Disney’s Great Leap

Special To The Times

In Disney’s new Broadway musical “The Lion King,” the usurper Scar, suffering from a splitting headache, asks Zazu to sing something to cheer him up. No sooner does the feathery courtier launch into “Be our guest . . . " (from that other Disney musical five blocks away) than Scar holds up his hand: “No, no, no! Anything but that!”

Good to see that the Walt Disney Co. can have a sense of humor about itself. But then, right now in the theater world, it can afford to. Despite a tepid critical welcome three years ago for what was roundly labeled “theme park entertainment,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” is still grossing more than half a million per week at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, with six additional productions touring internationally.

And now, come Nov. 13, Walt Disney Theatrical Productions hopes to have another blockbuster on its hands when its stage adaptation of “The Lion King” opens at the New Amsterdam Theatre. And if out-of-town reviews and preview audience buzz are any indication, Disney may also be on the verge of achieving unexpected artistic respectability in the theater world.

“ ‘Lion King’ leaps to theater’s cutting edge,” ran the headline of a feature story by USA Today critic David Patrick Stearns about a pre-Broadway stop in Minneapolis. “An audacious, cross-cultural re-envisioning of the film,” wrote Mike Steele, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s theater critic.



Cutting edge? Audacious? . . . Disney? While New York critics may yet rain on the parade, it still wasn’t supposed to be this way. Three years ago, when “Beauty and the Beast” bowed, the “Disneyfication” of Broadway was something to be decried, as a corporation with deep pockets was expected simply to substitute bludgeoning special effects for artistic invention. (The budget for “The Lion King” is rumored to be about $15 million, making it the most expensive musical ever created.)

Yet now, as the 1997-98 season revs up, lo and behold, “The Lion King” appears to be in a position to challenge the until-now shoo-in for prizes, “Ragtime,” Livent’s acclaimed musical, which opens at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts in January.

“We always try to have an artistic success, to do something original,” said Disney Chief Executive and Chairman Michael Eisner in a recent telephone interview. “Before ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ the Walt Disney Co. had never before translated an animated feature to the Broadway musical stage. Having done that, we had to find a whole new conceit for ‘The Lion King.’ ”


If Disney’s “Lion King” is to become, as many are predicting, a landmark musical, it will be largely the result of two pivotal decisions: first, an internal shuffle two years ago that led Eisner to name Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher, president and executive vice president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, respectively, to also head up Walt Disney Theatrical Productions. And second, Schumacher made the critical choice of naming as director Julie Taymor, a 44-year-old experimental theater and opera director and costume and puppet designer (“The Green Bird” and “Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass” as well as L.A. Opera’s “Flying Dutchman”). She has chosen to tell the story of “The Lion King” onstage through techniques of masks, puppets and shadow play.

The show opens with a pageant of extravagant visual and vocal elements, a rendition of “The Circle of Life” punctuated with South African choral chants and percussive explosions as a huge silk sun rises over the Serengeti plain to reveal a stylized parade of animals: majestic giraffes (people on stilts), a lumbering elephant (worked by four people), leaping gazelles (sculptures strapped to dancers’ bodies), galloping zebras (actors harnessed with lightweight sculptures), a sinuous, life-size wooden cheetah (extending from the midriff of the dancer visibly working her on wires), thundering wildebeests (gigantic masks), swirling birds (propelled on wires by actors) and, of course, lions, played by actors whose faces are visible, their masks hovering above them like ancient headdresses, cable-operated to shoot forward at dramatic moments.

It is such a stunningly original opening that audiences invariably have burst into excited cries and applause. Yet immediately after a blackout, Taymor switches to a single small object in the simplest form of theater--a mouse puppet in shadow play. And this mixture of simplicity and animatronic sophistication is a metaphor for the synthesis of Taymor’s odd coupling with Disney.

“I’d known of Julie’s work since 1984 when I tried to present her ‘Liberty’s Taken’ at the Olympic Arts Festival,” says Schumacher, who himself has an extensive background in nonprofit theater, both at the Mark Taper Forum and in helping to present Peter Brooks’ “Mahabharata” and Ingmar Bergman’s stage production of “Miss Julie.”



Taymor had never seen “The Lion King” when she was first contacted, so Schumacher sent her a tape of the feature and CDs of the soundtrack and “Rhythm of the Pride Lands,” a follow-up album by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Lebo M, the South African composer and musician who is featured in the cast of the show, based on their contributions to the animated feature. Its haunting South African chorales and songs such as “He Lives in You” and “Shadowland” would form an integral part of Taymor’s leitmotif, more so than the five songs of Elton John and Tim Rice (they wrote three more for the Broadway musical).

Taymor says that when she received the call from Schumacher she was ready for a new challenge. In fact, she adds, she was surprised that no one had yet asked her to work on Broadway, although her debut--"Juan Darien” at the nonprofit Lincoln Center last season (“That’s not really like working on Broadway,” she says)--had garnered five Tony nominations, including one for her as director.

“I like to change styles,” she says, sitting in the warm yet austerely elegant apartment she shares with her partner and frequent collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal. “I’ve done theater for 20 years, so I was ready to work with ‘the Big D.’ It’s not that we don’t have things in common. My studies were in folklore and mythology, and that’s the same territory as Disney. But at first I really wanted to know that they were hiring me not for what I could do but for what I would want to do.”


Eisner says that he never considered the stage version of “Lion King” as a risk in the way that others have, because he felt “that the story and music were fundamentally sound.” (Indeed, the animated feature is the most successful picture in Disney history, having grossed more than $450 million.) “I knew if we stuck closely to those elements and found an original way to present it, we’d be fairly risk-averse.”

Yet in early drafts, Taymor did stray from the original story by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, going to a whole new land and introducing new characters in the second act. As a result, Schumacher sent her back to the drawing board.

By all accounts, in the two-year development of the stage version through readings and workshops, there were only a couple of particularly crucial turning points for the creative team, which comprised Schneider, Schumacher, Taymor, Mancina, Lebo M, Michael Curry and later set designer Richard Hudson. The first one came in January 1996, with the unveiling of the “Gazelle wheel"--herds of galloping creatures attached to a bicycle-like contraption. It was to become a signature of sorts for Taymor’s entire design of the show.

“In traditional puppet theater, you’d hide the wheels and just see the gazelles leaping,” Taymor says, “but to me that’s just totally unmagical. What is magic to me is to be able to reveal the manipulation, the wires and human beings, and yet you can’t believe that the puppet still has such a soul and spirit and animation and life to it. I knew that I was fighting the film, so I wanted to make the experience as tactile as possible.”



When the team, rather nervously, unveiled the contraption to Eisner, he immediately “got it,” says Schumacher, and told them to proceed.

“I knew the conceit would work,” Eisner says. “And I knew, too, that kids would get it more quickly than adults. They get the symbolism instantly.”

The second turning point came at a workshop last January. With the out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis looming, Disney’s Eisner, Schneider and Schumacher were not convinced that Taymor’s animal-human hybrid conceptions would work for the principal characters. They thought it might be confusing for the audience to see both the mask or puppet and the person manipulatingor acting behind them.


Taymor understood why the three might not “yet trust it,” but she insisted on a workshop with full makeup, costumes and lighting and offered three prototypes, including the traditional (a full costume for Timon, for example) and the experimental (the retractable headdress mask). In each case, Eisner went for the most experimental.

“I figured, with the opportunity to go in several directions within the conceit that Julie had set up, we might as well go for it,” he says now.

Taymor says she would have gone with whatever choices were made but that she had been very impressed with Disney’s willingness to gamble to a degree.

She says she and Eisner also had their share of disagreements, notably in Minneapolis, when the chairman insisted that Simba, in a rite of passage, fight the hyenas to prove he had the heroic mettle to be king. Taymor believed that his journey should be more “subtle,” that it had less to do with “kicking ass” than a coming-of-age story that focused on his inner conflict over who he is and where he belongs.


“I didn’t see that those were in contradiction. There was a lot of back and forth, and yelling, but I never felt compromised,” Taymor says. “And I really felt nurtured and supported by Tom and Peter.”

“It’s not about money, it’s about ideas. Michael has great faith in the big idea,” Schneider says. He, like Schumacher, has an extensive background in nonprofit theater, including work at the St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago and the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. “If we have a fundamentally good idea, then we’ll find the money for it. We have the luxury of spending all our time managing our creative sources.”

Those creative sources have picked up speed of late with two projects in active development and a number of others in the works.

Robert Jess Roth, director of “Beauty and Beast,” is working with Tim Rice and Elton John on a musical based on the legend of Aida, the romantic tragedy of a Nubian slave, which the director says will premiere next summer. In addition, director James Lapine (“Into the Woods”) will adapt “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for the stage with a bow also likely to come in summer, this time in Germany.


There is also a millennial project being developed under Schneider and Schumacher’s auspices, but they would offer no details except that two symphonies had been commissioned for it.

And while Eisner says “The Lion King” is likely to be mounted all over the world, no plans are yet in place for any productions beyond Broadway. Schneider says he hopes--and expects--that “The Lion King” will change the perception of Disney among the New York theatrical community to that of a purveyor of “legitimate artistry” and not just commercialism.

“I know that it’s out there--'Ohmigod, Disney!’ ” he said, rolling his eyes.

“If people come to see ‘The Lion King,’ maybe dragged there by somebody else, and come out thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Disney could do this,’ then that’s a home run for us.”