Audiences and critics have always drawn parallels between The Lion King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but talking to composer-lyricist Lebohang Morake (known as Lebo M.), you realize The Lion King isn’t just set in South Africa, it is South Africa; it’s the story of apartheid, and Lebo is Simba.
“The story line of the movie Lion King was almost simultaneously complimenting the story line of the evolution of the new South Africa,” Morake explains of the original 1994 animated film. Having been shackled in the apartheid system until 1991, at the time of Lion King’s development, South Africa was emerging from a history of systematic racial segregation. For Lebo M, the Lion King was not just a coming-of-age story of a prodigal son, it was a coming-of-age story for a nation and for himself.
It seems fitting, too, that Lebo was called in by Hans Zimmer, who had been tapped to score the animated movie. “I just came in to do a demo for some small project that Disney was doing,” he says of working on the early stages of the film. “I don’t even think I knew at the time that it was Disney.”
“I just heard the chords, put together some singers, started crafting it,” he says of writing the opening call and pulsing chant that underscores Elton John and Tim Rice’s melody in “Circle of Life.” After writing and recording the demo (he’s the original voice of “Naaaaants ingonyama”), he returned to his native South Africa.
Then Disney called. They hired him as the vocal arranger for the movie, but he wound up collaborating with Zimmer on the entire score; songs that ended up on the cutting room floor and became the bonus album Rhythm of the Pridelands. With his job done, Lebo again returned to South Africa, his Lion King chapter seemingly closed—until he got a call to meet with director Julie Taymor about adapting the show for Broadway.
For Lebo, the translation from animation to a live performance made perfect sense. “Most of the characters in the film were human characters to me,” he says. “The writing and the contribution music was organically inspired by my South African roots in that period. I can relate to going into exile at a young age and [then] going back to my country.
“It was very deeply personal,” he says of creating the Broadway show. “Most of the characters in the film were human characters to me. Scar, for example, represented the apartheid system to me. Metaphorically, the nature of that character—the manipulative, the conniving, the divisiveness—if I’m arranging vocally or orchestrally on this Scar character, it would relate that.”
With the advent of the Broadway production, Lebo expanded upon the work he began with the animated film, writing additional songs and chants to bring the animals, the prairies, the desert to life onstage. From his contributions to “He Lives In You” to Nala’s solo “Shadowland,” from his original song “One by One” to his lyrics for “King of Pride Rock,” from his Lioness chant to the Grasslands chant, Morake’s personal history is inextricably linked with the transcendence of The Lion King from a stage adaptation of Disney’s most successful animated movie (the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time) into a singular stage experience.
His personal history mirrors that of Simba’s and his emotional connection infiltrates Lion King’s signature sound. “I was at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first black president,” says Lebo. “So I’m able to put that in my creative mind when Simba goes up the steps” to ascend his throne at the end of the story.
“Once we were walking through Soweto [South Africa] holding hands as you do when you’re in South Africa,” says recalls producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions Thomas Schumacher of visiting Morake in his hometown. “Lebo turned to me and said, ‘You realize when we first met, if we had walked through here and had lunch in this restaurant, we would have both been arrested. That’s something to think about.”