• The Lion King musical has been seen by 100 million people since its premiere in 1997 and will be coming to Hong Kong in the winter after a season in Taipei
• Cast and crew talk about the logistics of touring and the challenges of singing in costume
Elton John’s The Lion King musical opens in Taipei this month and in Hong Kong in December. Based on the 1994 animated Disney film of the same name, The Lion King tells the story of the lion prince Simba who, with the help of his friends Nala, Timon and Pumbaa, has to regain control of his kingdom from his evil uncle Scar after the death of his father, Mufasa. A live-action reboot by director John Favreau will be released this month.
The musical premiered on Broadway in New York in 1997, and has since been watched by 100 million people globally in eight languages, including Japanese, Korean and Chinese. It is the only show in history to generate six touring productions worldwide.
Both the Disney film and subsequent musical were unlikely success stories.
“None of the animators at Disney wanted to work on the film when it was first pitched in 1990, because lions mostly just sleep,” says Felipe Gamba, director of international production for Disney Theatrical Group. “And when the original producer of the show, Thomas Schumacher, was tasked with adapting it for the stage, he thought it was a bad idea.”
Julie Taymor, now most recognised for her work on The Lion King, was brought in to direct the musical, and she came up with the highly successful idea to use masks and puppets to bring the animals to life on stage.
Taymor – the first woman to win a Tony award, for best director for The Lion King – drew on her experiences of working in Japan and Indonesia to create the sets, props and costumes for the show.
Amanda Kunene and Jordan Shaw, in the title roles of Nala and Simba for the international tour, had to figure out how to sing while wearing the corsets that were part of their costumes.
“We found ways to breathe with the corsets. It’s tight, it’s snatched, but the amazing wardrobe team make it a point to make our costumes as comfortable as possible,” says the South African-born Kunene.
For Zodwa Mrasi, who plays the baboon shaman Rafiki, the challenge was transposing the traditional healers of her native South Africa into musical theatre, while combining that with the characteristics of a baboon.
“There’s a part where Rafiki is climbing a vine, so I have to be funny, but also make sense. It’s a lot of things,” Mrasi says.
Shaw, on the other hand, took a more human approach to the role of Simba. “I researched Balinese and Javanese dance movements, which work well to show how a lion moves, but as far as the character goes, the story of Simba is such a human story, so I had to really break down the text and understand exactly what it was I was saying and feeling,” he says.
The British actor’s approach to the story of Simba shows why the film and the Broadway musical have resonated with audiences around the world.
Cassel says of seeing The Lion King on stage: “It’s a deeply moving experience. You have this incredible story and this incredible music. There’s an emotional connection that you have with theatre that you don’t get with any other medium.”