8 April 2013
Bringing Africa to Broadway
The Lion King is the second musical presented by the Walt Disney Company on Broadway and is a stage adaptation of the Walt Disney animated feature from 1994. The musical opened November 13, 1997 in New York at the newly renovated New Amsterdam Theatre. It is the fifth longest running musical on Broadway, and has won six Tony awards. The Lion King has a cultural and historical impact on American Musical Theatre through its extraordinary cast and crew, beautiful theme, integration of African culture, and unique avant-garde style.
The popularity of this musical can be attributed to the creative crew that was involved in its production. Julie Taymor is the director, costume designer, mask and puppet designer, and also contributed additional lyrics. Taymor has directed numerous musicals as well as films that include titles such as, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, Frida, and Across The Universe. It is her unique avant-garde style that makes her work so well known. The set was designed by Richard Hudson who is most well known for his design for “Pride Rock.” Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton made the screenplay adaptations. Mechhi along with Roger Allers wrote the book. Elton John and Lebo M directed the music with lyrics by Tim Rice along with Lebo M, and choreography by Garth Fagan. Without this amazing crew, The Lion King would surely not have been as successful as it is today.
The story line of The Lion King musical is generally the same as the film, however there are some changes that were made to musical. The story follows the life of a young lion cub named Simba and his journey to become king of the Pride Lands. It follows the struggles Simba experiences from youth to adulthood and the responsibilities he must face. One of the biggest changes that was made to the Broadway show is Rafiki’s gender change from a male to a female. Julie Taymor states in the article “Julie Taymor Roars”:
There was no strong adult female character in The Lion King, but who would sing ‘The Circle of Life,’ who would have the weight? Because, you know, if you follow fairy tales in mythology, you know that he can only have one parent. You know, you couldn't, once Simba loses his father, Sirabi, who is the mother figure, you can't develop her, her character. If you develop her character, there's no reason for the child to run away. But to carry the soul of the piece, I wanted it to be Rafiki (Vitale 1).
There were also some scenes added that included a scene between Zazu and Mufasa discussing Mufasa’s parenting, a scene where Timon nearly drowns in a waterfall, and finally a scene that includes Scar trying to force Nala to be his mate however she refuses and leaves the Pride Lands.
The overall theme of this production can be identified in two parts, the concept of life, death and the journey to find an individual’s identity, and the other is derived from the Shakespeare play, Hamlet. “Although it’s a story told by animals, it’s a human tale, it’s a tale of us,” states Michael Eisner from the “Stage” special feature found on the animated feature’s DVD. This quote clearly portrays the relevance to the human life cycle. Simba’s story starts when he is born, and as he ages he faces challenges that enable him to discover his identity. This concept, though told through a lion cub’s life, mirrors the human life as well. “It’s the circle of life and death, the sun rises at the beginning and sets at the end after an incredible tempest of events and dark times” (Bernstein 1). One scene that perfectly depicts this theme is when Mufasa teaches Simba about the circle of life in the Pride Lands. He tells him, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.” The other theme present in this production is similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Like Hamlet, the theme of “revenge” is depicted in the story of The Lion King. “Hamlet and Simba, the lion cub, are banished from their homes, face life threatening dangers, survive, and come back home to revenge the death of their fathers” (Gavin 1). Not only is revenge present in Simba’s life but also in Scar’s. “Claudius and Scar, the power-mad uncles that create chaos and disorder in their countries by preying on the youth, moral goodness, and inexperience of their nephews and others” (Gavin 2). Both of these characters envy their brother’s power and in result use the most extreme measures to gain what they want. These themes attribute to the popularity of this story and production because they are relatable concepts and are comparable to younger and older audiences. Throughout all of these plot changes in the musical adaptation one thing is clear, the portrayal of authentic African culture is center to this spectacular musical’s theme of life and death and revenge.
What made this particular production influential to Broadway and American musical theatre was the integration of African culture on stage. Previously, there had not been musicals on Broadway that celebrated African culture. The costumes, music, and choreography were all heavily influenced by African culture. The costumes incorporated traditional festive African attire that was designed by Julie Taymor. The costumes specifically included various headdresses or masks, which were influenced by traditional African masks. “I was inspired by African masks, which are much more abstract, much more stylized, much more essential, and less soft and round” (DVD Taymor). The actors underneath these masks were also dressed in traditional African clothing as well as ceremonial face paint. The music in the production portryaed the African culture the most. Many of the song and rhythm was derived from Africa itself. “Lebo M greatly expanded the original score with authentic African music, rhythms, and chants and an ensemble which includes a largely South African chorus” (Kinnon 2). An example of one of Lebo’s African lyrics can be heard in the song “The Lioness Hunt.” The lyrics, “We baba zingela siyo zingela baba Zingela siyo, zingela baba, Hi ba la qhubekeni siyo zingela,” essentially means “Hunting, we are going hunting, let us go and hunt.” The chorus itself gave the feeling of authentic African culture, through lyrics which were mainly spoken in various African dialects. “In the film, the chorus was background score, but in live theater, it has become principal character, both visually and aurally.” (Kinnon 3), This truly allows the audience to become completely immersed into African culture. Garth Fagan also did an excellent job choreographing the movements to translate the African culture being portrayed in the music. There is a delicate balance in every movement that is made and each movement has to compliment the puppet or costumes so that it mirrors the movement of the plant or animal the actor is portraying. All these stage elements successfully transport the audience to the African savannas.
The most unique aspect of this Broadway production is Julie Taymor’s innovative avant-garde style that is shown through her spectacular puppetry and costumes. This style was something completely new and different in Broadway musicals. The Lion King is a story told entirely by animals and adapting the story to live stage could have been very difficult if it were not for Julie Taymor’s costuming. “Taymor went to Awaji Island, Japan, to study puppetry after graduating from Oberlin, and she brought that training, along with her obsession with mythology, to the Lion King” (Bernstein 2). The Japanese puppetry can be seen in characters such as Zazu, Timon, and Pumba, where the actor operates an external puppet that is attached to their body. “If you don't give it life, it just sorta hangs there looking like you have this dead animal attached to your midriff. So, you have to look right at the guy you're talking to and make these little face movements, and it really brings it to life” (Vitale 1). The actor is dressed in inconspicuous clothing to disguise the human playing the character so the audience primarily focuses on the puppet itself. Other characters have specially engineered masks. “The Lion King Mufasa and his evil brother Scar have robotic masks that retract above the actors heads when they speak, then lower in front of their faces as they slink away” (Vitale 1) The animals in the production were able to be realistically portrayed through the puppetry, as the actor or performer operating the puppets were able to mimic the animal or character’s natural movements. The puppetry was not only aspect that made this production avant-garde, the sets as well made this production innovative in its own way. “ A rushing waterfall is conveyed simply by a rippling stream of silk. Leaping gazelles are suggested by Rube Goldberg, as a contraption of wheels and spokes” (Zoglin 2). Julie Taymor’s style of work is mostly identified as avant-garde but the appearances of her productions are also influenced by non-commercial theater qualities. “Despite her big budget Taymor still drew on her noncommercial theater experience to create a variety of minimalist effects. A water hole hit by drought is depicted by a circular piece of silk sucked into a whole in the stage floor. Tears are white streamers pulled out of the mourning lion's eyes” (Vitale 1). All of these unique elements enable the audience to truly use their imagination in order to really immerse themselves into the story.
The animated version of The Lion King is incomparable to the live stage adaptation; they are genuinely two different productions. The Lion King musical is able to transport the audience across the world to Africa with the elaborate sets, authentic dances and music, and traditional clothing. However what truly makes this production unique to Broadway is Julie Taymor’s imaginative avant-garde style integrated into the puppetry used throughout the production.
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words, Tom Vitale, New York; Bob Edwards, Washington, DC
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