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Can't Wait to be King
on July 6, 2005
It's a story that rips off everything from HAMLET to one of Japan's favorite animated films. The original score was basically a redo of music from a different film (Hans Zimmer and Lebo M. previously collaborated on THE POWER OF ONE). The songs were by a great singer/songwriter who hadn't ever written a musical, and a lyricist who appeared to have had his best days behind him. And yet, when THE LION KING opened in theaters in 1994, it blew everyone away.
When Disney announced it would hire famed puppet theater director Julie Taymor to adapt the show for Broadway, a collective intake of breath could be heard around the world. Theater enthusiasts felt Taymor was selling out. Disneyphiles worried that the beloved story would be bloated beyond recognition. And the kids? Well, they just couldn't figure out how Simba would get off the screen and onto the stage.
The rest, as they say, is history. Disney's THE LION KING broke all records on Broadway (until THE PRODUCERS, years later), won a record number of Tonys and continues to play to packed houses both on tour and on the Great White Way.
What makes it work? An amazing collaboration between Taymor, Zimmer, Lebo M., John, Rice, and a few others. Where it lacks percussive power due to the nature of a theater orchestra, it makes up in emotional resonance and an increased emphasis on the deep feelings invoked by the story.
The familiar songs from the film are present, although Rafiki is no longer Robert Guillame's wily old baboon. Rafiki is now an extremely wise (though she occasionaly plays the fool) female baboon with some of the best lines, and certainly several of the best vocal moments in the entire show.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with surprising contributions from Samuel Wright (better known as Sebastian the Crab from THE LITTLE MERMAID) as Mufasa. Jason Raize, Heather Hadley, Max Cassella, and the rest of the cast bring the film characters to life (on stage through a combination of puppets, masks, etc.).
What sets the show apart, however, is the "new" stuff included in the songlist. Most of the "new" songs are adaptions of instrumental selections from the score ("Under the Stars" from the film becomes "Endless Night," "This Land," is now Nala's beautiful "Lea Halalelah") or songs written by Lebo M. and Mark Mancina for Disney's follow-up album to the original soundtrack, RETURN TO PRIDE ROCK. The best of these is "He Lives in You," which is heard first as sung by Mufasa, and later by the entire company.
Scar, the hyenas, and Zazu each get their own song (Scar's is a clever way of explaining quickly why Scar gets a little loopy in the story, while the hyenas have a rocking tune about chewing little lion cubs up). Zazu's was so popular it was animated and added to the SPECIAL EDITION of THE LION KING first released in Imax theaters and later on DVD.
The additional songs celebrating African culture and heritage (Rafiki's chants, the Lioness Hunt song, and "One by One") all take the story from contemporary Hollywood studio to traditional African story. It's a huge shift that works because of the awesomeness of the performers.
This is not the animated film soundtrack--it is a deeper listening experience that takes the discerning listener (child or adult) to places that most shows can't (or won't).
It's an idea that should not have worked...but to all our benefits (Disneyphiles, theater lovers, and young at heart), we are definitly thankful it did.