When Julie Taymor was first approached to direct and design a stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King, she had not yet seen the blockbuster animated film.
But 20 years after opening on Broadway in November 1997, The Lion King remains one of its hottest tickets, and has been seen by more than 90 million people in 19 countries, representing every continent except Antarctica. It has been translated into eight languages, not including the six African languages incorporated into the show. Its 25th global production, and first international tour, launches in Manila next March.
Taymor, who won Tony Awards for direction of a musical (the first given to a woman) and costume design for The Lion King — and has remained a leading force in theater and music while establishing her own celebrated film career — attributes this success to two factors. First, the story of young lion Simba’s journey of self-discovery after this father is killed has resonated deeply with audiences. And second, Taymor’s own use of her creative freedom allowed her to spin that story forward to engage theatergoers the world over.
Her own journey with The Lion King began in the mid-1990s, when she got a call from Thomas Schumacher, who was then overseeing feature animation at the Walt Disney Company and is now president of Disney Theatrical Productions. About a decade earlier, Schumacher had seen Liberty’s Taken, an original musical Taymor crafted with her creative and life partner, Elliot Goldenthal, “using all kinds of masks and puppets,” she says. “Tom had gotten the idea of the kind of work I did, and he called me out of the blue and said, basically, ‘Would you be interested in The Lion King?’”
When Taymor admitted she hadn’t seen The Lion King on screen, Schumacher sent her a copy. “I thought it was an amazing film,” she says. “You know, there are holes, but in general it was such an exciting proposition — this idea of, How do you put your own stamp on it? I would now be in this very big playground, and Tom and [former president of feature animation at Disney] Peter Schneider were telling me to really experiment, to be me.”
Her first order of business was to enhance the narrative, emphasizing Simba’s “prodigal-son journey — how he almost has to go to hell before he’s allowed to come home again.” From there flowed the idea of placing masks atop actors’ heads; Taymor had used the technique before, in a staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, but here she applied it with a different purpose. “The characters in the animated film are so expressive and human,” she says, citing Jeremy Irons’s voicing of Scar, Simba’s villainous uncle. “I thought, ‘I’ll create this animal’s head to show the essence of who Scar is, but let his personality come through in the actor below the mask.’”
Taymor was also keen to increase the presence and potency of female roles in The Lion King. She expanded the role of Rafiki, the shamanistic mandrill voiced by Robert Guillaume in the movie, making it a woman’s part and “the spiritual guide to the whole show.” She also buffed and toughened up the lioness Nala: “When you talk about lions, the females do all of it, including the hunt. So I threw out a lot of the soft stuff in the film and made Nala very strong. She’s got one of the best songs in the show, ‘Shadowland,’ which is about being a refugee, a subject that’s very topical right now.”
Indeed, for Taymor, a lifelong world traveler who has always integrated aspects of different cultures into her work, “The Lion King has lasted so long because it’s socially minded, and it has a sense of spirituality that connects with people all over. Everywhere I’ve been, there’s always something in the show that becomes distinctly political there.”
At home, race is a particularly key factor. “You have to remember that 20 years ago, black people were mostly seen on television and movies as inner-city gangstas,” says Taymor. “And here we were, bringing Africa to the stage in this positive and powerful and beautiful way.” When tapped for The Lion King, Taymor says, she “told Tom and Peter I wasn’t going to cast white people in most of these roles. … This was way before Hamilton, before Obama. Lion King has given more presence to nonwhite performers than any show — as we now know, because many of them are now performing in Hamilton and in other shows.”
Taymor, who is currently helming another Broadway production, a new revival of the Pulitzer Prize–winning M Butterflydcfxteerewvzrqdereefvcbqwrxucxatwad, is hopeful that this spirit of diversity will resonate even in our polarized climate. The touring company of The Lion King that recently started rehearsals will be “going into the hinterlands of America, into little towns that have never had this kind of theater before, and I hope that’s going to mean something,” she says, adding, pointedly: “This is a really healing show.”