I’ve never been much of a theater buff. Sure, I was in my high school’s Thespians club for a couple years, doing bit roles when homework didn’t interfere with rehearsals, and I would watch the plays if my friends were acting and/or my brother was playing guitar for it, but I didn’t exactly go out of my way to find a professional theater show.
However, studying abroad in England meant I had to adapt. I’d been living in London’s West End and taking a Readings in Dramatic Literature course, so I was subjected to so many plays! I enjoyed some (Much Ado About Nothing at the impossibly gorgeous Minack Theatre in Cornwall), slept through significant chunks others (Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon), bailed midway through one (Our Country’s Good at the Olivier Theatre in London), and left a few thinking they were alright (War Horse at the I-Can’t-Be-Bothered-to-Remember out on the West End). Overall, it was a whirlwind, and it took a while to get used to it
(By the way, as awesome as it is to watch Shakespeare in the Globe Theater, the acoustics are not that great and so the old English dialogue is even harder to understand. We’ve also had to stand up to watch the three-hour shows. And it’s an open ceiling, so we’ve been rained on.)
But one day, out of nowhere, I had a stroke! Um, a stroke of luck! One of those companies that help college kids backpack around Europe, which holds periodic raffles for free tickets to shows around London, sent out an email saying I’d won a free ticket to The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre! I couldn’t believe it! And all I had to do to be placed in these raffles was give them all my personal information, including my email. So worth it.
I waited with increasing impatience for weeks. If you asked me at any point in my life (well, any point where I could speak and consciously think) which theatrical production I would want to watch, I’d have definitely said this one. The Lion King, released a scant four months before my birth, was extremely important to my childhood, perhaps more than any other single film, and had a staggering influence on my development. To this day it remains one of my favorite films. Naturally, I’d long wanted to see the play version with the weird costumes and you can totally see the people working the puppets.
Once inside the Lyceum, I took my seat and looked around the theater. I noticed, off both sides of the stage, two balconies lined with African drums. I soon learned that besides the pit orchestra (which had a wicked cool electric guitar for “Be Prepared” and ’90s adult contemporary synths for “He Lives in You”), there were two percussionists for extra power. The show hadn’t started and I was already digging it.
Then, the lights went off without so much as a “please turn off your cell phones.” The noisy theater hushed as all went dark. We knew what was coming.
“NAAAAAAAANTS INGONYAMA BAGITHI BABA!”
An ebullient, bizarrely dressed woman who turned out to be Rafiki and two guys with crazy loud voices and water buffalo skulls on their heads chanted as a fake sunrise came up. I looked to the aisle and saw a massive elephant made of four guys and an adorable baby elephant played by one little girl, and in the other rows were other animals making their way to the stage. Pride Rock emerged from the side and spun to show Mufasa and Sarabi walking up it. The song blares.
Rafiki moves her hands around the infant Simba. Mufasa’s headdress looks awesome atop that man’s head, and his outfit makes him look like a lion-themed samurai. There’s a man with three antelopes sticking out of his head, and another guy with a giraffe neck protruding from his scalp and walking with stilts attached to his arms and legs. The baby elephant actress’s smile is huge. The orchestra swells as Rafiki lifts a wiggling robot puppet lion baby …
After that final iconic bass drum smash, the audience roared their approval (heh) and I clapped as tears ran down my eyes. Then I teared up when Mufasa died. Then I freaking cried again when Simba took his place as king. This show was so freaking good.
… Well, almost entirely good. You already have an idea of how much I loved it, so let’s get to the funny stuff and talk about the more questionable creative decisions. For starters, there’s a dance number where a pack of lionesses hunt, gang up on, and absolutely mutilate a gazelle. It actually happened onstage, twenty seconds after I devised that joke in my head. I get that it was probably done to show the Circle of Life at work, and because the gazelle was a puppet it’s not like it was ultraviolent, but I really didn’t see that coming!
I immediately feared for my next joke idea, but to my relief, there was no evil hip-hop number from Scar and the hyenas (hyenaz? Hyenizzles?). No, there were just sexy shirtless men in hyena pelts … dancing disco. And this happened in the climax of “Be Prepared.” Remember when Scar yells with emphasis, “YOU WON’T GET A SNIFF WITHOUT ME!” and a hyena falls to its doom and everything goes red and you know that Scar has unleashed hell on Earth? Yeah, in the play, between the lyric and the unleashing hell part, the music suddenly turns into a disco breakdown and out come a quartet of … I can’t retype that, or even copy and paste. I swear it happens! Broadway, man.
To pad out the time, a couple of extra scenes are included. While they quietly change sets behind the curtain, Mufasa expresses concern to Zazu about how Simba’s apparently a thrill junkie, and Zazu reminds Mufasa of another royal cub with a rambunctious streak (whoa, Zazu is old). Later on, Timon finds himself hanging from a tree branch over a waterfall with hungry gators waiting for him, and because it’s portrayed so similarly to his own peril that led to his father’s death, Simba freezes and even calls for Dad. It’s never explained how Timon got out alive, even though it clearly shows him falling into the pit due to Simba’s inaction. Strangest and most amusing of all is the presence of a cut subplot where Scar, in need of a way to fix his image after the Pride Lands become a wasteland, decides to find a queen … and then Nala comes in. As if he wasn’t creepy enough.
You can see a cheaper performance of the musical number here (hey, they don’t let you record in the theater) and the storyboard version here, but I prefer this really impressive fan animation that looks just like the movie. Disney, hire Eduardo Quintana, here is his application:
On that note, the original film only has time for five musical numbers, but musical theater always has time for as many songs as they can come up with! Honestly, I didn’t really care for any of the non-film ones much. Oh wow, the hyenas get their own song, I always wanted to hear them sing instead of having to watch them be threatening. Whoa, look out, Nala has a cookie-cutter ballad! But hey, they included “He Lives in You,” the best song in The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, as an inspirational anthem for Simba’s connection to his father. And man, is it just great to see all the classics performed live in such a unique environment.
(Interestingly, despite originating from the stage version and appearing in animated form in the ’00s DVD rerelease, “Morning Report” wasn’t in the production I watched. Guessed they realized it wasn’t that great.)
If you get the chance, whether it’s on Broadway or the West End or another of the apparently million cities that have seen productions of this musical, go watch it. The story is wonderful, the acting was excellent all around, the set design and costuming were ingenious, and the whole show proved to be the most engrossing I’ve yet seen here in England (so engrossing, in fact, that it made me forget I was only halfway through a midterm paper due that very night!). It’s little wonder that the show, in its twenty-year history, has won so many awards and grossed over six billion dollars, making it the most financially successful entertainment production ever.
By the way, while researching for this post, I stumbled upon something odd. In an effort to milk even more money out of this property, Disney’s making a new show for Disney Junior called The Lion Guard. It’s about Simba’s son (he already has a daughter, but since when did people wanna see creative fiction starring women?) forming a team of animal kids to defend the Pride Lands, and I shit you not, Disney Junior general manager Nancy Kanter described it as “The Lion King meets The Avengers.” Not very high hopes, to be honest – how good could such an obvious cash-in be?
Evidently, freaking Lion King good. The animation is impeccable … and the music is kinda in the original film’s style … and jeez, they really called him Kion the lion? … But my god, that ending!
Jesus Christ, Simba couldn’t roar at that age – or pull off cool red punk hair! And the first movie only had like one lion in the clouds! I – what – how –
Okay, I’m gonna watch it. What can I say? Hail to the king.