As it enters its 16th year, The Lion King remains ascendant, recently becoming the highest-grossing Broadway show in history. Since its Broadway premiere on November 13, 1997, 20 productions around the globe have been seen by more than 66 million people, grossed over $5 billion and, cumulatively, run a staggering 96 years. Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions (under the direction of Thomas Schumacher), The Lion King is the fifth longest-running musical in Broadway history and only the second show in history to generate five productions running 10 or more years. Translated into eight different languages (Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese), the show has been performed in 15 different countries on five continents. As the Broadway show celebrates its 15th year on Broadway, D23 checks in with the show’s original director, Julie Taymor, and the head of Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of The Lion King musical, Thomas Schumacher.
Why do you think this show in particular remains the king of Broadway?
Thomas Schumacher: No one knew what to expect with this show. So when you reflect on 15 years, you also think about the doubts and the questions that came up, because it was so complicated to mount. I think about all of that. And that is juxtaposed with the fact that we are here 15 years later, and half the time this summer we were the No. 1 show in New York. It is thrilling because people enjoy it. It’s the reason we create these shows. It’s because you want to share it. For me, it’s a great joy to see it resonate this way.
Julie Taymor: It was done with a lot of inventions, which I think the audience feels are illuminating and fresh. It really is still unique. I don’t think there are many shows that look, feel, or sound like The Lion King. It’s this incredible combination of African music and the pop music of Elton. It covers so many bases and feels right. In a good way, it’s a collision of culture. One thing about The Lion King is that it brings you out of yourself. There’s obviously the familiarity with the experience of life that children go through and families and cultures go through, but it takes you out of your own culture in an experiential way, because we have used theater in all of its glory—what it can actually do with the masks, puppets, stylization of the sun, scenic use, and the dance of Garth Fagan. So, people feel like they are traveling to a different planet. They’ve never seen anything like it.
The Lion King is such a unique theatrical experience. How were you able to illustrate all the new ideas in a way that would justify the original artistic direction to Disney executives?
Thomas Schumacher: The first thing that was presented to Michael Eisner was the gazelle wheel, that machine that pushes across the stage and makes the gazelles rise and fall on the top, and that sort of demonstrated the whole show. We showed how the puppeteer is going to be totally exposed. You are going to see the mechanism and you are going to see the leaping gazelles—and the wheels of the “circle of life” turning, going forward. The metaphor was so profound. Michael loved that and said if that is the idea, great, let’s do it.
So it was smooth sailing the whole way through?
Thomas Schumacher: Well, we then did a reading and a workshop of the show. We believed in the show, but when we showed it to others in the Company there was a real loss of faith that the show was going to work. We then went back and did a more elaborate presentation, because they were having trouble imagining what we were talking about. But when they saw the more fully realized presentation, they finally bought into the whole idea of the masks on top of the heads and all that stuff.
The show had its workshop and tech rehearsals at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before it opened on Broadway. What was it like the first night you had a live audience there?
Julie Taymor: When we got to Minneapolis and we had that first preview, and when the animals came down the aisle and the sun was rising, and Rafiki was singing that extraordinary chant, the audience began to scream and cheer and roar and stand up. We all started to cry. I remember, and I don’t think we were prepared for that reaction from the audience. It still is incredibly thrilling to see the audience cheer. That is exciting, and it doesn’t stop being exciting 15 years later.
Thomas Schumacher: I will tell you that the first preview in Minneapolis, the first time an audience gathered to see what we were doing, we had never run the show from beginning to end, once. We couldn’t get set up for the stampede sequence so we had to stop the show and pause like in an opera, where they change the scenery and then start the show again. And we told the audience that before it began. It was so big and we weren’t ready yet. But when the grass heads rose out of the floor, the audience knew what we were getting at and they loved it.
What was it like the first time you saw the “Circle of Life” opening number come together?
Julie Taymor: It was when we were finally in rehearsals at the fantastic Michael Bennett rehearsal studios at 890 Broadway. It was a three-ring circus, or I guess I should say, four rings. We would have music rehearsals in one room, choreography in another, acting in another, and a puppet workshop in another. And then people would move around. The dancers would get to come into the acting room, and then the actors would see how the dancers were moving. You started to see how all the different components, and the actors, singers, dancers, and puppeteers began seeing what the others were doing. And they were blown away. It was an ecstatic five or six weeks of rehearsal. And we cannot even believe that we did this show in that limited amount of time. Our rehearsals were very telling, and we knew we had something special.
You watch The Lion King, and every time you walk away noticing something new—a hidden message or detail that helps tell a much deeper story. And it is one that has continued to evolve as the show has grown internationally. Do you feel passionately about keeping the story original and fresh?
Thomas Schumacher: The great thing about mounting a new show somewhere else is that you always have new cast members. We just opened our first UK tour. I’ve been back and forth to Bristol, and about half the people in the show really know it because they have come from other productions. The other half is doing The Lion King for the very first time. Each time, you are bringing new folks. You are bringing new people into the process so they have to find their own way through the material, how to operate the puppets and the masks, and to get their rhythm.
Julie Taymor: It really is for all ages without dumbing anything down. That is very critical to me that you don’t patronize your audience. You keep it sophisticated theatrically and musically. People come over and over, not to just bring their little children, but for themselves. There are a lot of levels in The Lion King, and you will get something new out of it each time. It was not for children. It was made in the way that we think the story should be told. And I’ve found kids like really dark and edgy things. They are actually more sophisticated than their parents. They really get the abstract stuff that their parents are more limited in understanding. Kids know that those lionesses are crying. They don’t think that there is white silk coming out of the lioness eyes. Kids are still close to that world of make-believe, and they can immediately go there.
How does it feel to have costumes in the Smithsonian and in the Victoria and Albert Museum?
Julie Taymor: (Laughs) It makes you feel old! I don’t design costumes very much—I’m not a clothing designer—but The Lion King offered me the opportunity to create something that had never been done before. I love the challenge of trying to create the human and the animal in one figure. It’s great to have my costumes in those museums, and I’m very honored.
The Lion King showed the world something completely different. But there is definitely risk in doing this. In your experiences, how do you know if an idea for a show is going to work or not?
Thomas Schumacher: You don’t really know whether something is going to work or not. I felt very strongly that Julie Taymor would know how to handle the material and her genuine genius—and there’s not that much genuine genius in the world today—but her genuine genius had the potential to create something wonderful, but we didn’t know. You can’t ask people what they want to see because they will simply tell you about something that is like the last good thing they saw. Until you’ve had salted caramel, you don’t understand that it’s delicious.
What makes The Lion King musical a truly theatrical experience?
Julie Taymor: Only theater can use pieces of silk—dangling off of bamboo poles—to show the sun. The audience sees the light coming through from the back through the orange silk, and it glows and shimmers from the wind on the stage as it is rising. I wanted them to think, “it’s silk and sticks that have been transformed into the sunrise that I have seen in pictures of the savannah.” That’s theater magic to me. It’s what Shakespeare called “rough magic.” The materials are very visible, very comprehensible, but yet it transforms and you go with it.
By D23: The Official Disney Fan Club’s Billy Stanek