The Lion King turns 25 years old on Broadway this month.
The musical first opened in the summer of 1997 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Audiences saw something no one had ever seen before: jumping antelopes, flying birds and elephants walking through the seats.
“The audience started screaming so early. When the animals came down the aisle everybody shot up,” said director-writer Julie Taymor. “We were just overwhelmed and we knew we had something.”
That show in Minneapolis would soon move to Broadway. Broadway is an area in New York City where the largest and most famous plays and musicals are performed.
The Lion King would continue to perform for 25 years. It often sells the most tickets per week among all Broadway plays. It is also often young people's introduction to theater.
In April 2012, The Lion King became Broadway’s all-time highest-selling show. It passed The Phantom of the Opera which started almost 10 years earlier. With Phantom to close next year, the musical will compete with Chicago for the honor of longest-running show on Broadway.
It is easy to forget how revolutionary The Lion King was at the time it was released. Theatergoers were seeing Asian-influenced puppets and masks telling an African story with several African languages. The musical had South African performers and a Black king.
In addition to writing and directing the show, Taymor also designed clothing and wrote the words for the hit song Endless Night.
Her job some 25 years ago was huge. She had to rewrite Disney’s popular movie into a live show. She filled the stage with birds flying high on sticks and antelopes marching near the seats. The actors operate giant puppets in a movement popular in 16th-century Japanese theater.
“This is where theater is better than film. It completely surrounds you,” Taymor said. “I had to use all the tools in the theater toolbox to make it dimensional and theatrical."
Taymor did not cover up the wheels and poles that bring her puppets to life. The human beings that control the puppets and wear the animal masks are fully seen. It is the audience’s job to add the imagination.
She called it “the double event.” That is where the audience not only watches the animals, they watch humans driving the story, too.
The Lion King made Taymor the first woman to win a Tony Award for best director of a musical. Many Broadway stars over the years have also performed in The Lion King.
There have been 28 Lion King productions since the first. It has been performed in nine different languages and seen by 110 million people. It has played over 100 cities in 21 countries.
Part of its long life is because of the movie connection and its simple-to-understand and family-friendly story. But it is also a big production that is not dependent on big-name stars.
Before it became a hit, Disney sent its top officials to a rehearsal. One film official suggested Taymor lose the puppetry when it came time for the main characters. She did not agree.
Taymor then set up a test at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. She presented the musical in three different ways — just facial makeup, half-mask, and her original idea.
Then-Disney chief Michael Eisner liked her idea: “He said, 'The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff,'” Taymor said. “How many people say that?”
I’m Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
audience — n. a group of people who gather together to listen to something
aisle — n. a passage between sections of seats in a church, theater, airplane, etc.
overwhelm — v. to affect someone very strongly
revolutionary — adj. causing or relating to a great or complete change
puppet — n. a doll that is moved by putting your hand inside it or by pulling strings or wires that are attached to it
mask — n. a covering for your face or for part of your face
dimensionality — n. having many different features or qualities, especially in a way that makes something seem real, rather than being too simple:
rehearsal — n. an event at which a person or group practices an activity in order to prepare for a public performance