tom, and I told him the idea: That Rafiki should be female, and also that she would be the one to sing The Circle of Life, so it’s rooted in a character, and that she would be able to address the audience.

EISNER: Seeing that it was a monkey, it didn’t matter to me.

What would ‘The Lion King’ look like? Taymor, inspired by a four-year sojourn studying and making theatre in Asia, conceived a design approach in which patrons can see both puppet and puppeteer; a sunrise as well as silk on bamboo sticks.

TAYMOR: I had started doing films, so I said, “If I go back and do some big theatre thing, it has to do what theatre does better than films.” The power of live theatre is the suspension of disbelief. That is the principle of The Lion King: that the soul and the spirit is in the visibility of how it’s done. There’s the story, and then there’s how the story is told, and I believe that the success of The Lion King is that double event.

SCHUMACHER: We rented a puppet lab, where she began sketching and sculpting. I’ve never worked with anyone who is more comprehensively visually connected to the narrative.

CURRY: We spent a lot of time at the Met, in the African art exhibits. Then we started playing with the characters: How do you take human actors and make them believable animals? We found out the simplest methods were the best: You give a hint.

TAYMOR: One of the ways that I always work is to find the ideograph. The ideograph, in Japanese brush painting, is finding “How do you do a whole bamboo forest in three brush strokes?” So very early on, it was very obvious in The Lion King that the circle is the ideograph: the Circle of Life. Mufasa’s mask. The way I do drought is it’s a big circle of fabric, and the drought is symbolised by the most simple, reduced ideograph of pulling that circle through the floor hole. Now the gazelle wheel: I thought, I want a herd of gazelles. I’m going to take the Circle of Life, in wheels, and I’m going to have those wheels be the mechanism where you see the gazelles leaping. So we made a maquette of the humans, the gazelles, and the wheels, and I took it to Florida to meet Michael Eisner.

SCHUMACHER: Everything to know about The Lion King is in this one piece: The Circle of Life, the puppeteer, the machine and the representation of a herd of gazelles, leaping. And Julie kind of said: “If you understand this piece, then you understand my vocabulary. If this is not what you want, then I’m not the person.”

SCHNEIDER: We’d been working with both groups — the parks theatre people and Julie. Julie did this presentation of the gazelle wheel, and once Michael, me and Tom saw this, we said, “That’s the show.” There was nothing more to be said. Very clearly the avant-gardeness and the creativity of what Julie was presenting was so much more exciting than what the theme park artists could come up with. This was not close. This was not controversial.

EISNER: I still have the maquette. It was an awesome presentation. We said yes.

That prototype presentation in Florida was in late 1995; by late 1996, there was a presentation with actors, masks and puppets in New York. At first, it did not go well.

TAYMOR: It was our first full-out experiment in front of all the bigwigs of Disney. I had made the masks. We had about five characters of different styles. They were wearing white. It was three days of rehearsal. The small audience of honchos was very close. The weakness of that kind of presentation is it assumes people can make a leap, but they’re not theatre people.

EISNER: Julie presented the characters and the masks. One of our executives said these masks could be the destruction of the show, or not. That meeting was kind of unpleasant. She was insulted. It was a bad moment.

SCHNEIDER: We probably did it too soon and too quickly. You couldn’t quite get a sense of how the puppets related to the human body. Julie always talked about the double event — seeing the puppet and seeing the human. In the rehearsal hall, the double event didn’t work. You didn’t know where to look. She hadn’t painted the masks. The mechanical things didn’t quite work. It was horrible. We were all unhappy. We all knew it didn’t work. I said to Julie: “We failed you. We didn’t give you enough support.” And Tom and I and Julie said: “We’re not going to give up on this. We’re going to figure it out.” And the next time we did it, we did it at the Palace Theater, we put it onstage, we put lights on it, we put the better mechanics out, we painted it, we did the whole thing.

TAYMOR: I said I will do three versions of each of these characters — I will do no masks and just makeup; I will do the commedia [dell’arte], half-mask version; and then what I designed. Michael Eisner got to see all three. And Michael Eisner said, “Let’s go with your original concept.” Then he said the classic words: “The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.”

Over time, Taymor assembled a creative team, and they set about, painstakingly, developing the show.

LEBO M (composer, lyricist, arranger, choral director and ensemble member): We had a brilliant first day with Julie, and we set out to do research on Broadway musicals. I remember we saw Miss Saigon, and at intermission we looked at each other, and we left. We inherently knew The Lion King was going to be different.

CURRY: Disney allowed us a year and a half of experimentation to find what we thought was the vocabulary to use. We made every mistake. The first Mufasa I mocked up had animatronic eyes and the mouth moved in synchronicity with the actor’s voice — it was complicated, and it was far too interesting, and it started competing with the actor. At one point, we made a full-sized Zazu — a six-foot-tall man wearing a bird costume. We spent months working on that, but it took about three seconds when it appeared in front of us, next to other humans: We had a Zazu that was as big as Mufasa.

LEBO M: The lioness chant, I remember, was created at the same time the choreography was created. It’s one of the greatest memories of my career — I’m standing, talking to the director and the choreographer, and we’re creating a scene and the choreography and the music at the same time. Myself and Garth, we were translating what was in Julie’s mind, as she was verbally painting a picture for us.

GARTH FAGAN (choreographer): The hardest thing was to get the humans to understand that I needed them to dance, but still look like a hyena, and look like a lioness. The viciousness of the hyenas was a little hard to figure out, because I didn’t want that stereotypical — Black men are negative — character.

AUBREY LYNCH II (dance captain): We were trying to avoid obvious stereotypes — we were Black men onstage in hoodies, and we wanted to be careful with that kind of thing. How to marry the character of the hyena and this urban feel with the music and the costume without becoming the stereotype that we know all too well. So it was back and forth to get that right.

HEADLEY: I watched documentaries on lions to see, “How do they move their heads?” and “How stealthy are they,” and the shoulder action. And Garth would always say just get in front of a mirror and work on it, work on it, work on it.

LINDIWE DLAMINI (original cast member and still in the ensemble): We had to learn how to move with these costumes and learn how to work with the puppets. I was not a puppeteer. We had somebody come in, who had to teach us how to do it. You have to bring life to the mask. It has to come alive.

HEADLEY: There was a little bit of a breaking, for me, with Julie. There were all these times when she would say, this is a good time for her head to cock, or her ears to go up. It was a constant learning process, trying to figure out that balance of lion and humanness. And then all of a sudden it becomes seamless.

In the summer of 1997, ‘The Lion King’ had a pre-Broadway run at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.

FRED KROHN (Orpheum Theater manager): I’ve got to say, we did not know at the time what we were getting. I had a pretty good record with pre-Broadway stuff, but after a while the producers knew they could play one market off against another. We got The Lion King because of a production deal I negotiated with unions, and we also had a market where they thought they could hide the show away until it was ready.

LEBO M: Minneapolis was the longest, most painful, but beautiful experiment. I was the arranger, and I was also in the cast, leading the antelope track, so I was part of the costume experiment: Would the helmets fit? Were they heavy? It took a toll on the body — living with the costumes was painful, and you were constantly worried about what’s not going to work.

SCHUMACHER: We were inventing it as we went. It was a lot of pressure. The kids were going to fly, but it was too complicated. It was just too much — too many ideas.

LYNCH: It was every day, all day, problem solving. It was not like doing kick-ball-change in a party dress. It was insane. I was the lead gazelle, but that was just the opening number. I changed costumes 19 times — I was a gazelle, then I was a grass-head, then I was warthog, then I was a hyena. Back and forth all night long. It was exhausting.

SCHNEIDER: This is a company of actors who have never been on Broadway, so they have no idea the emotional, physical toll to go through what we’re doing. The amount of time. The problems with the masks. The problems with the puppets. It was overwhelming. There was tremendous frustration and tiredness during Minneapolis. And Julie got her gallbladder removed.

TAYMOR: I remember the hamburger in this lovely restaurant. And we were in tech, and I was in agony, and I went to the hospital, and had my gallbladder removed. And, although Disney will deny this, I think I was out one day. And so they got a BarcaLounger and they put it in the middle of the aisle, and I sat there with a mic, and I continued with the tech. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.

LYNCH: By the time we had the first preview, we had never gotten through the show without stopping. We were exhausted. Things weren’t working. We’d sit for hours in costumes — “Do it again! Do it again! Do it again.” It was really gruelling, and we were losing sight of what we were actually doing — we were kind of in survival mode. And so by the time we ran it, I was the last hyena offstage and the first gazelle onstage for the final number, and the audience was screaming, crying, cheering, and it was just like, Wow, we’ve done something.

EISNER: I had seen many rehearsals, but all of a sudden it starts, and all these animals start walking down the orchestra to this Lebo South African music, and the place went crazy. They were crying, which they still do. They just went nuts. And at that moment, you just knew what you had. You just knew it.

CHRIS BONEAU (publicist): We weren’t sold out in Minneapolis. The audiences in Minneapolis didn’t know what it was — they thought it was a Disney show, so they brought kids. When it became clear it was the hottest ticket in town, you wanted to bring your adult friends.

As the show moved to New York to prepare for Broadway, a labour dispute arose.

JEFF LEE (then the production stage manager): There’s an ongoing issue about bringing performers in from other countries to participate in a union production in the US. It was always a limited engagement thing, and then they had to get out. But with The Lion King, Julie Taymor and Lebo M wanted a contingent of performers from South Africa — in the original production we had seven — because they brought an authenticity and a truth to the show that an American could not. And Julie’s passion ran deep.

SCHNEIDER: We fought with Equity to allow us to have African performers be in the company at all times, and this was revolutionary for Equity. “No, no, no, no, they’ve got to be American!”

LEBO M: It was quite a battle.

ALAN EISENBERG (then-executive director of Actors’ Equity Association): Normally chorus members are always made up of American actors. It’s a question of finding a job. Why should we allow members of a South African company to come and play a show in New York when we have hundreds of very talented men and women who could play the part? That’s always the issue.

LEE: It was adversarial. It felt like an affront — like somebody was wanting to take your family members away.

EISENBERG: It was definitely tense for a while. Peter threatened to take out a full-page ad in Variety explaining the issue. I said I’d send members of the council to see the show, and they came back and said, unequivocally, there’s a unique sound, and we should allow the chorus to be part of the company.

LEE: In the end, thankfully everybody saw their way clear to allow it to be what it should be — to give it the heart and soul it should have. And now the show has been running for 25 years, so add up the number of workweeks for the Equity membership — they certainly have benefited.

DLAMINI: Julie always says that South Africans are the soul of The Lion King. So much music that comes from my culture, and I’m able to sing it on Broadway. That makes me so proud. Thank God the union allowed us to be here, and that’s why we’re still here today.

On October 15, 1997, the show began previews at the New Amsterdam Theater, and on November 13 of that year, it opened.

RICK ELICE (then part of the advertising and marketing team): We said, we’re going to make all the media choices based on if this were a limited engagement of the hottest Royal Shakespeare Company production. We wanted to present it in the marketplace as a real genuine bona fide work of art. We never showed anything, we never depicted anything. We acted as though it was a given that everybody wanted to see the show. And it seemed to work.

KAJUANA SHUFORD MARIE (Young Nala): It was just fun at first, and then it became fun and real. People wanted my autograph, and I didn’t understand that at first. I was 12, and I didn’t even know how to write an autograph, like “What do you want me to write here?” I would write a K. I remember my signature being the best penmanship I could do, and a heart.

ROSIE O’DONNELL (actress and talk-show host): I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I started crying right at the beginning — the opening number. I was blown away, and then I spent the rest of the night in theatre heaven.

ALLERS: The night of the opening, when Irene and I and others were called up to take a bow, I’m standing up on that stage and I’m realising that this was the very stage that my grandmother, who was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, had performed on a chorus girl. I felt this amazing circular connection with my grandmother.

MECCHI: I was able to bring Gov. Ann Richards, who had become a friend. During intermission, Gov. Richards said, “Irene, they’re going to rename this ‘The Lion Ka-Ching.’”

O’DONNELL: When I left, I said, “Could I have two tickets for tomorrow? I have a 2-1/2-year-old, and I want him to come see this.” So I brought my son, and he was actually agog as well. That little boy is 27. It goes fast.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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