In 1996, Disney Theatrical announced it was making a musical of their popular animated hit The Lion King (1994). Eyes rolled with memories of Disney on Ice productions and the fear of anthropomorphised skating lions, but the show that opened in 1997 challenged how movies are adapted for stage. And 18 years later, its returned to Melbourne and it’s still mind-blowing.
The genius decision was making Julie Taymor costume and puppet designer and director. She rejected any thought of replicating the film aesthetic and proved that safe commercial productions can – and should – be art.
The Lion King won the Best Musical Tony award in 1998, has had productions all over the world (first seen in Australia in 2004–6) is is still running on Broadway. This Australian production is stunning and the cast bring a palpable passion to the stage. It’s been to Brisbane and Sydney and is currently winning thousands of new fans in Melbourne.
It’s the story opens when lion King Mufasa and medicine-woman monkey Rafiki present baby, and future monarch, Simba to the savannah. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar, doesn’t like being third in line to the throne and plots to gain power. Of course, he succeeds and the banished and terrified Simba has to grow up and remember what it’s like to want to be king.
The story’s a bit naff, as is the music by Elton John and Tim Rice, but the magic of this production is that the naff is overcome – and the women characters have a bigger role than they do in the film.
The “Circle of Life” opening is still my favourite opening of any big show. I teared-up when I saw the elephant coming down the aisle in 2005 and wasn’t much better this time (and I had a boozy Lion-King slushy for comfort.) This lump-in-you-throat opening declares it a work that musically supports and celebrates its African setting, acknowledges the opening of the film, and overwhelms the theatre as it brings the all the savannah animals onto the stage.
There are over 200 astonishingly beautiful puppets and masks in the show. They include masks that sit on top of performer’s head, like the lions; rod puppets, like Zazu, flying birds, and the mini-lions that run through the grasses; full body puppets that show the performer as much as the animal, like Pumba and the zebras, cheetas and giraffes; Balinese shadow puppets; and Japanese Banraku puppets, where the operators are dressed in black to be invisible – except in this case when the Timon operator is dressed in green to represent the jungle.
With respect to the ritual of theatre, the always-visible performers ensure characters are never lost behind the static face of a mask and that the humanity of the story isn’t lost in the jungle.
Then there’s the magnificent leaping antelopes on a bicycle, and performers that bring grasslands and bushes to life. All working with with Richard Hudson’s design that makes the stage feel as endless as a Southern African horizon.
Of course, a ticket to see The Lion King is expensive, which means that so many people who would love to see this show, can’t hope for a ticket. I want to take every child that I know to it; I want them to see how amazing theatre and stories and music can be. But it’s a dress-in-your-best and not-see-anything-else-all-year show. That’s sad. Everyone who argues that show tickets should be more accessible understands the costs of presenting a commercial show – but perhaps producers need to look at ways to subsidise and sponsor more affordable tickets so that people who have never seen a huge show like this can have the chance.