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BroadwayCon: 9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of ‘The Lion King’

Variety logo Variety 1/28/2017 Gordon Cox
© Provided by Variety

The second annual BroadwayCon fan convention launched Jan. 27 with a headline panel about  “The Lion King,” the musical-theater phenomenon celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. At Manhattan’s Javits Center, BroadwayCon enlisted Julie Taymor, the director and designer of “The Lion King,” for a public conversation about the origins of the show, from its conception to its 1997 Minneapolis tryout to the Broadway premiere later that year. Disney Theatrical president and producer Thomas Schumacher, pinch-hitting for the previously announced Whoopi Goldberg (who was ill), moderated. Here are nine factoids that emerged from their discussion.

1. Schumacher initially thought it was a ridiculous idea.

It was Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney at the time, who suggested “The Lion King” would make a great musical. “I told him it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard,” Schumacher remembered. But once Eisner gave him the go-ahead to take some creative risks, he called Taymor — and the rest is history. The project’s success eventually silenced all doubts. “Yes, there was that moment when the apology came from the doubters,” Taymor said. “And it was glorious.”

2. It was the wildebeest stampede that really piqued Taymor’s interest.

When Schumacher first contacted Taymor about the possibility of adapting the animated film, she’d never seen the movie. “I said, ‘You mean the cartoon?'” she recalled. When she finally did watch the film, it was the stampede scene that made her decide she was interested in adapting it for the stage — even though she had no idea how she would eventually manage it. “The challenge is always the thing that gets me excited,” she said. “I want to not know how I’m going to do something.”

3. The show’s signature costume designs grew out of one really wacky idea.

These days, the most recognizable design elements of the “Lion King” are the costumes that show audiences both the mask of the character and the face of the actor behind it. That conceit, it turns out, grew out of one of Taymor’s more left-field ideas, in which Simba, at the end of the first act, would run away across the desert. In a complete departure from the storyline of the movie, he’d come upon a carnivalesque city of lights, “really similar to Las Vegas,” Taymor said, and meet characters there who would be half-human, half-animal. It all tied back to an explanation for the drought that had affected Simba’s homeland: “The idea is that Scar sold all the water to light up the city of lights.” Taymor couldn’t find any takers on that notion, but out of it came the expressionistic costumes that manage to represent the animals without fully obscuring the actors’ humanity. (She’s not giving up on that earlier idea, though. “I still like it and still want to do it,” she said.)

4. “Lion King” almost got shut down before it ever made it to a stage.

Reaction to an early industry showcase of the production wasn’t great. “They shut it down,” Schumacher remembered of the studio powers-that-be in the room that day. “They didn’t get it at all, and suggested to me that it would never work. But of course we didn’t want to give up.” So Taymor and company created three different, fully realized costumes for each of five main characters, with each iteration representing one of three different design concepts. The next industry presentation was held on the stage of the Palace Theater under theatrical lights. Eisner, Taymor recalled, liked all three design possibilities for the show — but he came down on the side of the riskiest option. “He said to us the line I’ve lived with for 20 years: ‘The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.'”

5. In Minneapolis, Taymor spent a lot of time directing on her back.

At the very start of tech rehearsals for the out-of-town tryout, Taymor had to have her gall bladder removed. She spent the first days of tech directing the show from a big reclining chair that resembled a BarcaLounger.

6. No Internet, no problems.

Even once the show had begun previews in Minneapolis, there were still plenty of kinks to be ironed out. Schumacher recalled that for two weeks, the musical was briefly stopped mid-show at every performance, because they hadn’t yet figured out how to assemble the set pieces of the stampede quickly enough. Schumacher cracked, “But there was no Internet then, so you don’t know anything about that.” Which means, Taymor noted, that there weren’t any online gossips around to rake the creatives over the coals. “So I didn’t get screwed, like a later time,” Taymor added, in a clear reference to the calamity of her most recent Broadway project, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

7. George Washington used to understudy Simba.

Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in “Hamilton,” was once an understudy in “The Lion King” — a fact that came to light when Schumacher told a story from the musical’s early years, when three understudies for the role of Simba — including Jackson — were simultaneously sidelined by illness or broken ankles. At the last minute, a former Simba, at the time performing just up the street in Disney’s “Aida,” saved the day.

8. Taymor knows what movie she’d adapt next for Broadway.

One audience member asked Taymor what film, animated or live action, she would want to bring to the stage next. Her answer: “Across the Universe,” her 2007 movie musical. “It belongs onstage,” she said.

9. She also has strong words about “Lion King” in the age of Trump.

Schumacher spoke to the mythical roots of “Lion King,” which he said give the story an enduring resonance. Taymor, meanwhile, expressed a decisive view of the show’s message in the age of Trump. “In this new day and age where people are trying to isolate people and be divisive, this is a story that belongs to families and communities all over the world,” she said. “It is cross-cultural. It is multi-racial. Where you have words like ‘America first,’ we resoundingly say: This is the world that holds us together, and that is our circle.”

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