For a quarter of a century, Disney’s The Lion King has reigned as Broadway royalty and then some. Since opening in the fall of 1997, the show has gone on to play every continent in the world except Antarctica and is the biggest-grossing entertainment property — ever. President of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher was instrumental in transforming the animated feature into a stage musical. NY1 News journalist Frank DiLella caught up with Schumacher days before The Lion King’s official 25th Anniversary (November 13) to reminisce about the beloved show.
All these years later and The Lion King is still the king of Broadway!
The joy of making the show was mixed with the terror of making the show — because we were doing something no one had ever done before. We were following Julie Taymor’s brilliant artistic lead on it, and I think we were doing everything we could to deliver the show. It was impossible to predict when it opened 25 years ago if it would run at all.
You were responsible for bringing visionary director Julie Taymor on board for this project. What was it about Julie that made you say “Yes, I want her as my director”?
I think I called her at the top of 1995, which was only two and a half years before the first preview of The Lion King in Minneapolis. She had been working in giant opera, so she was doing this giant Oedipus with Jessye Norman. So Julie was working in big form, but she had done shows like Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass where she was telling the story of a boy who becomes a jaguar. Julie knew how to work in myth, legend, and lore. She knew how to tell stories that were essentially untellable.
You’ve seen this show staged all over the world. What’s your favorite moment in the show? Something you look forward to seeing every time you watch a production?
The moment for me that really touches me is when Mufasa takes his mask off in “They Live in You,” when he’s trying to teach his son about the great kings of the past who are all looking down on them, that he’s part of something bigger than himself. And he takes the mask off and sets it on the floor and he goes from being king to Dad. And at the end of the scene, when he’s brought his son up to understand the stakes of what this all means and then the boy helps him with the crown — putting the mask back on — and they both take this sort of lotus position as the lights go down. Every single time I see it I tear up because it’s that problem everyone faces: the huge responsibility on the shoulders of King Mufasa, and yet he must step away from being King Mufasa and become Dad, become mentor, become teacher, and help shape the next generation. And for me, that’s the most powerful moment in the show.
The Lion King is the most successful entertainment property in the world. Why do you think that is? What’s the appeal?
I think this notion of telling a universal story that speaks the same truth to you — if you’re in Madrid seeing the production, which is 12 years old, whether you’re in Tokyo seeing the production, which is 24 years old, or whether you’re seeing it on tour in America this week — it’s speaking a story that’s still about us. Because it’s about you, your place in this life, your family, your community, and also the world at large.
Is The Lion King, from an artistic perspective, your proudest achievement?
The night before the anniversary, most of the title-page creative team, we’ll assemble and have dinner and it will be like dinners we’ve had in countries all over the world, working on this show as we shape it and change it. [This show] has been adapted into big versions and small versions — I love that. And the fact that we’re all still together… I find that deeply moving.
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