When “The Lion King” marks its 20th anniversary on Broadway Nov. 13, it will have a lot more to celebrate than just two decades’ worth of box-office receipts.
“The Phantom of the Opera” may hold the record for longest-running show on Broadway (29 years), and “Hamilton” can boast all that cultural clout and hip-hop hipness. But it’s this fun-for-the-whole-family Disney crowd-pleaser that arguably has had a greater impact on Broadway — on the art form, the industry and the street itself.
Back in 2014, “Lion” (its Broadway, touring and international companies) topped $6.2 billion in earnings, making the musical the highest-grossing show of all time. That’s more than any other stage production, more than any film, more than any other form of entertainment on the planet.
So what makes this show so powerful — still?
We talked to two women integrally linked to the production: one who created the theatrical adaptation, and another who re-creates it every night, the only cast member who has been with the show from the start.
When Disney first approached Julie Taymor, an avant-garde theater and film director, with the offer to adapt its successful 1994 film for the stage, she was blunt.
“I said, ‘Look, I grew up on Disney, but . . . my aesthetic is definitely not Disney,’ ” she says.
In remarkably un-Disney-like fashion, the studio (led by producer Thomas Schumacher) went with that, letting her reinterpret their property. The basic tale — of young Simba the lion, guilt-ridden over his father’s death, leaving home on a prodigal son’s journey — is basically intact. But Taymor beefed up the plot and women’s roles (re-imagining the film’s bland, butlerlike Rafiki as an engaging female shaman). And then there’s that 20-minute opening sequence, with its thumping tribal rhythms, and African- and Asian-inspired puppets — glorious, life-size depictions of animals like audiences had never seen before, with actors on stilts to resemble giraffes, or wearing plates with sprouting grass on their head to form the savanna.
Could Taymor have created more realistic images using video screens and technology? Sure, she says, noting that Broadway seems increasingly headed in that direction. “But why would I?” she asks. “People love to see the mechanics — it brings them back to their childhood.” While film and TV use green screens to hide the magic, Taymor says, “Here, you see the magic.”
The show was an instant hit, justifying Disney’s renovation of the grand New Amsterdam Theatre. “Lion” eventually moved to the Minskoff Theatre, but not before its success helped fuel and further the city’s efforts to make over Times Square. Jaded New Yorkers snidely refer to it as the “Disneyfication” of Times Square but, like it or not, you’d be hard-pressed to name another show that has helped alter the look of a city district like that.
Taymor agrees, noting the show has a power all its own.
“It touches people, almost in their DNA, and that goes to the heart of what theater is all about.”
South African-born actress Lindiwe Dlamini can still recall the early days of the production, when she felt she was barely keeping up with her costume changes (seven in all), from grass to hyena to soaring bird.
Coming down the aisle as one of the “bird ladies,” holding fluttery bird puppets at the end of a long swaying pole, is her favorite part.
“We feel the audience as we come down the aisle,” she says. “Some people want to touch you, others are in tears.”
Dlamini’s road to “Lion’s” Pride Rock wasn’t easy. Raised in a township outside Durban, South Africa, during the days of apartheid, she found her voice singing in church as a young girl. As a teenager, she was cast in “Sarafina!” the soul-stirring South African musical about apartheid that came to Broadway in 1988. After the run, most of the cast returned home, but Dlamini stayed to forge a career in New York City. After several years, and on the brink of giving up and going home, she heard about “Lion King” auditions.
Cast in the ensemble, Dlamini found herself a new family in the show. She met her husband, Bongi Duma, in the cast — they married in 2006 and have a daughter. (Dlamini also has an older daughter from a previous relationship, and both girls, she says, laughing, have gone through their “Nala” period, wishing they could join mom onstage playing the female lead.)
The show, she says, continues to surprise her, offering lessons for both audience and cast members alike.
“After 9/11, performing ‘The Circle of Life,’ I was reminded, yes, something horrible has happened but you have to move on. Or when I lost my dad, that song gave me comfort. I realized he still lives in me. He’s not gone from my heart.”
Songs from the movie version of “The Lion King,” like “The Circle of Life” and “Can You Hear the Love Tonight?” — written by Elton John and Tim Rice — are beloved, but there were only five of them, not nearly enough to fill out a musical. A slew of new songs were written for the stage production — passionate, percussive numbers, mostly by South African composer Lebo M., who’d created background music for the “Lion” film. If there’s anyone who hasn’t gotten enough credit for the intoxicating power of this show, says director Julie Taymor, it is he.
“I’ve always resented when people only talk about the Elton and Tim Rice score,” Taymor says. “The best songs to me are Lebo’s songs. Like ‘Shadowland,’ which reflects directly on Lebo’s exile from South Africa during apartheid. Nala sings it about losing her home and finding solace elsewhere. It’s just . . . extraordinary.”
Such authenticity in the score seems to resonate with audiences. And with cast member Lindiwe Dlamini, who has heard it eight times a week for the past 20 years. Perhaps that’s why she never tires of performing this show. It’s a way to stay connected to the culture she left years ago.
“It’s a connection to my home,” she says. “Yes, definitely . . . definitely. ” — JOSEPH V. AMODIO
To mark its 20th anniversary, “The Lion King” is planning a special performance — at the Minskoff Theatre on Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. — and every ticket will be free.
For a chance at tickets, you can enter the show’s lottery at a celebration to be held in Times Square (at 45th Street) on Sunday, Nov. 12, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can meet the cast, enjoy giveaways and drum circles, and see the show’s award-winning masks and puppets up close.
You can also enter the lottery at five public libraries, one in each borough. For details, visit lionking.com/20