The famous cry began as the wakeup call for the animal kingdom in Disney’s animated The Lion King, but those two words have become symbolic of a generation.
Twenty-three years since the movie premiered and two decades since the russet sun first rose on Broadway on opening night November 13, 1997, The Lion King has remained a beloved part of American culture.
How fitting then that the Broadway adaptation, an emblem of American theatre, is a complete melting pot of cultures, languages, and artistic sensibilities, one still playing at the Minskoff Theatre.
With American book writers Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and South African and British composer-lyricists Lebohang Morake (known as Lebo M.), Elton John, and Tim Rice all from The Lion King animated family, Zimbabwean scenic designer Richard Hudson from the opera realm, and Jamaican choreographer Garth Fagan from the concert dance world, Disney Theatricals’ Thomas Schumacher and designer and director Julie Taymor assembled a diverse team rich in expertise outside of Broadway.
The musical’s capacity to astonish is the confluence of these multitudes—a combination of originality, authenticity, and specificity that renders a universal and incomparable final product—one that took home six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The Lion King is widely associated with spectacle—but it all began with the narrative. “People always think that I’m going first to the visual, but actually no,” says Taymor. “The first thing, for me, was to make the story work better than the film.”
“You couldn’t adapt the movie,” says producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions Schumacher, who at the birth of Broadway’s The Lion King was executive vice president of Walt Disney Features Animation, tasked with shepherding the show to the stage. “You had to go back to the myth of the movie.” Which is why Schumacher approached Taymor in the first place. “Her command of myths, her command of legends, her command of puppetry and mask work, it seemed to make sense to me.”
Taymor returned to the core principles of the coming-of-age parable, but leaned in to The Lion King’s South African roots.
“She had this genius instinct to take what was part of the background of the movie and put it in the forefront,” says Morake, composer-lyricist of the South African chants and sounds that in the original film are mainly heard as underscoring. “It’s more present; it’s more part of the overall color.”
More than the famous percussive repetition of “ingonyama nengw’ enamabala” in “Circle of Life,” the Broadway ensemble is the true heartbeat of the show. They embody the full scope of the Pridelands—singing as the grass of the plains in “Grasslands,” the jungle fauna in “Shadowland,” the ancestral spirits in “He Lives in You”—and imbue a human capacity to the animals, the land, and the air of Africa.
Morake’s authenticity was further bolstered by the decision to cast more African performers in the original production. “We grew up singing like that in a cappella,” says ensemblist Lindiwe Dlamini, who has been with The Lion King for its entire two-decade run. “That’s all you could hear in South Africa.”
More than just the music of Africa, the spirituality tantamount to Taymor’s vision also emanates through the movement. Plucked from the modern dance world, choreographer Garth Fagan used a cultural vocabulary rather than a theatrical one, and ensemblists like Dlamini bring the material to life with the inherent sensibilities of South African culture and memories from her upbringing. “I remember the mothers in South Africa when they move, dancing in church,” she says. “You have to feel that when you’re doing one of the songs, like ‘He Lives in You.’”
But The Lion King is not one single culture. In shaping his contribution, Morake prioritized “the marriage between specifically South African choral arrangements and sounds that I write with Eurocentric orchestration.” And Elton John and Tim Rice’s mix of American musical theatre and British pop (with a side of Borscht Belt humor) produced the iconic anthem of hope “Circle of Life,” the hummable life lesson “Hakuna Matata,” and the sweepingly romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”—a combination that creates the show’s DNA.
Once Taymor established this identity through story, song, and feel, she layered it with her vision. The techniques Taymor used to tell the story visually—from Indonesian shadow puppetry to handcrafted masks, and puppetry influenced by Japanese Bunraku—were inspired by her time living in Asia.
“I believe techniques belong to the world,” says Taymor. “These kinds of techniques have moved through cultures, but then each culture has defined their own actual form.” Taymor defined her Lion King form to serve the story in its mammoth moments (the march of the animals) and its most miniature.
She met her biggest challenge (“How do I do the animal look, but let the actor come alive?”) with her most inventive visual concept: the “double event,” with actors visible through their animal costumes in order to communicate the animal ethos using human capacity. “It’s always about the duality of animal and the human extension of the animal,” says Morake.
Using another technique, Taymor returned to the rudimentary technology of toy theatres and the rollers used on a player piano to create the wildebeest stampede effect—the challenge that first intrigued Taymor to take on the project.
“The artistry of the show is the show’s greatest ambassador,” says Schumacher. It’s why over 90 million people across 19 countries have clamored to see the production; it’s why it has lasted two decades in New York. That artistry is the result of the highest collaboration, dedication to the strength of each element of storytelling, and the amalgamation of the best and truest art from cultures around the world.
A story that all can relate to, music to which all can connect, movement all can feel—The Lion King is theatre that moves us all.
For more exclusive features and interviews celebrating The Lion King’s 20th anniversary, go to Playbill.com/LionKing.
Look back on the show’s 15th anniversary: