Sixteen years after opening to rave reviews at the Lyceum Theatre in London, Disney's The Lion King shows no sign of slowing down. Disney’s work has spanned decades, and the theatrical arm continues to flex in both London and on Broadway, where new productions of classic films such as Aladdin attract some of the highest attendance figures and grosses years after opening. Whilst many in the theatre industry were highly cynical of the apparent Disney-fication of Broadway, Disney Theatrical Productions have proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with, thanks in part to the global success of The Lion King which is undoubtedly their most popular musical title.
There is something uniquely special about The Lion King that has helped it become the highest earning piece of entertainment ever – beating off stiff competition from the likes of the 'Star Wars' franchise (now owned by Disney) and 'Avatar' (another one of its own properties). The musical originally opened on Broadway in 1997, mystifying audiences and critics and barnstorming the 1998 Tony Awards where it took home the coveted trophy for Best New Musical. A similar effect occurred in London in 1999 when the first international production was mounted – and the rest as they say, is history.
The Disney brand runs through every inch of this hugely impressive show, from the attention to detail to its militant precision that invariably makes it one of the hardest working communities in the theatre industry. Not a corner has been cut, and fifteen years after seeing the show for the first time at the age of 12, the magic and spectacle remains just as impressive and awe-inspiringly moving.
It's a show that many theatre fans and indeed Londoners can take for granted. From the iconic marketing image to the well-played score, it's one of those shows that's always there, pulling in the crowds and keeping the West End alive for new generations to enjoy. Sixteen years on, I couldn't help but be completely struck at how innovative, creative and magical the production remains – which is truly testimony to the creative team, led by director and designer Julie Taymor. Since opening, budgets for musicals have continued to grow – we've seen cars, elevators and people fly out over the audience, hand held microphones used amongst period costumes and even a hip hop score telling the story of the Founding Fathers – but the creativity of The Lion King continues to stand up as a blueprint for ingenuity and innovation.
Walking backstage at the Lyceum Theatre the first thing that strikes you is the amount of space, or lack of, behind the scenes. Despite an expansive stage, the wings and backstage areas are exceptionally tight, meaning that tons of set, props and costume are tightly packed and stored in every available centimetre of space. On first glance it may look like chaos – a hyena head dangles from the wall next to a bird puppet and revolving ant hill – but the meticulous management of a team of over 150 people make the show run like complete clockwork.
The deputy stage manager 'calls' the show from their respective areas on the larger stage left side, above a huge automation department who are responsible for controlling the revolving Pride Rock, the hydraulic lifts and tons of automated scenery that are used throughout each show. When all of the set is stored, you're left with a huge empty stage decorated with beautiful markings, which I'm informed represent the cat claws that lions use to mark their territory. It's a fact you wouldn't think of normally, but as soon as you're told you notice these patterns on everything from the show cloth to the stage floor and the scenery itself – and you gradually begin to realise the intense level of detail that has gone into creating the world of the production.
Immediately following the performance an army of crew descend on the stage to reset for the next show. For some that means packing up the animals who come from outside the theatre and through the auditorium in that iconic opening scene and pre-setting them out of sight for the next unsuspecting audience.
Meanwhile, the mask, costume and wigs department are ready to dive underneath the stage to the 'Bunker', in order to take stock of every inch of fabric, bead or headdress used within the show and touch it up and prepare for the next performance. The ensemble in the show each play a mix of flora and fauna, as well as covering lead or supporting parts. No one gets to rest once the show is underway – the costumes are sorted with military precision to enable quick and efficient changes, with bespoke headsets and individual fabrics to help identify each character of the African Savanna.
Seeing the stock in full display, you can't help but marvel at the differences in texture, style and colour between each costume. Holding one of the Lioness headmasks, you appreciate how light the material is in order for the actor to deliver the choreography and look facile at the same time. Compared to the weight of the grass-skirts worn by the ensemble in one of the early scenes, you develop a full appreciation for the strength and physical fitness it takes to be a part of this energetic and full-on show.
Because of the physical demands placed on the actors, they're constantly working on keeping their body in shape in order to deliver a first rate performance. Numerous dance classes, warm ups and physio sessions each week keep them ready to meet the challenges, so from an audience perspective if looks graceful, elegant and above all effortless.
In Part Two of Behind the Scenes at The Lion King I'll take a closer look at the puppets and how they have been designed to create the memorable characters.