Behind the scenes with the kings of the musical jungle
The modern musical has always looked to Hollywood for inspiration. For the audience, familiarity is often the point; they are there to sing along.
Julie Taymor’s extraordinary production of The Lion King, however, is something entirely different from the source material it is based on. Indeed, when Taymor was first approached by Disney Theatrical, the live-performance arm of the Disney franchise, she had never even seen the animated film, which was released in 1994 and quickly became a children’s classic.
The film told a story of succession in the animal kingdom, as lion cub Simba is tricked into believing he caused the death of his father, Mufasa. With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, its emotional journey of loss and redemption made for a powerful morality tale for a young audience.
Taymor had come to Disney’s attention for her work in theatre and opera, where she had used puppetry to enliven classical texts and operas, including The Tempest, The Magic Flute and Oedipus Rex. Yet these Asian-influenced productions would hardly have made her the most obvious choice for a big-budget Broadway show.
The fact that Taymor hadn’t seen the Oscar-winning film didn’t dissuade Disney; it duly sent her a copy, confident she would come up with a creative approach to staging it.
Even Disney must have been astonished by the concept she produced several weeks later, which used puppetry as an extension of the live body. Instead of concealing the actors beneath their costumes, Taymor envisaged the actors themselves as a sculptural form, fused with masks and mechanical limbs she designed.
In one of many stunning scenes, Simba and his love-interest, Nala, frolic in a plain of marram grass, the layers of soil and greenery brought to life by female dancers wearing a headdress of upright reeds on their heads, similar to how some African women carry baskets of laundry or freshly picked crops.
Taymor’s original sketches became the visual template for the live musical version of The Lion King, which premiered on Broadway in 1997 and has been running ever since.
It will be coming to Ireland for the first time in April, when audiences will have a chance to see Taymor’s vision in its inventive entirety; The Lion King is a protected franchise and every production – from Shanghai to London – is a direct realisation of Taymor’s grand vision.
Backstage at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, the technical crew are policing standards. In the wardrobe department, the costumiers are consulting “the bible”: a heavy folder that offers a visual dictionary for the show. It is filled with fabric swatches and colour charts, which are the primary guide for ensuring everything looks as it should.
It is an hour before curtain up and they are putting finishing touches to hats and wigs and elaborate costumes.
Despite its Hollywood origins, the production prides itself on African authenticity. South African musician Lebo M gets a co-composing credit on Elton John and Tim Rice’s score; songs and pack chants are sung in several African languages, including Swahili and the distinctive click-language of Xhosa. Many of the performers are of South African origin, while the costumes are made with material sourced from Africa.
On the repair rack that sits just inside the door, a cage-like corset, which was cracked accidentally during last night’s show, waits to be attended to. It is the central piece of the villain Scar’s costume, and it looks like the rib-cage of an animal picked clean of flesh; a perfect visual expression of the character’s brutal nature.
It weighs two and a half stone, and restricts the movement of the actor wearing it dramatically, but Garth Fagan’s choreography helps to compensate for his reduced mobility, and when Scar walks across the stage, it is a stealthy strut that we observe; the physical limitation becomes a key character trait for Simba’s nemesis.
Hanging beside this wonder of construction is a stunning beaded corset, which has lost some beads and needs to be restrung. It is just one of many ornate corsets in the show, the maintenance of which forms a core part of the costume department’s responsibilities.
Although all the corsets have a template, each is unique and hand-beaded, a job that takes two to three weeks per piece; in the same way no animal would have the same colours in the jungle, each corset has its own shade and pattern.
From the stalls, you can’t put your finger on the differences, except to note each animal in the 33-strong ensemble is distinctive, even when moving as part of a pack.
The actor playing Zazu – Simba’s avian confidant – has yet to collect his costume for the evening’s performance. His coat – the shape of a classic formal suit enlivened with geometric print – hangs stiff on a hanger, the tail rolled to keep it curled, so when released, it gives the effect of a feathery bouffant.
Zazu, like the rest, comes to life as part-actor, part-puppet. In this case, a waft of parachute silk is given shape by the actor’s hand movements and a coiled slink that gives lifelike motion to the neck is topped by a heavy-lidded hornbill’s head.
Downstairs, a trio of prop-makers are retouching his huge beak, and working on some of the other 260 puppets used in the show, using tiny brushes to enliven paintwork that has faded under the hot stage lights or been discoloured by an actor’s sweat or make-up. Others are attending to mechanical repairs.
The large masks worn by the principal characters – Mufasa’s kingly halo, Scar’s angular face – are electronic, and are operated by the actors. With others, the puppets’ discrete parts are attached by wire to the actors’ heads so when they move, the mask moves too, making its animation a natural extension of the human choreography. But others still are puppets in their simplest form, brought to life with a tug of strings, or, in the case of a bounding herd of gazelles, by a repurposed bicycle.
From the centre of the stalls, however, the discrete elements of live performer and puppet coalesce as a singular vision. In the opening moments, the stage is bare except for a massive sun rising against a pale backdrop. But the audience are looking in the wrong place for the show to begin.
As the lights dim and the orchestra warms up with The Circle of Life, a parade of animals makes its way through the aisles of the theatre, so close you can touch them. An elephant’s trunk brushes against the extended legs of a comfortable spectator. There is a collective gasp as a giraffe teeters unsteadily by, a grand entrance that heralds only the beginning of 180 minutes of breath-taking spectacle.
The Lion King is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from April 27th to June 22nd