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Bold Experiment Turned Broadway Hit, ‘Lion King’ Continues To Thrill — And Heal

October 29, 2017

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When you think of Disney, “experimental” or “avant-garde” may not be the first words that spring to mind.

But when tasked with adapting the 1994 Disney animated film, The Lion King, for the Broadway stage, director Julie Taymor decided to take an unconventional tack.

Drawing on theater and puppetry traditions she’d studied from around the world, Taymor brought a bold, experimental approach to the show. And, when it opened in 1997, that fusion was met with wide critical acclaim and huge box office success.

It garnered Taymor the first Tony Award given to a woman for directing a musical, and another for the show’s costumes.

Now, two decades later, The Lion King still holds its place atop the Broadway throne. At over $1 billion in ticket sales, it remains the most successful show in Broadway history, and has been performed in 19 countries around the world.

As the musical celebrates its 20th anniversary, Taymor and actress Lindiwe Dlamini, an ensemble cast member for the entire run, talk about what the show means to them today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On when director Julie Taymor knew the production would be as special as she’d hoped

Taymor: We had four or five rooms: the main acting room, a choreographic room, a choral room and then a puppet room. And we all would be doing our work but people would just start traveling and visiting between the rooms and their mouths would be gasping, you’d be gasping. Garth Fagan’s choreography or the gorgeous choral singing from all of the South Africans, and these giant puppets would be coming into our rooms, and I think that we kind of knew then that this was something really special, before we had an audience, just we, the people creating it, were very excited.

And then we get to the first night and the audience just instantly starts screaming and standing and clapping and we couldn’t hear anything. And I burst into tears, as did everybody around me.

On whether the musical, which draws on influences from around the world, resonates with Lindiwe Dlamini, a South African who grew up under apartheid

Dlamini: The story of Lion King itself connects with me because, you know, Simba is a young man who’s trying to find himself because he’s exiled, which is connected with us. We had people who left the country to go fight for our land. They left South Africa and came to America, like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba — all those artists who had a voice to be able to speak with a larger audience through music and singing. So it connects that way to me.

And then you have loss, where I personally have lost family members while I’m in The Lion King, especially when my father passed away because when I found out it was right before we go onstage. And then I said OK, “Should I just leave or should I go on?” I know he would want me to go on. And you have this song “He Lives In You,” you know, even today I still feel that way. It’s one of the songs that mean so much to me. So I know it connects to the audience, even for us personally.

Taymor: There’s so many parts of the Lion King that do so many things for people. So it’s not just the entertainment value. This thing about “he lives in you,” the idea of The Lion King doing what theater originally was always meant to do, which is, besides entertain, to heal.

On the message The Lion King brings to its black audiences

I have had the experience, in all the different countries that we’ve been able to have The Lion King, of watching different aspects of the culture that comes to this play, that experiences it, or that in it, go through this process and it’s an astounding thing to be a part of. I feel tremendously lucky.

But also, one of the things that I’m most proud of is the whole racial aspect of The Lion King and that 20 years ago hadn’t been done that way. When we did Lion King in Minneapolis — and I remember there were many black African-American families who came to see it — those children had never seen a black king on stage. There was no Obama. This was a time when you know that scar is white and Mufasa’s black and they’re brothers. And yet we very consciously cast The Lion King, and still do, in a very racial way … it was a very clear intent and decision. Lion King has nothing to do with racism, bunch of animals onstage, you know, it’s a fable, but you aren’t going to deny that the performers up there are who they are. So what was fascinating back then and moving to me was that, for African-American audiences, it was all about race in a very proud, beautiful way — connecting to Africa without being directly a pickup. But for white people, it had nothing to do with race — it wouldn’t even occur to them because it was just a show.

On how the production takes on different meanings as it travels around the world

As we take it around to different countries it’s really fascinating to see how that plays out because language-based humor is local. So every time we go to another country we have to approach the performers and the writers and find out what is the local humor. I mean Timon Pumbaa are Borscht Belt Jewish humor. You think that translates? No, it does not translate to other cultures.

I think the most interesting Timon-Pumbaa story is the South African. There was an Afrikaners actor playing Pumbaa. And the only good actor for Timon was a black South African from Cape Town. So now you have a black Timon — of course he’s green because you do understand the makeup is green and Pumbaa is white and purple. But you know who’s singing and performing and the accents are very extreme. And any black South African hearing an Afrikaners accent is going to have an instant feeling. So we have these two guys and they’re hilarious together. This was so new that these two characters all of a sudden had social relevance because, in a subversive way, what you’re saying is they missed apartheid. They’re best friends; they weren’t back there where all the trouble was.

And there were a number of different things in the South African Lion King that had incredible political power. So when people think of The Lion King in general, they think, “Oh isn’t that the sweetest, cutest. Oh I loved it, my child loved it.” It had much deeper resonance culturally, socially, and that’s what really fuels my fire as a person. I just I love what happens with that show all over the world, because it becomes owned.

Kenya Young and Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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