With the sophisticated
visual majesty that is "The Lion King'' on
Broadway, there is no denying that the
Disney organization is now a
It isn't a status that has been achieved
easily. No longer can the
Broadway purists moan that the Disney
empire is threatening to turn New
York into a new theme park. No longer can
the theater snobs dismiss the
Disney Theatrical wing as a money-heavy
"The Lion King,'' with its lifesized
puppets, tribal drums and
revolving scenery, is not a product of
re-creation but one of creation.
Unlike "Beauty and the Beast,'' Disney's
other Broadway venture, this
is not a case of merely adapting human
performers to the conceits of an
animated film. Here, the innovative
44-year-old director Julie Taymor
has kept the basic plot of the 1994
cartoon movie while expanding it
into a purely theatrical form all its own.
She uses Asian masks as well
as primitive African music, mixed with
everything from dancers
suspended in air to bursts of towering
Quite a formidable Tony Award race in the
"best musical'' category is
shaping up, with the acclaimed musical
``Ragtime,'' long considered a
shoo-in, opening in just four weeks.
Suddenly, the lion cub is roaring
with a pride that no one expected to be
quite this theatrically unique.
Peter Schneider, the head of Disney's
Theatrical Productions, has
clearly taken chances here - and all of
them have paid off. Even the
usually subdued New York Times gushed that
"The Lion King'' is told
with ``a theatricality that frequently
takes the breath away.''
The show, with a budget of $20 million, is
the most expensive in
Broadway history and employs 40 actors, 50
stagehands and 24 musicians.
The five songs from the movie soundtrack
(by Tim Rice and Elton John)
have been augmented by three new songs by
the team and five additional
songs by Hans Zimmer (who won an Oscar for
scoring the film), Mark
Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M. None of
the new songs are distinctive.
But the movie's songs, with the exception
of the opening "Circle of
Life,'' now sound too simple for such an
The first 10 minutes of "The Lion King''
have an awe-inspiring
celebratory nature that take you back to
the first time you went to the
circus. Down the aisles they lumber,
majestically and slowly.
Life-sized puppets to suggest an elephant,
a rhinoceros, birds and
gazelles make their way through the
audience to reach the stage -
called to pay homage to Mufasa, the lion
king, and his newborn heir,
the cub held aloft to be viewed.
The familiar plot concerns Simba, the lion
cub, being duped by his evil
Uncle Scar into believing he was
responsible for his father's death.
After exile into the forest, the cub gains
the maturity and
self-confidence to return to claim his
One of the appeals of this treatment is
that the so-called "magic'' is
all clearly non-mysterious. Director
Taymor, who is usually associated
with more arty and rebelliously
non-mainstream works, lets us in on all
her tricks. The puppets are clearly
manipulated by actors who are in
full view, standing behind them, or within
them. The giraffe is a
stooped-over man, walking with his hands
and feet on stilts.
A wildebeest stampede is simulated by
shadow puppets projected off
three wheels that are plainly in view.
Taymor is not in the business of
presenting curtained-off illusions. She
asks, indeed demands, that the
audience go along with her game. If you're
willing to play it, you see
things you know are not actually there.
This is what real theater is
One hint is to look at the puppet and
ignore the human talking and
manipulating behind it. Then, on the other
hand, you might choose to
ignore the puppet and center only on the
human. This show can be seen
in many different ways.
Three 8-foot-high columns of smoke burst
from various points on the
stage. None of the animals are lovable
little furry Disney creations.
They don't look like real animals at all.
They look like surreal stage
In spite of all this visual splendor,
there is little suspense or
dramatic involvement generated. Perhaps it
is that the music is
primarily pop rather than book. The songs
are pleasant enough, but
don't really further the plot. They are
interludes. Samuel E. Wright is
quite noble as Mufasa but John Vickery is
much too amiably campy to be
much of a threat as Scar. Timon, the sly
meerkat, and Pumbaa, the wart
hog with gas, are a winsome vaudeville
team, portrayed by Max Casella
and Tom Alan Robbins. Jason Raize is a
handsome Simba and Scott
Irby-Raniar is an energetic young Simba.
Garth Fagan's choreography is rather
ordinary, especially an
ill-conceived version of "Can You Feel the
Love Tonight?'' with dancers
suspended by ropes. They're in the air,
but they have nothing to do.
The theater itself is a show. It is the
New Amsterdam, purchased and
renovated by Disney to be its own Broadway
showcase. This 42nd Street
theater was once a Ziegfeld palace. It was
on this same stage that,
during the Depression, Eddie Cantor said
``Nowadays, when a man walks
into a hotel and requests a room on the
19th floor, the clerk asks:
`For sleeping or jumping?' ''
But the Depression is long past, and so is
the grime and lack of light
for 42nd Street. "The Lion King'' is
likely to be running at this
theater for years to come - even at a
disturbing top price of $80 per
Coming from the theater, or going to a
restaurant, people spot the
program in your hand and will boldly stop
you, or come over to your
table, to ask what you thought of the
show. "Have you seen it?'' they
ask in obvious excitement. There hasn't
been this much excitement about
a Broadway show in years.