NEW YORK — In the summer of 1997, audiences in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre saw something no one had ever seen before: leaping antelopes, fluttering birds and elephants lumbering through the orchestra seats.
“The audience started screaming so early. When the animals came down the aisle everybody shot up,” recalls director-writer Julie Taymor. “I burst into tears. We were just overwhelmed and we knew we had something.”
They did, indeed. That show in a trial run in Minneapolis would soon transfer to Broadway and start a stunning streak that regularly lands it among the weekly top earners and becomes young people’s introduction to theater. It is “The Lion King,” and it turns 25 years old on Broadway this month.
“The Lion King” has been a model of consistency in its march through records. In April 2012, it swiped the title of Broadway’s all-time highest-grossing show from “The Phantom of the Opera,” despite “Phantom” having almost a full 10 years’ head start. With plans for ”Phantom,” to close next year, “The Lion King” jostles with “Chicago” for its crown of longest-running show on Broadway.
So established is “The Lion King” that it’s easy to forget its revolutionary origins. Audiences were seeing Asian-inspired puppets and masks telling an African tale with several African languages, using South African performers and a Black king.
Taymor, who works on theater, operas and films, recently took time to look back at the blockbuster show she directed, designed costumes for, crafted masks and puppets with Michael Curry, and even added lyrics for the song “Endless Night.”
Her task some 25 years ago was enormous: reimagining Disney’s animated blockbuster with its iconic Elton John songs — including the Academy Award-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — into a live spectacle set on the African savannah. She filled the stage with warthogs and meerkats, with birds circling high on sticks and antelopes in the mezzanine.
“To work with Julie Taymor is a gift,” says Bonita J. Hamilton, who plays Shenzi, the hyena leader. “She is a genius and a visionary. As an actor, to be directed by someone with such vision is almost otherworldly.”
Taymor conceived a magical African tapestry that incorporates half-human, half-animal figures; African masks as headdresses above human faces; stilt work; and colorful Balinese-style puppets. The actors manipulate the giant puppets in a movement style that recalls Bunraku theater popular in 16th century Japan.
“This is where theater is better than film. It completely surrounds you, 360 degrees. It’s physical, it’s dimensional and the lighting tells you where to look or the voice pulls you in,” Taymor says.
“Most plays don’t translate to film because they’re not cinematic. And here you have ‘The Lion King’ movie — the most cinematic. I had to use all the tools in the theater tool toolbox to make it dimensional and theatrical.”
Taymor made no attempt to cover up the wheels and poles that bring her elaborate puppets to life. The human beings that control the puppets and wear the animal masks are fully seen — it’s up to the audience to supply the imagination.
It is something Taymor has called “the double event,” where the audience not only watches the animals on the stage, they watch humans driving the story, too.
“The puppet takes on the reaction-emotion of the actor, and the actor takes on the reaction-emotion of this puppet and they kind of meet somewhere in the middle,” says Hamilton.
Most of the masks and puppet parts are molded of carbon graphite, a kind of rigid foam that makes them light and durable. Some have a set of wires to move the mouth and other parts, like the elephant’s ears and trunk.
It was an immersive experience long before that became a theatrical buzzword. “More particularly now, immersive theater is important because people are just sitting on their couches in their living rooms and bedrooms,” says Taymor.
“The Lion King″ made Taymor the first woman to win a Tony Award for best director of a musical. And it has been an incubator for talent: Such Broadway stars as Heather Headley, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Tom Hewitt, Christopher Jackson, Patrick Page, Wallace Smith and Adam Jacobs all have had turns in “The Lion King.”
There have been 28 “The Lion King” productions since the first, it has been performed in nine different languages and seen by a staggering 110 million people. It has played over 100 cities in 21 countries on every continent except Antarctica.
Part of its longevity is due to the movie tie-in, simple-to-understand story, family-friendly themes and the fact that it’s a spectacle not dependent on big-name stars — important for attracting tourists whose command of English might be weak.
“I’m not surprised at the longevity because the movie, when it came out, was so brilliant and then they put the musical on stage, which was a brilliant interpretation of the movie by Julie Taymor. It’s just astonishing what she did,” Oscar-, Grammy- and Tony-winning John said this week.
Before it became a smash, Disney sent its top executives to the culmination of a two-week workshop at a rehearsal space on Broadway. One film boss suggested Taymor lose the puppetry when it came time for the principal characters. She demurred.
Taymor then set up a test on the stage of the Palace Theatre, presenting the musical in three different ways — just facial makeup, half-mask, and her original concept. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner embraced her vision: “He said, ‘The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff,’” Taymor recalls. “How many people say that?”