Julie Taymor: how we made The Lion King musical

‘The sheer idea of having a stampede on stage was exciting – the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff’

Julie Taymor, director and designer

It was a surprise to get the call from Disney. Their world wasn’t my aesthetic, but The Lion King’s story aligned with the myths, folktales and Shakespearean stories I had done. I’d never seen the film before and was totally taken with it. The sheer idea of staging a stampede was exciting. They gave me a lot of freedom. I was told: “The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff.”

Everybody acknowledged that the film’s story should be fleshed out. There were no good female roles. The Circle of Life – the first song – is sung by an anonymous woman in the movie. In a musical you see the singers, so we needed to ask which character is singing that song. I had just been working with the fantastic South African actor Thuli Dumakude and asked her if she could gather together South African singers for a reading. “Sadly, there are no good characters in it for people like you,” I said. “It’s always the case!” she replied.

‘Disney gave me a lot of freedom’ … Julie Taymor.
‘Disney gave me a lot of freedom’ … Julie Taymor. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

I asked her about shamans in South Africa and she told me they’re mostly women. Then I knew that Rafiki, the storyteller, should be female. She would be first on stage, bringing the animals together.

The soul of this musical is South African choral singing and we mostly have South Africans playing Rafiki. For the wicked uncle Scar you need a Shakespearean actor because the singing is secondary to the acting. With the other characters you’re looking for people who can move really well and inhabit the puppets – that takes time and practice.

The actors wear masks above their faces because I wanted to present the animal and the human simultaneously. When an animal attacks, the mask can be taken off and pushed forward in an aggressive manner. One of the first animals I designed was the giraffe. I wanted to use stilts but also show how they were attached to the arms of the dancers. We didn’t want to hide the strings or the rods [on any of the puppets] but rather expose the mechanics and let the art of making theatre become part of the experience.

We put the whole thing together in five or six weeks of rehearsals and a three-week tech. The first performance was in Minneapolis and, two seconds in, the audience was on their feet screaming. We all burst into tears. You couldn’t hear the song! More than 100 million people have seen The Lion King now. It’s been on every continent apart from Antarctica. It changed my life. It was amazing to have a company like Disney take a chance on me – and on a kind of theatre that no one had seen before.

Neck and neck … exposing the mechanics.
Neck and neck … exposing the mechanics. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Garth Fagan, choreographer

I’d already been to Africa several times with my dance company, so we were comfortable with what these animals look like in the wild. When I saw the movie all my visions of Africa came back. Going over to Julie’s home and looking at her costume sketches was exciting. The biggest challenge was to get the dancers to try to be animal-like. As dancers, we love our bodies. Then here comes Julie with these fabulous designs that cover a lot of our bodies. I told them: “Trust me, it’s going to be magical.”

There is a lot of dancing in The Lion King. Everybody dances … sooner or later! In lots of Broadway shows, the dancing is just the women coming out and shaking their you-know-what and smiling, and the men are just macho idiots. We wanted to get away from that stereotype and be broad, enriching, enticing human animals.

I had to be sure the movement was exciting and fresh and would grab the audience. People have paid for babysitters, tickets and transportation – I want them to come out of the theatre uplifted. There is so much to see in the show that you can miss something. Here I am in my late 70s and I still bawl like a baby at the opening number. I know every step, every turn and every feather that’s going to fly.

The antelopes are my favourites. The dancers have an antelope puppet on each arm and one on their back and they can still leap. The hyenas might be the bad guys, but I wanted to be sure that they didn’t become stereotypical gangster types – they are also very witty creatures who get in and out of every situation imaginable. The show opens with a procession of all the animals and when I saw the antelopes leaping across the stage I said: “Oh lord, yes!”

The Lion King is at the Bristol Hippodrome until 23 November and continues at the Lyceum theatre in London.


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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