The Broadway company of Disney's The Lion King
The Broadway company of Disney's The Lion King

The Lion King at 18

If the lion is the king of the jungle, then The Lion King is the king of Broadway.

The musical, now approaching its 18th birthday, has been seen by more than 80 million people in 20 different countries, and on every continent except Antarctica. Since the show’s 1997 premiere, its 22 global productions have earned a worldwide gross that exceeds that of any film, Broadway show, or other entertainment title in box-office history. And, as of last weekend, it surpassed Cats to become the third-longest-running show in Broadway history.
Of course, such an accomplishment didn’t just happen.

From the first notes of the now-iconic “Circle of Life” that opens the musical, The Lion King transports its audience to a faraway, yet familiar place. But more than being a story about Africa or lions, The Lion King’s universality is what has enabled it to touch so many people around the world. “It’s a story of a boy discovering who he’s meant to be before he can take his rightful place, and he learns that that place is back at home,” says John Stefaniuk, the associate director of the musical who oversees the creative integrity of all productions worldwide.

The story draws on a familiar theme: the son must wander the wilderness to come to terms with who he is before returning to claim his rightful place, one that’s found in the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses, for example. And it even has an element of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in it: the son who must avenge the death of his father.

TLKPart of the show’s appeal is that it immerses the audience in the magic of the theater. Much — but by no means all — of the credit goes to director Julie Taymor, who also designed the costumes and codesigned the masks for the show. Associate director Stefaniuk explains: “What Julie has done is that she hasn’t reinvented the theater, she’s rediscovered it.” He points out that the sun coming up at the start of the show has become so iconic, but its power comes from its simplicity; it’s paper and string. And he cites the technique Taymor calls “the double event,” when both puppet and human are visible at all times as another example of her reveling in simple theatricality. “She’s willing to show the puppeteers, not hide them behind some mysterious curtain or put the actors in full-on animal suits,” he says. “Because people can see the actors, they’re drawn in.”

The story also resonates with the richness of global sensibilities, especially those of Africa, where it’s set. The Lion King employs six indigenous languages from the continent — Swahili, Zuli, Xhosa (the click language), Sotho, Tswana, and Congolese. But there’s more: The puppetry is based on Bunraku, which, along with kabuki and noh, comprises one of three classical Japanese theater forms. Further, the movements of the Lion King cast are based on Balinese and Javanese movement, which is to say they’re highly stylized. This heightened physicality is used when the characters are expressing strong emotions such as love or aggression, Stefaniuk points out, referring to Simba and Nala, two characters who wear masks throughout the show. “At other times, they’re just teenagers, and it’s back and forth between stylized and more naturalistic movement. What that means is that their entire body becomes part of the mask and you feel the weight and strength and fear of the animal, but you also see the humanity.”


But it is South Africa, in particular, that gives the musical its infectious energy. When I asked him about Tshidi Manye, who has played Rafiki on both the national tour and currently in the Broadway production, Stefaniuk said: “She is the absolute quintessential example of why we bring South Africans to every company around the world. There’s something inherent in South African culture that derives from the music and from their singing. It’s so beautiful to hear that sung and spoken throughout the show.”

“For us,” Manye said, “music is medicine. Rafiki is the shaman who brings forth the spiritual aspects of our culture.”

Of course, there are 54 countries in Africa. Why South Africa? How did it come to have the cultural imprint of this particular country?

Stefaniuk points to “Rhythm of the Pride Lands,” a “sequel” album of songs inspired by Hans Zimmer’s score for the original film version of The Lion King, as the seed for the South African roots on which Taymor built the stage version. Featuring music composed by the South African musician Lebo M, the album inspired Taymor to incorporate South African cultural influences into the show’s score and design. As the show was developed, Taymor and the creative team quickly realized that casting South Africans enhanced the authenticity of these influences and brought a richer and more culturally grounded sound to the music. Today there are at least six to eight South African performers in virtually every one of the nine productions currently playing around the world.

Duma Ndlovu, who has been the South African casting director for all productions of The Lion King for almost 16 years, provided further historical context. He points out that South African music came to prominence during the 1980s when the anti-apartheid movement brought global attention to the country. Musicians such as trumpeter Hugh Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba, and, most notably, Paul Simon and his Graceland project with Ladysmith Black Mambazo all rose to international stardom during this time. Stefaniuk adds, “This iconic music brought The Lion King to South Africa, and The Lion King brought South Africa to the world.”

Ndlovu recognizes that one of the keys to The Lion King’s enduring impact around the world is its universality. “The Lion King has become the most successful cultural vehicle for South Africa because it’s about any man, it’s about family, it’s about a father who loves his son.”

And in that regard, the musical is a gateway for many people to a different set of perceptions about Africa, reminding people of the richness of African culture.

That’s a fantastic birthday gift from the musical to the world.

Rob Fields writes about the intersection of marketing, business, and contemporary culture. Follow him on Twitter @robfields.

Top Photo by Brinkhoff-Mogenburg

Inset Photo: Tshidi Manye as Rafiki. Credit: Joan Marcus

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