EVERY week for 22 years, I’ve had some involvement with The Lion King,” says Thomas Schumacher when we meet in London’s Lyceum Theatre, one afternoon just before Christmas.
From our seats in the dress circle, we can see the empty stage which last night was alive with masks, puppets and performers – just as it has been eight times a week since 1999.
Today, it’s just me and Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical and the driving force behind one of the most successful stage musicals of all time. This morning he flew in from Hamburg, after checking in on the German version of The Lion King – one of nine productions currently playing worldwide. It’s the highest-grossing show Broadway has ever known, and a touring version is selling out across the UK, arriving in Edinburgh this October.
On this evidence, it’s fair to say that The Lion King is getting something very, very right. But what? Back in 1994, when the film first hit cinemas, the combination of touching story, exciting animation and a great soundtrack made it a box office smash. Yet turning the tale of a pride of lions who roam the African plains into a stage show was far from an obvious choice.
Indeed, when former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner asked Schumacher to start working on an adaptation, Schumacher replied that it was “impossible”. And perhaps it would have been, had he not recalled a woman whose work he had seen ten years earlier, theatre director and designer Julie Taymor.
There is a moment in The Lion King show when a performer rides across the stage on a piece of apparatus reminiscent of a bicycle. The “gazelle wheel”, as it’s called, indicates a herd of animals crossing the savannah – first in good health, later as skeletons when the watering hole dries up. Like most of Taymor’s designs for the show, it is a stroke of genius, yet breathtakingly simple.
“The gazelle wheel was the first thing that Julie built,” says Schumacher, “and she presented it at the first design meeting we had with Michael Eisner. Julie said to him, ‘If you understand this, you understand what I want to do. If it doesn’t make any sense to you, you don’t want me to design your show.’ And Michael loved it.”
Since then over 65 million people have given the show the seal of approval. But it almost didn’t happen. Early on, Schumacher and his team hit “a bump in the road” that threatened its entire existence. “We showed a couple of sequences and mask work to some studio executives who wanted to know what we were doing with their money,” he recalls. “And they all said it wouldn’t work, it was going to be a failure. So they shut us down.”
Undeterred, they came back a few months later with a more fleshed-out version complete with fully built costumes. This time the people holding the purse strings saw the potential of Taymor’s vision, and in 1997 the show opened to great critical acclaim, picking up a glut of awards in the years that followed.
More than anything, though, The Lion King’s success is built upon perennial word of mouth. The skill and expertise of the puppeteers, attention to detail in the costume design, and the energy generated by 40 performers leaves people eager to spread the word. Not only that, it attracts both those looking for a blockbuster night out and audiences who enjoy a truly theatrical experience.
One of the most difficult scenes to replicate from the original film was a stampede of wildebeest which kills the protagonist’s father. Rather than opt for a hi-tech approach, Taymor came up with a solution dating back centuries. “The stampede scene could have been produced in a London theatre show in the 1600s,” explains Schumacher. “The technique we use – forced perspective – is right out of the Restoration dramas. Julie knew that what we relate to is not the fact that they’re lions, it’s the allegory. This is a human story told with lions, and she wanted to reveal that – not only by showing the performers beneath the masks, but by using pure theatre techniques to tell it.”
The “illusion of simplicity”, as Schumacher puts it, is everywhere in The Lion King. But the reality is, however simple it may look, the time and effort that goes into maintaining the show’s high standards should not be underestimated.
Over 700 outfits are worn by the performers, with each shoe dyed to the exact skin tone of the cast member, each bead hand sewn. One mask is decorated with peacock feathers, perfectly burned and frayed at the edges, another is trimmed with horse hair. Plastic grass head-dresses, used to illustrate the savannah, are procured from China, while all the make-up and brushes are bespoke, to ensure the correct animal markings. As one production team member tells me, “we could do it all a lot cheaper, but we don’t.”
On tour, things get more complicated. If a theatre can’t provide the right facilities to present the show the way Disney want it to be seen, it won’t tour there. Extensive renovations at the Edinburgh Playhouse will get under way later this year, including knocking a hole in the brickwork large enough for an elephant (operated by four performers) to walk through.
Turning an “impossible” task into a resounding success has been a labour of love for Schumacher. It’s a huge gamble that paid off, in more ways than one. But if he took a chance, Schumacher was only following in the footsteps of the man who started it all.
“It was a big risk,” he says. “We took a jewel in the Disney crown and deconstructed it. But you know, that’s what Walt used to do, too. Now it doesn’t seem like much of a risk to go to Florida and turn a swamp into the most popular theme park in the world, but it was.”
• The Lion King is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, from 12 October until 18 January. Tickets go on sale at the Playhouse box office on 30 January. You can buy them in person from 8am, and online/over the phone from 10am. www.thelionking.co.uk or 0844 871 7692