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"Simba had to be much more developed. The prodigal son must go through that darker moment of self-discovery before he is allowed to return home and take up the mantle. The movie didn't go into that very deeply.''
--Julie Taymor, Orlando Sentinel feature


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<< Playbill.com article about The Lion King's opening night

Associated Press, as printed in the Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL)
How 'The Lion King' Became Musical Play
November 9, 1997

Walk west on 42nd Street, just past a Times Square shedding its sleaze in a flurry of new construction and restoration.

There stands the New Amsterdam Theater, a 1903 art nouveau masterpiece brought back to life earlier this year by the Walt Disney organization, reportedly at a cost of $34 million.

To fill its new theater, Disney has chosen The Lion King, a $15 million stage adaptation of its wildly successful - and profitable - animated film that has a score by Elton John and Tim Rice. The show opens Thursday night.

The Lion King is a property that movie financial analysts say already has contributed, in all its forms, $1 billion to Disney's bottom line. One can understand why. Set against the backdrop of the African veld, the film version is a stirring, almost mythic story of love, loss and redemption played out in a journey that tests Simba, its young lion hero.

''When you start thinking about what's important in a Broadway musical, it's about telling a very emotional story. We had all the elements - a great story and great music - but no way to put it on the stage,'' said Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Theatrical Productions.

The way was found through Julie Taymor, a 44-year-old director-designer who had never done a commercial Broadway musical. Yet Taymor is known for her imaginative interpretations of drama, opera, film and dance, performed in venues ranging from tiny off-Broadway houses to arts festivals in Europe.

Taymor has tackled such diverse and unusual fare as Titus Andronicus and Oedipus Rex with astonishing success, using puppets, masks, giant sculptures, fanciful costumes, exotic music, shadow play and more.

''It seemed on the surface an obvious choice to go to someone who had often told stories that required an extraordinary visual style,'' says Tom Schumacher, executive vice president of Disney's theatrical division.

A dark-haired, articulate woman, Taymor doesn't speak in one-word answers or single sentences. Only full paragraphs will do.

''The first stage was coming up with what were the story points that I felt needed to be expanded on,'' Taymor says. ''If you saw the movie, you'll recognize that the second act of the musical is rather different than the film.

''Simba had to be much more developed. The prodigal son must go through that darker moment of self-discovery before he is allowed to return home and take up the mantle. The movie didn't go into that very deeply.''

Secondly, there was the score - which in the movie was only five songs. John and Rice added three songs. In addition, Taymor had the yeoman assistance of Lebo M, a South African-born composer and arranger who had worked on the movie. From ''Rhythm of the Pride Lands,'' a Lion King-inspired recording Lebo did with Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Hans Zimmer, Taymor picked several melodies to use in the musical as individual songs and chants.

The film also contained so much choral music that Taymor decided to expand on the sound, using the chorus as a principal character. It led to the show's evocative opening number, ''Circle of Life,'' being staged as a parade by the chorus down the aisles of the theater and onto the stage.

The third part of the process was the visual concept, in which Taymor took the idea of the Circle of Life as the musical's main symbolic element. She came up with the notion of turntables within turntables within turntables, like a wedding cake. When set designer Richard Hudson was hired, he refined the design to a kind of corkscrew Pride Rock.

A meeting Taymor had with Disney head honcho Michael Eisner in Florida in January 1996 pushed the project forward.

There, Taymor and Michael Curry, one of her designers, presented mask prototypes for Mufasa, the old lion king, and Scar, his villainous brother - they were more like shields than masks, she says - as well as a cardboard copy of what she called the gazelle wheel. When the gazelle wheel is pushed across the stage by a dancer, the wheels turn and the gazelles look like they are leaping.

''To me, magic means you are capable of seeing the artifice, seeing the strings, seeing the rods, watching the people manipulate the puppets,'' Taymor said.

Once Eisner understood the concept, she said, ''I knew . . . I would have the freedom and the leeway to pursue this style - which means I would always have the double event of seeing the faces and bodies of the performers who are operating the various characters.''

The large cast was carefully chosen. John Vickery (Scar) and Samuel E. Wright (Mufasa) are veteran stage actors. Geoff Hoyle, who plays Mufasa's flighty feathered confidante Zazu, is an experienced clown and circus performer. Others like Tsidii Le Loka, who plays the evening's spiritual mistress of ceremonies Rafiki, came directly from South Africa. Newcomers Scott Irby-Ranniar and Jason Raize are the two Simbas.

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