Julie Taymor
Julie Taymor

Women at the Helm: Julie Taymor

Although she has been one of our most reliably groundbreaking stage and screen directors for decades, Julie Taymor is loath to “dwell too much on the ‘woman’ thing,” as she puts it. Last spring, 19 years after Taymor became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical, The Lion King, “I was asked to do a talk because two women were nominated for Tonys for directing, and one won.” It was Rebecca Taichman, for helming Indecent, which she’d conceived with playwright Paula Vogel.

“I was delighted” for Taichman, Taymor notes. “But then I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about this again.’”

But if Taymor is ambivalent about defining herself or her colleagues by gender, she allows it’s been a substantial factor both in her career and her art. She’s currently represented on Broadway by its first revival of David Henry Hwang’s Pulitzer Prize–winning M. Butterfly, in which gender identity and fluidity are key concerns. Hwang and Taymor were keen to revisit the play, which traces a tortured love affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer, after new revelations surfaced about the real-life case that inspired it. “One of the questions the play asks is, What is femininity, and how do we take into account the multiple layers involved in gender?”

For Taymor — whose work in theater, film, and opera has included a great deal of Shakespeare in addition to contemporary drama — these queries are often central. When she was first tapped for The Lion King, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary as a Broadway behemoth, she watched the original animated film and spotted “a problem with women.” On screen, in Taymor’s view, both the young lion Simba’s mother, Sarabi, and his female friend Nala “were noncharacters. I didn’t mind that so much with Sarabi, because if you have a good, strong mother, you don’t really have a fairy tale. You need a witch or wicked stepmother or a father who’s alone; otherwise, why leave home?”

But Taymor was intent on making Nala tougher and more robust — and on creating an equally vital female presence in Rafiki, the shaman-like mandrill who performs “The Circle of Life.” The decision to reshape the latter character was made after Taymor spoke with a South African actress about the “lack of adult female roles” in Lion King; the friend reminded her of the sangoma women, revered as healers in South Africa, who became the inspiration for Taymor’s Rafiki.

A more recent New York project, the Public Theater’s 2015 staging of George Brant’s Grounded, had as its only character a female fighter pilot on drone duty for the Air Force. In the play’s original production in the U.K., the pilot could not, in a pivotal moment, bring herself to drop a bomb after spotting a young girl in the vicinity of the target; Taymor, who had cast Anne Hathaway in the role, found that development unconvincing and patronizing, and ultimately got Brant to revise it.

“I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t [the pilot] do it? Because she’s a mother?’” Taymor recalls. “So I got women in Washington, D.C., women in high military positions, on the phone, and they didn’t buy it either. They said, ‘She would have pushed that button.’ Because when women get into a position of power, where they’re the only woman or one of the only women there, they don’t shy away from that.”

Taymor has taken her own lumps as a woman in charge, as anyone who remembers the backstage drama surrounding the 2011 musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark can attest. Though she prefers not to rehash that episode, during which she was ousted as director — though her contributions, which included cowriting and conceiving the show, were ultimately recognized — Taymor admits that sexism figured into the ordeal.

“Look at what happens to women in any positions of power,” Taymor says. “Look at Nancy Pelosi, or Kamala Harris, who was called ‘hysterical’ in a hearing, when she was anything but. That word was used to put women into institutions and give them shock treatments, and there’s still an issue in this country with women in power, women seen as too strong in their opinions.”

Taymor is currently working on a film adaptation of feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road. Steinem is a friend, and they spent Election Night last year together at a party thrown by former ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers. When it became clear that Donald Trump would be elected president, “Gloria said, ‘I’m on my way to the Javits Center,’” where Hillary Clinton would deliver her concession speech.

“Gloria was the last one standing,” notes Taymor, who clearly knows something about resilience herself. “You have to draw inspiration from that.”

This is the second part in our series, Women at the Helm.