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THE LION KING (THE BOOK) (article first published : 2008-01-9)

When I reviewed the production of The Lion King presented by Pieter Toerien in association with Lebo M and currently running at The Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg, I urged theatre practitioners at all levels to see the show – not only for its splendid entertainment value but also as a mind-blowing masterclass in terms of the complicated technology, innovative choreography, sweeping music and costume, set, puppet and mask design.

The same goes for director Julie Taymor’s book in which she has generously recorded her creative philosophy for the musical and her experiences in bringing it to fruition. Recording for posterity, it tells of the work of an extraordinary creative team and the publication would be especially useful for those in tertiary education teaching theatre craft to students.

In his foreword, Thomas Schumacher, Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, talks of how the animated feature film first showed its beginnings when Peter Schneider (now president of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions, then president of Feature Animation) asked him to produce a film called King of the Jungle. Not intended as a musical, it bore, as Thomas Schumacher describes it: “A striking resemblance to an animated National Geographic special”.

Over the next four years the film moved through many stages until its opening on June 15, 1994, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The next suggestion from the Walt Disney hierarchy was to turn the film into musical theatre. Thomas Schumacher recalls that at the time he responded that “it was the worst idea in the world”, believing it to be an impossible task to create a stage version of such “inherently non-theatrical material”.

A year later, Schumacher had identified the only person he believed could pull off the project– Julie Taymor, whose brilliance as a designer, director and conceptual artist had produced the critically-acclaimed Liberty’s Taken which was commissioned in 1981 by the American Place Theater. She was urged “not to feel bridled by the look of the movie and to create something wildly original from it”.

The genius of Michael Curry was brought in to design puppets and masks while Julie was responsible for the sculpture and aesthetic design as well as how they moved. It is fascinating to read of the development of the masks, particularly those of Mufasa and Scar. The book cover itself carries the majestic image of one of the most magnificent effects in the show - the appearance of the mask of Mufasa which looms out of a starlit sky.

Pulling on her experience of making numerous puppets and masks for the enormous theatrical landscape that was Liberty’s Taken, Julie Taymor focused on maintaining the integrity of her own style while “incorporating it into one of the most beloved stories in recent history”. Her desire was to make the actors visible within the puppets - or alongside or under the masks. These included shield masks held in front or worn on arms and backs. Describing it as the “double event“, she “wanted the human being to be an essential part of the animal stylisation”.

She set about re-thinking the production: changing, stretching, or minimising where necessary. The character of the baboon shaman Rafiki in the film became a human female. The film had five songs by Elton John and Tim Rice so an extra number had to be composed to fit the standard 12 to 15 required for musical theatre. Here Lebo M’s influence was highly valued with a strong new focus on African style, comprising a strong South African choral component and featuring traditional percussion instruments.

The song title The Circle of Life is also the dominant theme of the musical so Julie Taymor created the focal set structure of Pride Rock as a swirling disc offering various height levels. She believes that “magic can exist in blatantly showing how theatre is created, rather than hiding the ‘how’” so the audience watches a set evolve rather than the curtains opening to find it already in place.

A double-page spread at the beginning of the book shows one of the spectacular scenes of the musical where Rafiki presents the heir of Mufasa to the animal kingdom. This photograph reveals the impressive results of Julie Taymor’s vision: the sinuous cheetahs, worn and guided by the dancers; giraffes created by actors on four stilts with the giraffe’s neck extending from their heads like a tall hat, and the zebra puppets which intersect the wearers with a harness extending the zebra’s neck and head off their chests.

The specially-invented Gazelle Wheel allows the animals to leap as the wheels turn while birds are either manipulated by the actors or attached to their bodies. Looking on are the stolid wildebeest, later to be the cause of Mufasa’s death in one of the most thrilling – and complicated - sequences of the show. In amidst the flying feathers of bird rod puppets is the majestic elephant which rumbles its way into the auditorium at the start of the show to the delight and amazement of audiences worldwide.

The book covers the various presentations to the producers and the invariable return to the drawing-board each time, to re-examine elements of the puppetry, masks or costuming that weren’t working. Then came the gallop to opening night and the search for suitable cast members – the aim being to find puppeteers and inventive actors who would enjoy the challenge of working and interacting with masks and learning to get the characters of the animals they were portraying.

Any director who has handled a production of this magnitude will sympathise with Julie Taymor who – as bad luck would have it – had to be hospitalised on the first day of the final three-week rehearsal at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis when she had to undergo surgery for the removal of her gallbladder. Once out of hospital, Julie conducted technical rehearsals – microphone at her mouth - from a leather reclining chair in the auditorium! She sums up in a single word her response to that long-awaited opening night at the Orpheum on July 31, 1997: “Glorious”.

The Lion King is written by Julie Taymor with Alexis Greene and spiced with interesting comments from the creative team. A particularly telling comment, which reflects the high standard and immaculate presentation of the show comes from Sound Designer Tony Meola: “I want the sound to be lush, as it is on the albums and in the film. I don’t want to over-mix or over-amplify”. The book is published in lush coffee-book format by Hyperion New York. ISBN 0-7868-6342-0 – Caroline Smart

A reminder: “The Lion King” runs at Teatro at Montecasino until February 17 – so if you haven’t seen it yet, then you’ll need to get moving!




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