Bold Experiment Turned Broadway Hit, 'Lion King' Continues To Thrill — And Heal

Oct 29, 2017
Originally published on October 29, 2017 11:49 pm

When you think of Disney, "experimental" or "avant-garde" may not be the first words that spring to mind.

But when tasked with adapting the 1994 Disney animated film, The Lion King, for the Broadway stage, director Julie Taymor decided to take an unconventional tack.

Drawing on theater and puppetry traditions she'd studied from around the world, Taymor brought a bold, experimental approach to the show. And, when it opened in 1997, that fusion was met with wide critical acclaim and huge box office success.

It garnered Taymor the first Tony Award given to a woman for directing a musical, and another for the show's costumes.

Now, two decades later, The Lion King still holds its place atop the Broadway throne. At over $1 billion in ticket sales, it remains the most successful show in Broadway history, and has been performed in 19 countries around the world.

As the musical celebrates its 20th anniversary, Taymor and actress Lindiwe Dlamini, an ensemble cast member for the entire run, talk to All Things Considered host Michel Martin about what the show means to them today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On when director Julie Taymor knew the production would be as special as she'd hoped

Taymor: We had four or five rooms: the main acting room, a choreographic room, a choral room and then a puppet room. And we all would be doing our work but people would just start traveling and visiting between the rooms and their mouths would be gasping, you'd be gasping. Garth Fagan's choreography or the gorgeous choral singing from all of the South Africans, and these giant puppets would be coming into our rooms, and I think that we kind of knew then that this was something really special, before we had an audience, just we, the people creating it, were very excited.

And then we get to the first night and the audience just instantly starts screaming and standing and clapping and we couldn't hear anything. And I burst into tears, as did everybody around me.

On whether the musical, which draws on influences from around the world, resonates with Lindiwe Dlamini, a South African who grew up under apartheid

Dlamini: The story of Lion King itself connects with me because, you know, Simba is a young man who's trying to find himself because he's exiled, which is connected with us. We had people who left the country to go fight for our land. They left South Africa and came to America, like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba — all those artists who had a voice to be able to speak with a larger audience through music and singing. So it connects that way to me.

And then you have loss, where I personally have lost family members while I'm in The Lion King, especially when my father passed away because when I found out it was right before we go onstage. And then I said OK, "Should I just leave or should I go on?" I know he would want me to go on. And you have this song "He Lives In You," you know, even today I still feel that way. It's one of the songs that mean so much to me. So I know it connects to the audience, even for us personally.

Taymor: There's so many parts of the Lion King that do so many things for people. So it's not just the entertainment value. This thing about "he lives in you," the idea of The Lion King doing what theater originally was always meant to do, which is, besides entertain, to heal.

On the message The Lion King brings to its black audiences

I have had the experience, in all the different countries that we've been able to have The Lion King, of watching different aspects of the culture that comes to this play, that experiences it, or that in it, go through this process and it's an astounding thing to be a part of. I feel tremendously lucky.

But also, one of the things that I'm most proud of is the whole racial aspect of The Lion King and that 20 years ago hadn't been done that way. When we did Lion King in Minneapolis — and I remember there were many black African-American families who came to see it — those children had never seen a black king on stage. There was no Obama. This was a time when you know that scar is white and Mufasa's black and they're brothers. And yet we very consciously cast The Lion King, and still do, in a very racial way ... it was a very clear intent and decision. Lion King has nothing to do with racism, bunch of animals onstage, you know, it's a fable, but you aren't going to deny that the performers up there are who they are. So what was fascinating back then and moving to me was that, for African-American audiences, it was all about race in a very proud, beautiful way — connecting to Africa without being directly a pickup. But for white people, it had nothing to do with race — it wouldn't even occur to them because it was just a show.

On how the production takes on different meanings as it travels around the world

As we take it around to different countries it's really fascinating to see how that plays out because language-based humor is local. So every time we go to another country we have to approach the performers and the writers and find out what is the local humor. I mean Timon Pumbaa are Borscht Belt Jewish humor. You think that translates? No, it does not translate to other cultures.

I think the most interesting Timon-Pumbaa story is the South African. There was an Afrikaners actor playing Pumbaa. And the only good actor for Timon was a black South African from Cape Town. So now you have a black Timon — of course he's green because you do understand the makeup is green and Pumbaa is white and purple. But you know who's singing and performing and the accents are very extreme. And any black South African hearing an Afrikaners accent is going to have an instant feeling. So we have these two guys and they're hilarious together. This was so new that these two characters all of a sudden had social relevance because, in a subversive way, what you're saying is they missed apartheid. They're best friends; they weren't back there where all the trouble was.

And there were a number of different things in the South African Lion King that had incredible political power. So when people think of The Lion King in general, they think, "Oh isn't that the sweetest, cutest. Oh I loved it, my child loved it." It had much deeper resonance culturally, socially, and that's what really fuels my fire as a person. I just I love what happens with that show all over the world, because it becomes owned.

Kenya Young and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, a bold theatrical experiment turns 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCLE OF LIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) Nants ingonyama bagithi baba.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sithi uhhmm ingonyama.

MARTIN: When director Julie Taymor was approached by Disney producer Thomas Schumacher to adapt the 1994 Disney film "The Lion King" for the Broadway stage, she'd never actually seen it.

JULIE TAYMOR: I said I hadn't seen the animated film, and he laughed. And I saw it, and I saw it as a fun, interesting, giant challenge to bring into the stage.

MARTIN: She decided to draw on theatrical and puppetry traditions she'd studied from around the world. When the musical opened three years later, what had seemed a risky experiment quickly earned critical praise an even bigger box office success. Julie Taymor took home the first Tony Award given to a woman for directing a musical. She won another for the costumes. Twenty years later, "The Lion King" still holds its place atop the Broadway throne. At more than $1 billion in ticket sales, it remains the most successful show in Broadway history. It's been performed in 19 countries around the world.

As "The Lion King" celebrates its 20th anniversary, we thought this was a good time to check in with Julie Taymor, who's also in the middle of directing the first revival of another groundbreaking play, "M. Butterfly." We spoke with Julie Taymor a couple of days ago at her Manhattan apartment along with actress Lindiwe Dlamini, who's been a member of the ensemble cast for the entire run. I started our conversation by asking Julie Taymor when she first knew that "The Lion King" would be what she had hoped - something different, something special.

TAYMOR: Well, I mean, we all rehearsed two doors down at 890 Broadway. And we had four or five rooms - a room with the main acting room, then choreographic room and then a coral room and then a puppet room. And we all would be doing our work, but people would just start traveling and visiting between the rooms, and their mouths would be gasping. You'd be gasping at Garth Fagan's choreography or the gorgeous choral singing from the - all the South Africans. And these giant puppets would be coming into our rooms.

And I think that we kind of knew then that this was something really special before an audience, just we, the people creating it, were very excited. And then we get to the first night, and the audience just instantly starts screaming and standing and clapping, and we couldn't hear anything. And I burst into tears, as did everybody around me, Michel. And I don't know what it was like for you because you were in it, but - right? - going down the aisles.

LINDIWE DLAMINI: Yeah. It was crazy because after "Circle Of Life," I remember...

MARTIN: "Circle Of Life" being the amazing procession at the beginning where - people coming down the aisles, for the three people who have not yet seen it.

DLAMINI: So when the audience - you just had these screams like crazy. And when we got off the stage, I remember me and a few other girls that were in the show started just crying. Like, oh, my God, this is something else, you know. We knew then this was going to be a very amazing, amazing journey.

MARTIN: So, Lindiwe, pick up the thread from here. Now, you came to the U.S. initially from - first of all, you grew up under apartheid in South Africa.

DLAMINI: Yes, in South Africa, yeah.

MARTIN: And then you originally came here for "Sarafina," right?

DLAMINI: Yes. I grew up in South Africa, where we were not even allowed to perform in the theater. So when I was hired to do "Sarafina," it was very intense in South Africa because they had to hide what the script was about. So we had a script for when the soldiers come in or the police come inside the room where we rehearse. And immediately we go through that script because it was hidden what we were doing because we were not going to be allowed to leave the country. And sometimes we'd be in the room where you see the armored tanks. So while we were rehearsing and performing, they were outside monitoring us.

After that, I came here in America. And when the show went back to South Africa, I decided to stay. So I started going to auditions and couldn't get any roles or anything because there was nothing for somebody like me at that time. It was like '80s, '90s. And Julie called me that Julie was doing a reading for "The Lion King." And then I said, OK, finally, I made it. Finally, I'm going to be able to do something. And then I came in. I think I sat for Julie and very, very nerve wracking. So that's how I was able to get in.

MARTIN: "The Lion King" does have influences from all over the world, but as a South African, is there a particular resonance for you either with the style or the music or the story?

TAYMOR: Yeah. The story of "Lion King" itself, you know, connects with me because, you know, Simba is a young man who's trying to find himself. He goes - exile himself, you know, which is connected with us. Like, you know, we had people who left the country to go fight for our land. They left South Africa and came to America like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba. All those artists too had a voice to be able to speak with a larger audience through music and singing. So it connects that way to me, you know.

And then you have loss, where I personally has lost family members while I'm in "The Lion King," especially when my father passed away because when I found out it was right before we go on stage. And then I said, OK, should I just leave or should I go on? I know he would want me to go on. And when you had this song, "He Lives In You," you know, even today, I still feel that way. You know, and...

TAYMOR: You both have that about you, "He Lives In You."

DLAMINI: Yes, "He Lives In You" is one of the songs that means so much to me. So I know it connects to the audience even for us personally.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE LIVES IN YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) He lives in you. He lives in me. He watches over everything we see. Into the water, into the truth.

TAYMOR: There's so many parts of "The Lion King" that do so many things for people. So it's not just the entertainment value, this thing about "He Lives In You," the idea of "The Lion King" doing what theater originally was always meant to do which is, besides entertain, to heal. And I have had the experience in all the different countries that we've been able to have "The Lion King" of watching different aspects of the culture that comes to this play, that experiences it or that's in it go through this process. And it's an astounding thing to be a part of. So I only feel lucky. I feel tremendously lucky.

But also, one of the things that I'm most proud of is the whole racial aspect of "The Lion King" and that 20 years ago hadn't been done that way. When we did "Lion King" in Minneapolis, and I remember there were many black African-American families who came to see it, those children had never seen a king, a black king, on stage. There was no Obama. This was a time where, you know, the - that Scar's white and Mufasa is black and they're brothers. And yet, we very consciously cast "The Lion King" - and still do - in a very racial way. I mean, meaning it's not just open casting - it isn't. And it was a very clear intent and decision. "Lion King" has nothing to do with racism. It's a bunch of animals onstage. You know, it's a fable. But you aren't going to deny that the performers up there are who they are. So what was fascinating back then and moving to me was that for African-American audiences, it was all about race in a very proud, beautiful way - connecting to Africa without being directly a pickup. But for white people, it had nothing to do with race. It wouldn't even occur to them because it was just a show.

MARTIN: Well, we are in a moment where these issues are once again at the forefront for some people, and for other people, not at all.

TAYMOR: Not at all, yeah.

MARTIN: And I wonder whether you feel the work has something different to say now than it did 20 years ago?

TAYMOR: No, I think it's saying it. And as we take it around to different countries, it's really fascinating to see how that plays out because humor - language-based humor is local. So every time we go to another country, we have to approach the performers and the writers and find out, what is the local humor? I mean, Timon and Pumbaa are Borscht Belt Jewish humor. You think that translates? No, it does not translate to other cultures. I think the most interesting Timon-Pumbaa story is the South African. There was an Afrikaners actor playing Pumbaa. And the only good actor for Timon was a black South African from Cape Town.

So now you have a black Timon. Of course, he's green because you do understand the makeup is green. And Pumbaa is white and purple. But you know who's singing and performing, and the accents are very extreme. And any black South African hearing Afrikaners accent is going to have an instant feeling. So we have these two guys, and they're hilarious together. This was so new that these two characters all of a sudden had social relevance because, in a subversive way, what you're saying is they missed apartheid. They missed it. They're best friends. They weren't back there where all the trouble was. And so they're fine together.

And there were a number of different things in the South African "Lion King" that had incredible political power. So when people think of "The Lion King" in general, they think, oh, isn't that the sweetest, cutest? Oh, I loved it. My child loved it. Oh, I grew up a ba-ba-ba (ph). It had a much deeper resonance culturally, socially. And that's what really fuels my fire as a person. I just - I love what happens with that show all over the world because it becomes owned.

MARTIN: Julie Taymor is a Tony Award-winning director and writer, she's the director of "The Lion King" on Broadway, which will be celebrating 20 years of production early November. She's also the director of the revival of "M. Butterfly," which as we are speaking, opens this weekend. Julie Taymor, thank you so much for speaking with us. Also with us, Lindiwe...

DLAMINI: Dlamini.

MARTIN: Thank you.

DLAMINI: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Is a two-decade ensemble cast member who was also kind enough to join us here on her day of rest. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TAYMOR: Thank you.

DLAMINI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE LIVES IN YOU")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) He lives in you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.