But the manner in which director Julie Taymor and her collaborators transformed The Lion King from a high-minded children's entertainment to a ritualistic allegory is really without precedent in the annals of old Broadway.
The Lion King's provocative musical potpourri is central to the show's enduring popularity, but the manner in which this varied and colorful score came together doesn't reflect traditional theatrical formulas. For veteran film composer Mark Mancina and South African songwriter/arranger Lebo M (who both contributed music to the movie), Taymor's commitment to transfiguring the film into a living evocation of African song, dance and cultural spirit was what ultimately inspired them to join the director's creative team.
"I felt that when we did the film, what Lebo brought to the score was so great, I wished there'd been a lot more," Mancina confesses. "So when I had my initial meeting with Julie, that's the first thing she conveyed: She wanted to re-invent the music and re-invent the movie — she wanted to strip everything down and reanimate it with a much more African flavor. She didn't want to just take the score or the songs from the movie and adapt them. She wanted to do a new score with new songs and new pieces — and that's what got me really excited about it. After talking to her for about 15 minutes, I was just completely onboard, because I knew that we were going to open up the boundaries in a lot of new ways, and not just visually.
"I knew that this thing shouldn't be anything like what is normally done on Broadway," Lebo M explains. "From my perspective, the feel and vibe of this whole show had to be organic — to be as realistic and true to African music and the African creative experience as possible. And that's why I enjoyed working so closely with Julie on the choreography and design of the show, including the visual and musical aspects of the drums, because it was not a strange concept to me — so I was able to arrange the rest of the music, and especially the vocal ensembles, around that."
The sense of community which The Lion King engenders is enthralling. The music serves not only to advance the story line in the traditional Broadway manner, but to amplify the grandeur, dignity and nobility of the African experience, as portrayed by Taymor's innovative staging and Garth Fagan's choreography. Drawing upon the symbolism that defines the African's way of viewing the universe, from the opening number the theatergoer is no longer simply an observer but a participant; surrounded by dancers and musicians and singers, as an elaborate series of puppets and masks serve not to conceal, but to reveal something ethereal and universal about young Simba's rite of passage. And in a sense, the way we experience this heady theatrical gumbo of living sculpture and music is analogous to the way it came together between Mancina, Lebo and Taymor — a collective encounter in which they would sit around a piano as the director bounced ideas off of them, helping to crystallize her visions about lighting and staging. "She would just bubble over with ideas," Mancina explains. "For me this was a brand new challenge and a brand new world, so winging it at the piano with Julie and Lebo was the only way to do this kind of score, and it was a really fun way to work. And for a composer, it's just wonderful to have that kind of enthusiasm when you're sitting at an old upright piano and somebody is telling you that the ghost of Mufasa is actually going to be a mask that comes together on sticks with dancers — I mean, that just sends you in directions musically you wouldn't have gotten to otherwise."
"The creative exchange was so dynamic," Lebo enthuses. There were certain things that Julie said and suggested that automatically made sense to me. There was a communal feel and understanding — spiritually and psychologically — that just took over the environment and made things so easy."
"Do you remember the vocal piece at the beginning of Act Two?" Mancina asks by way of illustrating Taymor's indelible influence on the music. "'One By One' is a piece that Lebo wrote before the musical. But Julie just had this wonderful idea of orchestrating that with kite birds, and having the kite birds right in the audience, making the audience a part of the performance. Just like how she put the African drummers in the parquet boxes to the left and right of the orchestra. It's not only visually striking, but it gives the audience a sense that this is being created live, right this instant, especially for you. People don't get enough of that in the theatre anymore, and they really respond to it."
"Speaking of that a cappella piece," Lebo adds, "most of the chorale music was not written at the piano. Several weeks ago I had the hardest time explaining something that we have been doing in the show, because it has never been written down. So it is a feel thing. I would basically put five to eight singers in a room, give them notes and give them a structure; give them lyrics and give them a melody. I loved working on that because it represents who I am and the way I work with singers. In a sense, part of my job was to find the best singers, show them how to sing in that style, and then teach them how to show others how to sing in that style.
"You see, in the many various aspects of African music — from West Africa to Zaire, to Senegal to South Africa — the harmonic structures are not necessarily all the same. And the history of South African music is very much more vocal than instrumental or percussive. The most commonly known example is a Ladysmith Black Mambazo-Zulu style of music, and again, they have a certain tradition of harmonic structures that are not to my knowledge written down anywhere. That is the choral style referred to as isicathamiya. So the arrangement that I did of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' was inspired by the original melody of that song from a South African perspective, done in the isicathamiya style. Which is predominantly a call-and-response system with a melody against a chord progression. There is a set way that I employ this as an arranger, particularly as a vocal arranger. You see, if you have an open chord, a spread chord, and you have a contradicting chord in the middle of that, it is not major, but rather major against minor. That is a lot more common in our culture than in western music, which is part of what makes the South African chorale sound slightly edgy and different."
Which is why, given the metaphorical, representational manner in which Taymor recast the original film, Mancina and Lebo M were challenged to re-arrange and embellish the movie's sundry songs (such as the signature showstoppers by Elton John and Tim Rice, "Circle Of Life," "Hakuna Matata" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"), with an ear towards creating an overall sense of cohesion, while giving added prominence to the diverse, exotic pallet of rhythms and melodies which define the African experience. In the process, they convey the ecstatic quality of these varied musical traditions to an American audience, while illustrating how closely linked African and American sounds have really become. As if to say — which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Lebo is most amused by this analogy. "You have just hit upon the conflict of what I call the great marriage of western and African music. That's what I love about music: One minute you can define it, another minute you can't. And my excitement with The Lion King's music is that while it is inspired by African music, it is still part of this greater global language."
"It's not just a marriage between African and western, but between so many cultures," Mancina points out, and in truth, this listener discerned a profusion of elements sprinkled through the polyglot score by Mancina and Lebo (with orchestrations by Robert Elhai, David Metzger and Bruce Fowler) that one would be hard pressed to imagine in any other Broadway musical. At various times I heard echoes of reggae and country, surf music and New Orleans R&B, tango and high life, hard rock and hip hop, Gustav Mahler and James Bond, Germanic chorales and Chinese opera.
"I can say that was 100 percent intentional on our part," Lebo concludes. "From the time before this play was born, our goal was to take the inspiration of African music, which is 80 percent of who I am, but to globalize it by bringing in the spirit that you feel in Cuban music or jazz or Euro-centric music. There's a universality to The Lion King that appeals to everyone."