A look into the history of The Lion King: The Musical

  • 08, Apr 2020
  • Parisian theatre
  • Sam Asher

An inspiring score, breathtaking costumes and an iconic story:  The Lion King, The Musical has made its mark on the world. The tale is familiar for most: a young lion named Simba, an animal kingdom, and a wicked uncle trying to usurp the throne. Most came to know this story from the cartoon feature film produced by Disney in 1993, but its popularity skyrocketed after a musical adaptation was introduced to Broadway. How did Lion King The Musical come to be? A risk-taking director, Minneapolis and eclectic theatrical story telling all played a part in creating one of the most popular musicals of all time. 

Origins

The Lion King, released in 1994, is an animated film by Disney that was promoted to be its first original piece. At the time, advertising for the movie was focused on comparing itself to previously released movies that were based on already existing stories (Beauty and the Beast, 1991; The Little Mermaid 1989). Though it is debated the Lion King took some artistic cues from the Japanese cartoon “Kimba the White Lion,” the Lion King experienced incredibly positive reception in American box offices. Now, this Disney original is an iconic piece and has secured a spot as a seminal classic in the states. 

Making the Musical 

In the search for a musical adaptation for The Lion King, Disney tapped Julie Taymor – at the time 44 years old –  who was known for her experimental puppetry and risk-taking theatre productions. She hadn’t even seen the movie and wasn’t sure if she would want to take the job because she didn’t believe Disney and her esthetic could match. After an initial viewing of The Lion King, she saw many elements that are timeless in storytelling: a young man outcast from his home, royalty seething for power, tales of romance and innocence. Julie Taymore began workshopping the musical in August 1996 and later premiered it for the top Disney executives. All the biggest risks were taken, including changing Rafiki to a female character because Taymor believed there was a lack of a strong female lead in the story. 

With brilliant details, musical vitality and robust energy, this musical theatre adaptation of a Disney classic took the stage soaring. In July of 1997, the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota debuted The Lion King, The Musical.

At the time of its first public premiere, Taymor expressed that she expected to see many audience members show up to see if she had sold out to the powerhouse that is Disney – curious if she would create a musical much like a theme park attraction, trying to emulate the wackiness of a cartoon feature film. On the contrary, Taymor was picked for her reputation of taking risky decisions; she was urged to do the unexpected. In the end, Taymor succeeded in meeting her goal: “catch the essence of the movie but not do the movie.” 

Iconic Milestones

November 13, 1997, marked the opening for The Lion King’s Broadway debut, to which it was met with rave reviews from the New York Times: “irresistible, refreshing, sophisticated, nothing else like it.” Performances from its original American cast still stand as breathtaking, such as the original Simba played by the late Jason Raize in his hair-raising performance of They Live In You on the Rosie O’Donnel show. It’s no surprise that this musical became Broadway’s All-Time highest-grossing musical in 2012 and still holds that title today having grossed over 1.5 billion dollars and counting. 

With notable success and six Tony awards, the musical went international. In France, the Theatre Mogador in the 9th arrondissement welcomed the Lion King in 2007 where it won several Moliere Awards, closing three years later after over a million attendees passed through the Mogador’s doors to see The Lion King. 

Today, the Lion King has been seen by over 100 million people worldwide, and you can be one of them! In September, The Lion King is coming back to Theatre Mogador with music and dialogue in French, and surtitles in English. Don’t miss out on this spectacular opportunity!

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