After being introduced to the backstage area of the Lyceum Theatre, the home of Disney's The Lion King for the past sixteen years, I couldn't help but be impressed by the sheer number of people involved in each show across a wide range of different departments. As audiences enter the auditorium, which is one of London's largest but also most beautiful, you're immediately struck by the level of detail that has gone into the production before the curtain even goes up.
The interior is painted a specific shade of burnt orange, a colour that's repeated throughout the proscenium arch, show cloth and design, binding together different elements of the whole production. The colour evokes an early morning sunrise – which coincides with the first scene of the musical as Rafiki summons the animals to the presentation of baby Simba, against an impressive on-stage sunrise.
Thus begins one of the most impressive opening scenes ever seen in the theatre. Director, costume and puppet designer Julie Taymor has used 232 puppets throughout the production – the smallest being the mouse that's eaten by Scar, to the largest, which is the Majestic elephant that walks through the aisle and onto the stage. Each of these puppets has been hand crafted and is maintained on a daily basis to ensure the same level of perfection is achieved in each performance, and in multiple cities all over the world.
Following the success of the 1994 animated film, Thomas Schumacher, the President of
Walt Disney Theatricals, was repeatedly told that The Lion King had to be a stage musical, something that he could never envisage happening. Despite his enthusiasm, he said it would be “physically impossible” to recreate the film on stage. And then he met Julie Taymor.
From the outset it was obvious that in order to bring the show to life a unique blend of theatrical magic would have to be found. Following on from Disney's stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast which had successfully overcome similar problems with anthropomorphic objects, the iconic characters had to look and feel realistic, and couldn't be theme park versions of themselves in the traditional Disney way. In Beauty and the Beast characters such as teapots, cutlery and wardrobes took to the stage, but the blend between human and object attempted to merge them into one specific character.
Taymor's puppets and costumes on the other hand use what has been called the 'double effect' method. Rather than hide the actor wearing the costume, the actor's body is used alongside the puppet to create two distinct areas of focus for the audience. It's possible to watch the show in many ways – some audience members focus primarily on the puppet and ignore the actor, and others focus more on the actor and the emotions they convey. Obviously the beauty of this method is that it becomes possible to focus on both – therefore creating the 'double effect' which helps the show come to life.
One of the best examples of this specific method comes in the form of two very different animals. The elegant Cheetah that is seen stalking its prey blends the grace and beauty of the actress, with the power in its back legs, which are attached to the puppet to simulate and replicate the same motions. The head of puppet, which remains expressionless, is attached to and is controlled by the side of the actresses head, thus blending both actress and puppet into one visual. Taymor used the the grace and control of the animal to dictate where the human movement comes from. Animals such as the Zebra who are more fun and playful enjoy a lighter material that is realised by attaching to the shoulders of the actor to provide a necessary 'bounce' that helps their character be represented by both puppet and human.