Pride and joy: Julie Taymor on staging the return of The Lion King

Disney’s The Lion King: ‘It’s an animal story, but it’s really a parable. All the animals are really human beings’
The director transformed Disney’s animation into a record-breaking cultural phenomenon

“Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala. Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala.” Waiting on the line for theatre and film director Julie Taymor to join the conference call, the score of The Lion King thrums down the line. This is how they do it at Disney – even the holding music is promotionally themed. Still, who could complain about being serenaded by a chorus of South African singers with a powerful message about “the circle of life [that] moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love”? The song may be more than 25 years old, but there is deep resonance in it all the same.

The voices, however, cut out mid-chant, as Taymor picks the phone up at her home in Martha’s Vineyard, where she has spent the last 18 months cocooning herself from the public health crisis. When the global pandemic struck, Taymor had just premiered The Glorias, her experimental biopic of feminist Gloria Steinem at The Sundance Festival. With promotional duties suddenly cancelled and theatres closed, “I couldn’t rehearse anything, I couldn’t direct anything, and I’ve been here since.”

“It was a disaster,” Taymor says wryly, speaking of the ill-fated release of her film. “It couldn’t wait until after the [US] election,” she says. “We had to release it as scheduled, even though cinemas were closed.”Looking at the half-full glass, however, she “got a lot of writing done”. 

Julie Taymor: I think film as a form is on the edge of an abyss right now... Theatre has much more ability to be a constant living art form.’ Photograph: Desiree Navarro/Getty Images
Julie Taymor: I think film as a form is on the edge of an abyss right now... Theatre has much more ability to be a constant living art form.’ Photograph: Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

Taymor is not sure yet whether the scripts she developed during those long lockdown days will be for film or for the stage. “I don’t have a problem holding both [forms] in my head when I am writing,” Taymor says. “I think cinematically when I am working in the theatre, and for film my work is highly visual.” She is aware, however, that the choice may not be hers to make. “I think film as a form is on the edge of an abyss right now, because you have these big streaming companies and they don’t care about movies being in cinemas, and people don’t want to leave their houses [for that]. Theatre has much more ability to be a constant living art form, I think.” The full houses as theatre auditoriums begin to welcome audiences again seems to prove her theory right. 

With theatres across the world opening once more, Taymor has returned to what is surely the work that she is best known for: the stage version of Disney’s The Lion King, which premiered in 1997 and will be remounted later this year at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. 

Dismissive

When Taymor was approached by Disney in the mid-1990s about directing a live-action version of The Lion King for the stage, she was fairly dismissive of the idea. “At that time I was directing opera,” she remembers. “I was working off-Broadway. I was interested in the avant-garde. I didn’t have any interest in commercial theatre. I hadn’t even seen the animated cartoon, which surprised [producer] Tom Schumacher,” who had invited Taymor to come on board. “But I grew up with Disney, knew the kind of work they did, and I knew I could do it. The international operas that I was working on were large-scale, a cast of 350 people, so The Lion King [wouldn’t have been] my first large-scale project.”

However, there was a specific draw for Taymor to the story, which went beyond the scale of what she was being invited to do. “What really caught me,” she says, “was the challenge of putting animals on stage. The Lion King, like all Disney stories, no matter what form the characters take, are very human. So The Lion King is an animal story, but it’s really a parable. All the animals are really human beings. How do you achieve the same thing on stage?” 

I thought the female roles in the film were pretty lousy. I mean, honestly, female lions are the real kings of the jungle – the male lions just sleep all day 

Taymor’s belief in the stylised representational potential of theatre – honed by her international training and experience in Asia and Indonesia – led her to accept the challenge. The first thing she needed to do was find a creative way of embodying the animals convincingly. Having studied Japanese Bunraku puppetry and African mask forms, Taymor decided not to hide the human body underneath heavy costumes, but to use masks to allow the human actor and the animal character to exist on stage at the same time. It was intense work achieving her vision, particularly since she sculpted nearly every single mask herself. She remains proud of the fact that “every single mask you see on stage still has literally passed through my hands”. 

However, representation was not the only obstacle Taymor faced in staging the popular film. “I thought the [story of] the film felt really unfinished,” she admits, “and I thought the female roles in the film were pretty lousy. I mean, honestly, female lions are the real kings of the jungle – the male lions just sleep all day – so that was a big part of what I wanted to do.” Disney gave her “free rein to add what I needed. So I wrote the entire second half of the musical, making Nala a strong character, and I also changed Rafiki’s gender from male to female.” 

Authentic

The film’s original score needed work too. “There were only five songs in the film, so we needed to develop that.” Taymor had a clear vision that Elton John and Tim Rice’s original songs and Hans Zimmer’s original score should be enhanced with a deeper immersion in an authentic African sound. The primary work on this had already been done by Zimmer, who had incorporated traditional African instruments and choral work arranged by South African musician Lebo M. However, Taymor wanted to expand that authentic presence for the stage. Lebo M came on board to help score the expanded story, and the music now incorporated various different African languages as well as instruments, and a chorus of South African singers on stage, “who add a different style of singing, a different heartbeat to the music”. 

Disney’s The Lion King: ‘To have a celebration of African culture and heritage, an honouring of African style, I think that was an important part of its success’
Disney’s The Lion King: ‘To have a celebration of African culture and heritage, an honouring of African style, I think that was an important part of its success’

The extra layer of authentic engagement with African heritage and culture on stage, Taymor believes, was critical to The Lion King’s success. “One of the other critical things for me,” she says, “was that the cast should primarily be of African or African-American heritage. I didn’t want it to be cast the way movies were cast, the way the animated version was cast. You have to remember,” she explains by way of context, “this was 25 years ago, way before Hamilton. Barack Obama wasn’t even president then. So this was a new thing to have a musical with black performers that was not about race or racism. To let young African-American kids see a black king on stage, an honourable king. To have a celebration of African culture and heritage, an honouring of African style. I think that was an important part of its success.”

In the years since, The Lion King has played in more than 100 cities in 20 countries on every continent except Antarctica (“they don’t have lions there”), reaching audiences of more than 100 million people, making it the largest international grossing entertainment of all time. Taymor believes it remains resonant and relevant because of its mythic reach. “It is a classic myth, a coming-of-age tale, and [those kind of stories] are like rituals that can be told over again, and so people will still find themselves coming back to them in the darkest of their times.” 

In the lingering climate of public health panic, Taymor says, The Lion King’s message about death is particularly apt. “It is a spiritual story, really, and when you think of Covid and people losing loved ones, [its message] is a comfort. It says, ‘the [dead] live in you’, and that tells a little child that even the people who aren’t with us anymore, still they are here.” That kind of message, Taymor says, “doesn’t date”. As the central musical theme reminds us, it is “the path unwinding... It is the circle of life.”

The Lion King runs from December 23-February 4 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre