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"The biggest challenge of moving with [the masks], Raize said, was to learn to look where the mask face should be looking, not where the actor face below might be looking."
--Chicago Daily Herald feature about Julie Taymor

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Daily Herald (Chicago, IL)
Queen of "The Lion King"
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Correspondent
January 2, 1998

Julie Taymor used masks, puppetry and other stage tricks to - transform the Disney animated film into a Broadway musical. The - result is a box office bonanza - and a work of art

When the Walt Disney Co. brought "The Lion King" to Broadway last December, the musical dazzled audiences, but that was no surprise. After all, the original animated film had a huge following, and Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" already had shown how an animated film could be transformed into a crowd-pleasing stage spectacle.

But then "The Lion King" started earning genuine respect from critics - critics who had admired "Beauty and the Beast" primarily for the size of its budget.

And last week, members of the theater community expressed their admiration by bestowing six Tony Awards on "The Lion King," including the award for "best musical" - the coveted prize that eluded "Beauty and the Beast."

Why did "The Lion King" arouse so much more praise than the lavish "Beauty and the Beast?"

The answer lies in the gorgeous look of the show.

Audiences gasp when the show begins and they see a life-sized giraffe gallop across a savannah rendered in burnt orange and flaming yellow. The giraffe, like so many of the animals in the show, is animated by a human, plainly visible on stilts, whose head serves as the base for the animal's long neck. Other animals, some of them puppets and marionettes, cavort throughout the show.

The Tony Awards committee acknowledged the stunning appearance of "The Lion King" by bestowing an award on Richard Hudson for his set design, Donald Holder for his lighting, and Garth Fagan for his choreography.

But two of the awards went to Julie Taymor - the person most responsible for "The Lion King's" deep visual impact.

Taymor received awards for her direction of the musical, but also for her costume design - an integral part of the show.

As director and co-designer, Taymor determined how the animated film would come to life, and, somehow, she persuaded Disney to go along with her unusual conception.

The result was so dazzling that The New York Times published an editorial praising her - and praising Disney for letting her do it her way.

Her imaginative choices, the editorial stated, "demonstrate the agility and imagination of Ms. Taymor and her colleagues. But they also demonstrate something even more striking - the Walt Disney Company's willingness, in this case, to reinvent a known, and fabulously profitable product, not by dumbing it down to live action, as in the stage production of 'Beauty and the Beast,' but by allowing Ms. Taymor to test the limits of representation and theatricality."

Whew! Heady praise indeed!

Taymor earned this praise with one of the first decisions she made after accepting the challenge of bringing "The Lion King" to the stage.

Instead of trying to duplicate the look of the animated film, as "Beauty and the Beast" had done, she would re-create - indeed expand - the story.

A work of art

As a result, "The Lion King" is not only a commercial hit, but a work of art as well.

Taymor used masks, puppets and animal costumes, but not just the familiar sort. She also incorporated traditional Asian stick and shadow puppets - techniques she previously had applied to her interpretations of Shakespeare and other classics.

Not widely known to general theater audiences, Taymor had directed on Broadway only once before, but she was highly regarded as an innovative director of Off-Broadway shows, regional theater productions and opera.

In "The Lion King," Taymor decided, some puppets would be worn like clothing, others would be mechanized in clever and unexpected ways (such as wildebeest mounted on tricycles). Animal costumes would be nothing like the Mickey Mouse or Goofy "suits" one sees at Disneyland.

Since the animal characters from the smallest bird to the largest elephant are anthropomorphic - that is, imbued with human processes of thought and feeling and speech - Taymor declared it essential that the human bodies and faces always be visible within the masks and costumes, or beneath the strings and sticks.

Along the way, Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan found ways for the incredibly lithe ensemble of singers and dancers to play flowers, grass and trees as well.

In addition to designing (with Michael Curry) the masks and puppets for the show, Taymor also designed the costumes, drawing on a deep and rich palette of traditional African fabric designs and decorative symbols.

Old made new

Not bound to a realistic look, Taymor splashes her stage with the boldest imaginable use of golds, reds, bright greens, piercing blues, all patterned with geometrics, stripes and cross-hatching. The shapes of the costumes and masks themselves are taken directly from clean lines of traditional tribal arts, both carving and weaving.

Many of Taymor's techniques are old and traditional methods, but she has taken them to a new level of sophistication.

The same applies to Richard Hudson's scenic design and Donald Holder's lighting, which use every bell-and-whistle available for a theater spectacular, including turntables, traps in the stage floor and motorized pieces of all sorts.

The constantly shifting scenery re-creates Pride Rock, offers rivers, waterfalls, exotic jungles and grassy savannas, provides a spectacular sunrise, a starscape, a ghost and a mighty stampede.

The vast stage necessary to create these visual illusions is computerized, digitized and state-of-the-art, yet the basic mechanical concepts are part of theater's long tradition, in a few cases going back to devices used by the Greeks 2,400 years ago. Thus, shimmering and waving sheets of silk become rivers and waterfalls (another technique borrowed from Asian theater), a rotating and repeating diorama makes the stampede (and a very good one it is!), and miniature puppets of the main characters create the illusion of distance.

Masks grab attention

Dazzled as audiences are by the visual splendor of the show, the one thing they focus on most are the massive masks worn by the three principal lion characters, Mufasa, his son Simba, and Mufasa's evil brother, Scar.

These masks - the first pieces Taymor created for the show - sit on the actors' brows and heads, adding nearly two feet of additional height in the most extreme case (Scar's mask and spiked mane). More headdresses than masks, they never cover the eyes or faces of the performers.

What's more, they move! They seem to breath with the actors, and bend forward or jut out on long mechanical necks (think the creature in the "Alien" movies). They not only look tricky, but they look like they weigh a ton. How do the actors move with them?

At a recent meeting of theater writers in New York, cast members from "The Lion King," including Jason Raize, who plays Simba, and Samuel E. Wright, who plays Mufasa, revealed the tricks of the trade.

First, the masks are made of incredibly light carbon graphite, molded from Taymor's sculpted clay originals. For all their size, Scar's mask weighs just seven ounces and Mufasa's just 11 ounces. They are held in place via helmet-like skullcaps molded from the actors' heads.

The biggest challenge of moving with them, Raize said, was to learn to look where the mask face should be looking, not where the actor face below might be looking. Every movement of the human head is exaggerated by the mask above, so that a slight nod of the head can be a bowing of the mask.

And Mufasa's and Scar's masks do, indeed, move, thanks to an elaborate system of cables, a goose-neck arm, and two tiny motors with battery packs strapped into various places on the bodies of the actors, Wright and John Vickery (Scar).

Actually, Wright has two Mufasa masks, one motorized and one not. His mask moves only in one scene, a confrontation with Scar, after which he strips off the motors and batteries and switches to the passive headpiece. Playing a more exaggerated character, Vickery as Scar utilizes a mechanized mask throughout the show. But the impression of the confrontation scene is so strong, audiences swear everyone's mask is moving all night long.

The process of creating the show's elegant look is detailed in text and photos in Taymor's book, "The Lion King, Pride Rock on Broadway" (New York, Hyperion, $40).

A touring production of "The Lion King" is in the works, though no date has been set for its arrival in Chicago. 

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