For her 11th birthday, in 1998, I gave my Capricorn daughter, Nina, a summertime gift: tickets for her first Broadway show, The Lion King, in July. She had practically memorized the animated movie from watching it so many times, but the Broadway show would be a new experience for her.
Certainly seeing a play on Broadway carries its own excitement, but to see a favorite story live on the stage would, I hoped, add another level of thrills. Six months later, we went to the New Amsterdam Theater to see it.
Echoing the movie, the show opened with the sun rising over the African grasslands and a parade of animals called to Pride Rock to celebrate the birth of a son to King Mufasa. While the stories for the two versions were the same, the imagery for each was very different.
In transferring the story from the screen to the stage, director Julie Taymor borrowed puppetry techniques from around the world, infused them with her own extraordinary imagination and gave the characters both human and animal form.
Just as human voices and facial expressions animate the animal figures in the movie — Taymor made sure we could see the humans working — and working with — the animal puppets on stage, “creating a double event where the audience can watch the actor and the animal simultaneously,” she said in her book, Playing with Fire, written with Eileen Blumenthal and Antonia Monda.
Nina told me that she remembers that first scene vividly as animals converge on Pride Rock from every direction, including many who parade through the audience. Sometimes it was difficult for her to find the actor controlling the puppet. For example, an actor became a giraffe by wearing two sets of stilts, one for the arms and one for the legs, and a very long headpiece forming the neck and head. All you really saw of the actor was his head at the juncture of forelegs and neck, but finding the actor in the animal was part of the fun.
Taymor knew that, of course. “[W]hen the human spirit visibly animates an object, we experience a wondrous, almost life-giving connection. We become engaged by both the method of storytelling and the story itself,” she wrote.
Transferring the story to stage brought additional problems. The movie was 75 minutes long and had six songs. We expect more content from a Broadway show, so Taymor added it. But how would those changes affect an 11-year-old who knew the movie cold?
Nina told me that she remembers the Broadway show was indeed different — but ultimately better. Taymor’s approach to theater probably had something to do with her pronouncement.
“Magic can be generated by blatantly showing how theater is created rather than hiding it. The spectacle of a stage transforming, of Pride Rock coming into being before our eyes is more visually compelling, more entertaining than seeing a curtain drawn to reveal the piece of scenery already in place.”
When Nina's sister, Josie, found out that we were bringing The Lion King to Popejoy in the fall of 2012, she immediately said she would bring her kids to see it. By that time, Josie's son will be 11. Probably a good age for him to see the show, don’t you think?
Terry S. Davis
Photo: Brenda Mhlongo as “Rafiki” in Disney’s The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus