Much has evolved at The Lion King since it opened on Broadway nearly ten years ago. Original cast members have departed - and many have come back - and even the theatre is new: The show, which won six Tony Awards in 1998, including Best Musical, moved last year from the New Amsterdam to the Minskoff.
But one thing has remained constant: its connection with South Africa. The story of The Lion King "is universal," says Julie Taymor, who won the 1998 Tony for Best Director of a Musical for her work on the show. "It's mythic. It transcends cultural boundaries. But the South African connection is so important."
These days that link is particularly on her mind because the first South African production of The Lion King opened recently in Johannesburg, at the new 1,900-seat Montecasino Theatre, built especially for the musical. It features a South African cast, many of whose members have appeared in other productions of the show around the world.
How did the South African connection begin? It started with the hugely popular 1994 Disney animated movie version, says producer Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions Ñ and it all had to do with the music. Hans Zimmer Ñ who would go on to win an Oscar for The Lion King's film score Ñ brought in the South African composer Lebo M to work with him and help make the sounds of South Africa an integral part of the movie. When Schumacher called Taymor to ask if she would be interested in turning the movie into a Broadway musical, he says, he introduced her to Lebo M's work, through the CD "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," which consisted of music inspired by The Lion King.
"When I first listened to 'Rhythm of the Pride Lands,'" Taymor says, "I knew The Lion King had to keep its roots firmly in South Africa."
It was clear from the start, she says, that even though the film's five songs by Elton John and Tim Rice were wonderful (and one Ñ "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" Ñ won the Oscar for Best Song), five was not enough for a full-scale Broadway musical. "We had to create a dozen or so more."
So "the whole concept," she says, "was to bring the South African music, Lebo M's music, the choral-singing style, to the forefront. We felt that instead of being in the Western pop mode, the real excitement, the soul, in the piece would be brought forward by the South African connection. You listen to those South African languages, like Xhosa and Zulu, and they are so beautiful and so interesting that even if you don't understand the words, you understand them, through the sheer force of their sound Ñ and through the show's visual imagery."
The sound of the South African music, Schumacher says, "cuts right to the core, goes right into your soul." But the onstage connection is in more than the music.
The Lion King is the coming-of-age tale of a prodigal son, following the adventures of the lion cub Simba as he battles to accept the responsibilities of adulthood and his future as king. The theatrical version Ñ told in vividly colorful music and dance, amazing puppetry, and startling costumes and masks based on many traditions, including Indonesian and Japanese, as well as African Ñ has been seen by more than 40 million people. In addition to Broadway and Johannesburg, The Lion King can now be seen in London, Hamburg, Tokyo and Seoul, and via two touring companies throughout the U.S. An upcoming 2007 production is scheduled for Paris, France. And every production has featured performers from South Africa.
When the musical first opened on Broadway, Schumacher and Taymor insisted that South Africans be part of the cast Ñ and since then, more than 100 South Africans have appeared in productions worldwide.
"We always have at least six South Africans in the Broadway cast," Taymor says. "A constant South African presence is absolutely essential to keeping up the quality of the show. We don't want to take jobs away from American performers, but the cross-cultural connections that go on among the cast members are good for everyone. It's good for the Americans, who are pushed toward a different kind of singing Ñ in many ways it is not easy to sing with that unique South African sound unless you were born with it, and they learn the sound much more easily Ñ and it has worked in every country. On tours and outside the U.S., we have even more South Africans. It's been a very important contribution to the quality of the artistry."
The Lion King, in fact, has done much more for South Africa than give jobs to performers. Through Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the three U.S. companies Ñ Broadway and the two national tours Ñ have raised nearly $2 million for South African-based HIV/AIDS service organizations.
Taymor, speaking from Johannesburg just before opening night, says that "bringing the show home to South Africa is extraordinary. The story itself is pan-African. It's not set in a specific place. But now that we are there, having all the characters played by actors who are South African feels so right. It feels as if it was born there. It takes on an incredible extra potency and significance. And it also takes on a tremendous social and political relevance."
It's a very specific kind of relevance, she says. "On the first day of rehearsals, at the State Theatre in Pretoria, we went into a rehearsal room, and the walls were lined with photos of singers, actors and dancers. Except for one black actor, they were all white."
Lebo M Ñ who was in exile during South Africa's time of apartheid, of strict racial separation and racial discrimination Ñ pointed out the photos. "He explained to the cast," Taymor says, "that little more than a decade ago, under apartheid, none of them would have even been allowed to enter the theatre Ñ except to serve tea."
Broadway's The Lion King celebrates its tenth anniversary Nov. 13.