Animal magic

How do you bring the energy and complexity of The Lion King to the stage? There’s more to it than pulling a lion cub out of a hat.

Even before I knew it was being turned into a stage musical, I had a deep and meaningful relationship with The Lion King, along with a million other dutiful parents. The animated Disney feature about a noble young lion wreaking vengeance on his father’s slayer became, over a two-year period, as indispensable to my young daughter’s cultural life as her Barbie collection.

Truth to tell, I was often the one to suggest she watched it. Whatever you say about Disney, its ability to combine art and commerce to irresistible effect is in a class of its own. I’ve watched The Lion King countless times with my children and it gets to me every time.

The idea of making it into a stage show was puzzling, to say the least. How could you suggest the movie’s multiplicity of animal life within the confines of a theatre? How could you depict the crucial wildebeest stampede in which Simba’s father is dispatched? Then there’s the drought, the waterfall, the African savannah. Other than financial gain, what would be the point of trying to reproduce on stage something that had worked so brilliantly as animation?

The same thoughts obviously occurred to Julie Taymor, the theatre director Disney contracted to work a miracle. Taymor’s background was not traditional Broadway, but experimental theatre – using masks, puppets, dance and ethnic ritual – in which design was every bit as important as text. Disney’s choice of Taymor indicated from the outset that it wanted the stage version to be a different animal altogether.

For Taymor the challenge was to maintain the integrity of her own style, for which she was being employed, while incorporating it into one of the most universally popular stories of recent times. With so many fixed ideas about what the characters looked and sounded like, would audiences accept a new, Taymor-ised version?

“What has to be appreciated is that Disney didn’t need to go in this direction to have a hit,” explains Taymor. “The Lion King was huge as a film already.”

The apparent impossibility of her task made it all the more seductive to Taymor. Her objective at every turn was to transform The Lion King from a cinematic experience into a live theatre experience.

“My aim was to release audiences from their memories of the film right from the start. I wanted them to take a leap of faith and imagination. In a film you cut from one scene to another, but in theatre the transitions can be seamless and a director’s challenge is the choreography of those alterations of space and time.”

But the real test of Taymor’s ingenuity was how to represent the story’s vast menagerie without resorting to Cats-like furry suits or sophisticated Dr Dolittle-type animatronics. The solution she came up with proved to be not only visually captivating, but unprecedented in musical theatre.

The principal characters wear masks not over, but above their faces, so you simultaneously see the animal and the actor. The effect is compelling and primitive, a potent metaphor for the interdependence of man and animal.

“Hidden special effects lack humanity,” says Taymor, “but when the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a special connection. Showing the mechanics, the rods and ropes and wires that make it all happen, is something theatre can do that film and TV cannot. They are literal mediums where the spectator is asked to believe in the reality of the image. Theatre functions best as a poetic medium. The audience, given a hint or suggestion of an idea, is ready to fill in the gaps.”

In the show’s opening scene, the presentation of the newly-born Simba at Pride Rock against a huge, shimmering, saffron sun, a procession of life-sized animals makes its way through the auditorium, on to the stage, to the swelling sounds of the Elton John-Tim Rice belter, Circle of Life. The parade includes an 3m elephant, with four actors visible inside, stately giraffes, each motivated by a single actor on stilts, gazelles prancing gracefully on the arms of dancers, zebra, cheetah, birds, all operated in different ingenious ways by the actors.

As one journalist who saw the show in New York reported, “It’s a moment of pure theatrical wonder. All around me adults shook their heads in disbelief, eyes inexplicably moist.”

One of the most powerful elements of the film is the rich humanity of the animal characters, which is why Taymor was so anxious to make the human being an essential part of her transformation process.

“Having made the decision not to hide performers inside animal suits or behind masks, the challenge was to convey the animal’s essence while maintaining the human presence. I was particularly inspired by the minimalist way animals are portrayed in African art. Sticks or swords could simulate legs, claw-like nails could represent a lion’s paw. African-inspired textiles, including graphics of Kuba cloths and fine beading, provided ways of depicting fur, feathers and skin.

“The cut of the fabrics, their decorations, tones and patterns would evoke an animal’s contours and surfaces without sacrificing the character’s human qualities. It’s done with old-fashioned techniques. The freedom of theatre is mind-boggling if you stay away from the literal. There is a need to revitalise its poetic nature.”

By the time the distinguished British stage designer Richard Hudson joined the production team, Taymor had already laid a lot of the show’s design and narrative foundations. The story had been tweaked by the original writers, under Taymor’s instructions, making it weightier and giving one of the central characters, Rafiki, the wise old baboon, a sex change; the setting would be more African than the film; the animals would be more abstract and the ethnic quotient increased in looks and sounds.

The call from Disney took Hudson by surprise. “A Disney musical is not something I’d ever imagined I would do,” says the designer, best known for his work in opera and the classics. “I hadn’t even seen The Lion King!”

When he did see it, his first thought was “This is impossible”. But after sessions with Taymor and Disney executive Tom Schumacher, Hudson began to see how it might work.

“Julie had such brilliant ideas and was so good at putting them across that she completely won me over. Her energy and inventiveness can be overwhelming and I had to fit in with what she was doing, but we always got on really well. Disney set us up with a big studio, with Julie and I working in adjoining rooms. It was really hard work for about five months. Sometimes she had ideas that wouldn’t work practically, and I had to talk her into letting them go without appearing to be a party-pooper. There were changes that had to be made because we were way over budget. My budget alone was $2.5m (£1.65m).”

Taymor says, “It is rare for designers to work in such close proximity. Usually, each artist works in the isolation of his of her studio. But it was impossible to separate one design element from another. Patterns on costumes were duplicated in the patterns of the scenery. Colours were constantly compared. Everybody had questions about scale, dimension, and the flow of traffic on stage.”

Though neither Taymor nor Disney was aware of it, Hudson was actually born in Africa and lived in Zimbabwe – or Rhodesia as it then was – until he was 18. “It was one of the things that appealed to me about the project. I have a real feeling for African culture. I looked up old family photos, as well as studying African art and textiles. Just before I started work on it there was a huge African art exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was a great inspiration.

“I loved the idea of abstracting a landscape, finding ways of conjuring up the colour and atmosphere of Africa. No location, no period, just Africa. I could not peg my designs to a particular date or period as I usually do, and that made me much freer.”

Hudson admits that he was pleasantly surprised by the lack of interference by Disney. “I was dreading the technical rehearsals before we opened. I’d imagined there would be this committee of Disney bods in suits at the back of the stalls, muttering and making notes. It didn’t happen. Obviously, there were hassles, but the show had been so well prepared by Disney that everything went pretty smoothly.”

Since the show went on to win 24 awards on Broadway, including a coveted Tony for last year’s best musical, the bods from Disney have every reason to congratulate themselves on being bold enough to entrust their furry little goldmine to such radical talents.

The tireless Taymor is now heavily into directing films – her version of Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins opens in the US later this year – but that doesn’t mean she has forsaken theatre. “People need that shared experience,” she insists. “The Lion King does what film cannot, which is surround you.”

The Lion King previews at The Lyceum Theatre, 21 Wellington Street, London WC1, from 24 September.

Staging a stampede

Adapting The Lion King from screen animation to big Broadway musical required infinite ingenuity on the part of director Julie Taymor, designer Richard Hudson and the rest of the creative team. Technology gives film-makers a far wider canvas and, when it comes to animation, almost anything is possible.

Because they were keen to stick to the film’s storyline, Taymor had to resolve such problems as: how do you switch in a matter of seconds from a scene in an elephant’s graveyard, with snarling hyenas, to a full-on wildebeest stampede, one of the show’s spectacular highlights?

This is Taymor’s account of how it was achieved. ‘Out of necessity, we conceived what is known as a cover scene that happens downstage while the scene change is taking place upstage, behind a giant shadow screen. Small shadow puppets of Simba and Scar journey along in silhouette, while downstage, two life-sized giraffes saunter by. The musical transition allows stagehands time to shift the set and enables the audience to pause before the next action-packed scene. After a few minutes, the actors playing Scar and Simba enter and begin the dialogue that leads into the stampede.

‘The shift from an open, expansive scene to a shallow, intimate one is one way of using cinematic techniques theatrically. In quiet moments, or when the audience needs to hear dialogue, scenes are pulled downstage in a kind of theatrical equivalent of a close-up. The audience can see the expressions of the characters in detail. Then, when the stage opens up again, as it does for the stampede, you feel the theatrical equivalent of a camera pulling back for a long shot.

‘The wildebeest stampede takes place in a canyon formed by five sets of rust-coloured portals that slide in from the wings, one behind the other, receding in false perspective. The idea is to convey the impression of herds of wildebeest running towards the audience from a long distance away. Miniature wildebeest, painted on a canvas roller drop, start to scroll downward at the back of the stage. From the ground between the canyon walls rises first one, then a second large roller dotted with miniature models of more wildebeest. The rollers rotate like an old-fashioned penny arcade game, creating the sense of the herds careering towards the audience.

‘A line of stampeding dancers, each wearing three full-scale wildebeest masks, rises out of the stage-wide trap in front of the rollers. Simba runs for his life, trying to stay ahead of them. A second row of stomping dancers emerges with even larger masks and 1.5m shields with gigantic horns that thrust at the audience aggressively.

‘The scene is fraught with difficulty and split-second timing, Simba has to leap up and cling to the branch of a tree, then fall into the gorge. Mufasa, after putting his son out of danger, climbs 6m up the edge of the canyon wall, then falls back into the midst of the wildebeest. The scene requires step-by-step planning and technical coordination so that actors do not injure themselves and the staging flows smoothly.’

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