By Katie Stockdale
When “The Circle of Life” starts to play, everyone can sing along, even if just inside their heads. That’s the beauty of The Lion King, bringing people together to celebrate a story again and again, even years after childhood. This is even more true on stage.
Disney’s The Lion King starts as the curtain rises to reveal Rafiki backlit by a deep blue that fades slowly to orange-red as the opening swells of “The Circle of Life” fill the theater and a sun rises on stage.
Everything in this musical was mind blowing. The sets and costumes were gorgeous and amazingly intricate, the live orchestra was fantastic, outfitted with African drums and the musical talents were truly incredible, from the young actors to the old, there wasn’t a bad voice.
The Lion King is so much more than just a show, it’s an experience that is worthy of once in a lifetime.
A curtain is the first thing an audience sees as they come in for productions, and the curtain sets the tone for the show. The best first impressions come if the curtain is unique and relates to the story. For The Lion King, the curtain is brown with orange, African-inspired artwork. This promise of a special show was not broken.
The sets were inspired both by the original movie and more traditional African influences. The sun that rises in the beginning and the end was created to look just like the sun that rises in the first frames of the movie, shimmering over the savannah. Rafiki’s iconic tree is painted onto a screen, surrounded by leaves reminiscent of the art on the main curtain. And the famous painting of Simba is revealed by a backlight through the screen.
The most impressive sets were the for the gorge scene and the waterfall. The gorge– of wildebeest stampede fame– was created by steep moving walls resembling stone, along with a few branches for Simba to dangle from. A screen in the very back shows small drawings of wildebeest galloping down as puppets run over a rise behind Simba and wildebeest dancers take to the stage with him. The waterfall scene is one not seen in the movie, in which Timon is swept away by the fast-rushing water. It’s set is exactly the same as the gorge, except the light on the screen is blue to represent water; which was done intentionally to show the inner conflicts the older Simba struggles with.
Lighting also plays an important role in the sets. In the jungle scenes of Hakuna Matata the light is bright to coincide with the humor and amusement of the song. However, after Scar takes over the Pridelands, the lighting turns gray and the set shows water holes slowly drying up, by using a cloth that was slowly pulled into and beneath the stage until it eventually disappeared.
But the most interesting aspect of the set was the shadow puppets, which were used to show time passing and sequences that would have been too tight for the stage. The puppets were extremely intricate with the shadow having meticulous details as good as the physical puppets. They are used throughout the production, showing Mufasa and Simba moving through the grasslands, a cheetah stalking a giraffe and Nala stalking Pumba. They were also used during the final fight with Scar when they were shined on cloth screens and depicted Simba fighting Scar and the hyenas.
Costumes and Puppets
Costumes are as much a part of the characters as the actors are, and the costumes for The Lion King are beautifully crafted with intent behind every thread.
The costumes for the lionesses include long veils that are attached to their lion headdresses and fall down to their arm and legs. Emulating real lionesses, the dancers take off their headdresses and let their veils cover their backs while hunting.
Mufasa’s mask was designed to portray him as an animal, but also sit like a crown. The mane on the mask is in a perfect circle, creating the symbolism of a sun god and the circle of life. Mufasa carries traditional Maasai swords that double as the front legs of a lion when he is on the attack. His costume, hair and makeup were also influenced by the Maasai warrior dress.
Scar’s costume was designed to reflect his personality– one completely the opposite of Mufasa’s. The mask is asymmetrical and distorted, with one eyebrow up, and one down as well as a scar that is also in the make-up; reflecting his off-kilter personality. The costume is bony and fragile, its silhouette reflecting the traditional dress of a samurai.
Nala’s costume was influenced by both African and Asian elements. The pattern on her beaded corset represents the white of a lion’s belly, the beaded harp structure on her back based on the Maasai warriors, and her lion mask is worn like a crown and carved in the Saharan style. But her collar and movements are Bali. Nala’s choreography is drawn from Balinese dancers while staying rooted in Africa.
Simba’s costume combines cultures and ideas to represent his nature while reflecting bravery and strength. His red body makeup comes from traditional Maasai warrior ceremonial makeup, while his mask is made to be worn as a crown and designed to be evocative of Roman warrior helmets– with the mane mirroring the brush. The young Simba doesn’t have the mask, representing the journey the character has to take.
The other best costumes belonged to the grass. In the grassland scene they had headdresses of tall grass and large green hoop skirts that move fluidly like grass in wind. But for the jungle scenes, the grass is more reminiscent of vines and the costumes are striped so that when the dancers lie down they look like the short grass of the jungle.
One of the most intricate puppets is the gazelle wheel, a light wagon with mechanically leaping gazelle puppets that a dancer pushes across the stage. This wheel changes from normal gazelles to skeletons after Scar takes over, representing the death of the Pridelands.
All of the puppets and costumes were designed around the human body so that the humanity of the story is never forgotten. The dancers are still free to mimic the movements of animals, such as the puppet of the cheetah which extends from the dancer, and is controlled by the front legs. Giraffes were the other shocker; the dancer moves across the stage on four slits.
The music in The Lion King film is iconic in being choral and this had to transfer into the musical. Eurocentric orchestration is paired with African percussion and South African choral music. Because the percussion is so important to the show, there were at least half a dozen African drums raised out of the orchestra pit and set on either side of the stage. This was done purposefully to sit the percussionists among the audience. This, along with the six African languages in the musical, the chanting of the lionesses and grasslands, and the dancing form the townships, bring the feeling of Africa into the production.
Several songs were also added into the musical that are not featured in the movie. One of the most beautiful songs of the production, “They Live in You,” comes from the classic scene of Mufasa telling his son as gently as he can that he will not always be there. The song then starts with light keyboard percussion and the ensemble chanting while Mufasa explains that those who die remain in us. It’s reprise in the second act, “He Lives in You,” is possibly even more moving, as Rafiki sings it to the grown Simba so that he can remember his father and who he is. The ensemble then appears, clad in bright robes and singing along with Rafiki, until Simba himself joins in, as he decides to reclaim his title as king.
After Mufasa dies, the lionesses sing a funeral dirge “Nao Tse Tsa,” which speaks equivocally of loss and pain and ends with the mournful wailing of the singers. The first song of the second act, “One by One,” is also new and is sung by the ensemble. They walk down the aisle to the stage and carry puppets of birds which fly as they sing. Dancers stand in the mezzanines and have the birds fly up in the ceiling of the theater.
The next new song shows how the pressures of being King have affected Scar, and even hint to why he is as evil as he i – he says that “no one loved me, not even as a cub.” Scar then demands that Nala become his queen, and this leads into the next new song, “Shadowland.” “Shadowland” goes where the movie didn’t, showing why Nala decided to leave the Pridelands which have now become Shadowlands under Scar’s rule. She sings of how she must leave, but that she will never forget her pride, and that she will return. The ensemble of lionesses sing with her and Rafiki blesses her before she leaves. The entire song– from the percussion, to the strings, to the lyrics– tells of Nala’s bravery and strength. This is the defining song for Nala’s character.
The last new song, “Endless Night”, stems from Simba questioning why his father left him, and how he lost his home in the Pridelands. The song shows how even though Simba buried his father’s death, he never really managed to work through it. But through the song Simba remembers that there is always hope– “that the night will end and that the sun will rise.”
From the Movie Screen to Stage
Aside from extra songs in the musical there are also new scenes. The most evident is a scene in which Timon falls down a waterfall and Simba freezes, remembering the gorge and his father’s fall to his death. This is the first time the audience sees that the adult Simba is still struggling with his past, and this theme is repeated throughout the second act.
In any stage production there is room for adlibbing and The Lion King is no exception. Zazu is the character with the most quips, begging Mufasa not to fire him because he would have to become a pirate’s parrot and then laments “Not Gasparilla!” as a homage to Tampa. Later when he is caged in Scar’s lair and asked to sing something “bouncy” he breaks out into a chorus of “Let It Go,” with not only Scar but the adult audience screaming, “No, not that, anything but that!”
The members of the creative team behind the musical come from all over the world: American Julie Taymore as director, mask and puppet designer; Richard Hudson a Zimbabwean raised Brit, as set designer; acclaimed Jamaican choreographer, Garth Fagan, to create the movements of the animals; American Donald Holder for the lighting of the savannah; and British Michael Ward to design hair, makeup and create the animals.
Taymore kept African roots for the production by using African texture, patterns, music, and language. But international elements are woven into the production to underscore the story’s message of unity.
Changes to this Production
After 18 years, musicals change from production to production, and The Lion King is no exception. “Morning Report” and its subsequent pouncing lesson, memorable from both the movie and earlier musicals was missing. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” got a makeover, with lyrics added in from the Elton John version and a removal of bird puppets from the choreography. Another song to get a change in choreography was “Be Prepared.” The hyenas now have a small break dance number in the middle of the song, that, given their costumes, was some impressive dancing.
But what didn’t change was the beauty and majesty of the story, and its incredible power to transport you to another world. Everything about it is exquisite, and moves more than a few people to tears, while bringing them together.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.