Pride and prejudice: Disney's The Lion King

Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
do any man’s heart good to hear me; I will roar,
that I will make the duke say ‘Let him roar again,
let him roar again.’
– Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream [I.2.66-9]

Eight years ago, my year twelve English teacher showed us the first ten minutes of a film guaranteed to change the way we look at Shakespeare. In an empty coliseum in the dead of night, soldiers, dressed like figurines, poured into the ‘archetypal theatre of cruelty’ to the bold choric strains of a majestic fanfare. Horse-drawn chariots sat sidebyside with tanks and motorcycles, foot soldiers danced, their hands fused with their swords, and an old battle-wearied general addressed his people, cheered on by the echo of their ghostly cries. The film was Julie Taymor’s Titus, and that afternoon marked the beginning of many things for me, not least my fascination with Taymor’s work, both on stage and on screen.
In 1994, Disney’s thirty-second animated film opened in cinemas and set records instantly to become, twenty years later, the highest grossing hand-drawn animation in history. The film was The Lion King, and three years later, it roared onto the stage of the New Amsterdam theatre on New York’s Broadway as a musical, quickly becoming a critical and popular success, and spawning numerous concurrent productions internationally. Its director, Julie Taymor, had taken Disney’s beloved film and so thoroughly reimagined it for the stage that it was a beast in a class all of its own, without peer before or since. Where Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s first foray into theatrical musicals based on their film, was described as ‘animated Broadway,’ Taymor’s envisioning of The Lion King was pure full-blooded theatre. No other director working today has so audaciously mixed theatrical styles and techniques, or used cinematic conventions on a stage so audaciously, that no matter how hard you try to resist it, the story still affects you every time because its magic is so ephemeral and so vibrantly alive, so vividly present that you cannot ignore it.

Taymor’s work is notable for her use of an ideograph which she creates for each project, to unify its disparate creative and visual elements. Simply, the ideograph is the two or three most essential brushstrokes needed to express the essence of an idea. In all its varying forms, the ideograph runs throughout Taymor’s entire career, from her earliest stage work right through to her Broadway productions of the Spider-Man musical and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its clearest instance is in The Lion King, where the device of the circle can be observed throughout the work in the costumes, sets, music, lighting, choreography and puppetry, as well as playing out in the musical’s narrative structure. This ideographic strategy is signalled in the musical’s opening moments, in ‘The Circle of Life,’ and culminates in the final reprise, itself a refashioning of the opening scene; thus, the story itself has come full circle.
Part of the genius in Taymor’s vision of staging The Lion King is in her approach to using every theatrical trick in the metaphoric book: she deploys the ‘double-event’ combination of actor and puppet, in which the puppet is the focus, but the actor is never hidden from view. “The success of the movie is its humanity. It’s not that they’re animals, it’s that they’re [humanimals], so the mask was the solution, the double-event mask where you would never hide the performer.” The production’s humanity and very theatricality are always on show.  “It’s not just the story that’s being told,” Taymor said in an interview from 1999. “It’s how it’s being told... [The story] doesn’t have to be so absolutely amazing; what needs to be amazing is the telling of the story.” It was a gamble the Disney executives relished when they approached Taymor to refashion their beloved animated film into a full-blooded Broadway musical. While some of the more savvy executives trusted Taymor from the first, it took several fully-costumed experiments for her to be given the green light to create the musical which has roared across the world, making it the highest grossing Broadway show in history. While many of Taymor’s aesthetic techniques have since been superceded by digital modes of production and design, it is thrilling to see the earthy tactility of her vision on stage in such vividness, still show-and-heart-stoppingly thrilling to see Pride Rock rise out of the stage and to hear that opening chant be taken up throughout the theatre, to see the animals walk through the auditorium onto the stage, so close you could almost smell them.
While The Lion King’s story is already formulaic and predictable, it is Taymor’s staging and the richness of her aesthetic vision for the production which resonates, even after sixteen years on Broadway (and eight years after it was last seen in Sydney). In an article in The Weekend Australian in May 2013, Taymor said despite the tendency for musicals to be based on successful films and plays, she knew with The Lion King they were breaking new ground. “The puppetry and masks lend a rich theatrical vocabulary and the show’s staggering success owes much to its universality, unifying philosophical spirit and a quest that is as much about the journey as it is about authority, moral responsibility and humility. The choral singing and African music make it feel spiritual.” Indeed, the opening to Act Two, ‘One By One,’ feels like a moment inspired by the Soweto Gospel Choir; full of life and colour, with kite-like birds flying above the heads of the audience, it is hard not to smile and be caught up in the infectious rhythms and vocal patterns of Lebo M’s music and the ensemble’s performance.
The cast in this Australian production are all on fine form. While it is futile to single out any one cast member in a show such as this, I have always had a bit of a fascination with the characters of Rafiki and Zazu. As played by Buyi Zama and Cameron Goodall respectively, they are as earthy and warm, every bit as funny as their animated counterparts, yet there is a humanity to them which you cannot capture in twenty-four frames projected onto a screen. From Rafiki, we get a very real spiritual connection to the land, a shaminstic sense of ritual and mysticism imbued with a good-natured humour and a full-bodied voice to boot. In Zazu, the king’s advisor, we have the majordomo to Mufasa and the chaperone of the young Simba, but we also have someone who knows the circle of life intimately, who is not afraid to get their feathers dirty so to speak, and speak their mind (the song ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ and its surrounding sequences springs to mind here). The Hyenas are as lewd and raucous as you’d expect; Mufasa is the sun-like king we admire, the leader whose time is unexpectedly cut short; Scar is the twisted and cynical megalomaniac, hell-bent on ruling even if he isn’t the best cat for the job; Timon and Pumbaa are a double-act whose ‘Hakuna Matata’ motto brings back memories of rainy afternoons at primary school and whose humour centres around fart jokes which never get old. The ensemble, appearing as everything from giraffes and cheetahs, to zebras, elephants, rhinoceroses, the grasslands of the savannah, the lionesses, hyenas and various dancing foliage, populate Taymor’s staging with grace and poise and perform Garth Fagan’s classical-anchored contemporary choreography with verve and energy.
While the show’s aesthetic vision is pure Taymor, the set design by Richard Hudson complements her minimalist aesthetic perfectly. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Hudson’s set is infused with a sense of Africa which is both conscious and unconscious. Full of strong lines and silhouettes, bright colours and patterns, circular devices and moving parts which glide effortlessly on and off the stage as required, Hudson’s scenic elements function in harmony with Taymor’s costumes, masks and puppets and Donald Holder’s lighting to create a vivid, colourful and intricately patterned African palette. Unlike many big-budget musicals, the full depth of the stage is used throughout The Lion King to evoke the expanse of the savannah, to force perspective (as in the opening moments) and to say ‘this is Africa’ in every way it can. Just as much at home with grandiose elements such as the staircase in the elephant graveyard, the gorge or Pride Rock as he is with simple, gestural elements like the sunrise and layers of torn-paper clouds, Hudson’s set is limited only by what our imaginations can conceive to complete the illusion initiated by Taymor’s staging.
Having missed out on the production when it was first in Australia ten years ago, I eventually saw The Lion King in London, where it has been running since 1999. While very much a part of the Lyceum theatre (itself a beautifully restored theatre in much the same vein as Sydney’s Capitol), it did throw some light on the mechanics of this new Australian production. Pride Rock, in its original conception, was designed to rise out of the stage in a circular fashion, a series of interconnecting curves which formed the rock’s famous silhouette; in this production, Pride Rock is an independent scenic element which appears from the wings, a series of interconnected sections which can curve as required. Perhaps this is because of the scale and intended tenure of the show; only being in the Capitol until August 2014 it is, in essence, a touring production, so economies have been taken to necessitate not creating the famous rock rising corkscrew-like out of the stage. Gone, too, is the Mufasa-Zazu song, ‘The Morning Report’ which was written for the musical in 1997 by Elton John & Tim Rice, and animated and edited into the 2004 DVD release (it has since been removed from prints of the film). Apparently removed from the musical in 2010, the scene in which it featured is left feeling slightly flat, needing another beat before Zazu leaves to investigate the appearance of hyenas in the Pridelands. There are other moments in the production which feel a bit flat; I don’t know whether it’s specific to this production, or if it is what happens when you adore the film, have seen the musical before, and the show itself is sixteen years old. 
The placement of the interval is also curious: towards the end of Act One, Scar sings ‘Be Prepared,’ the hyenas rally around him with the promise of “a shining era / [that’s] tiptoeing nearer,” and they take over control of the Pride Lands following Simba’s exile after Mufasa’s death. Nala and the lionesses mourn the loss of Mufasa and Simba’s departure, and Rafiki erases the pictograph of the heir-apparent from her tree. The act then concludes with Timon, Pumbaa and (a now-adult) Simba singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ in the jungle. Surely, narratively, it makes more sense to end the first act with the moment at Rafiki’s tree, then commence Act Two with the existing ‘One By One’ and the following image of desolation, before launching into ‘Hakuna Matata,’ followed by the scene between Scar and Zazu in which he laments the decline of his kingdom. You can’t argue with a juggernaut such as Disney, but using the up-beat ‘Hakuna Matata’ as an epilogue to the already funereal and emotional events immediately before it does a strange thing to the pacing and destroys the emotional impact of the loss of Mufasa and Simba. We feel cheated because we’re not allowed the full weight of the moment alongside the lionesses, just as there is something distinctly harrowing and dramatically justified about watching a girl and her mother mourn while their crazed brother-in-law laughs from above. Shining new era, indeed.
Part of my fascination with Taymor’s work comes from her sheer inventiveness, as well as her tendency to show the mechanics of theatrical illusion. In effect, she makes the audience complicit in the very act of theatre-making by encouraging – expecting – them to “fill in the lines, to take it the rest of the way.” The audience is just as much a part of the theatrical event as the performers. In The Lion King, this engagement with the audience is everywhere, from the set and costumes to the puppets and the songs (which we all know so intimately; Disney is, after all, the bread and butter of primary school choirs), and even though we know the story backwards, can quote entire scenes from the film and have grown up with the characters, seeing it in front of you – live; alive – is emotionally rewarding and feels like coming full-circle yourself.
“Animation and theatre are in many ways arts of the invisible,” Thomas Schumacher, the musical’s producer, says in the program. “The greatest contributions people make are so often unrecognised or in fact unseen… The people who have touched The Lion King, and this tapestry, the texture of The Lion King, are deeply moving to me, to a large degree because no one knows they’re there… The power of The Lion King lies in its humanity. The irony is, it’s a story with no people in it, but its whole power is in all those people. And they get no credit for it, and I always say, ‘all these people made this.’” In The Lion King, we see the physical act of making theatre at its purest, at its most enchanting; at its most imaginative. Just imagine what the children sitting in the audience will dream up in a little theatre somewhere in twenty, thirty years’ time, knowing they’ve found their place “on the path unwinding / in the circle of life…”

Theatre playlist: 1. Circle of Life, Elton John & Tim Rice

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