‘The Lion King’ Turns 20: How the Disney Musical Became One of Broadway’s Best (Exclusive)

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The house lights dim, the sun rises on its first performance, and a powerful voice belts out:  “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba,” the first lyrics of “Circle of Life.” Lindiwe Dlamini, a member of the ensemble dressed in a white dress, holding African bird puppets in either hand with another on her head, nervously waits in the wings as she readies to take the stage in the opening number of Disney’s Broadway adaptation of The Lion King, the 1994 animated hit film about a lion cub who overcomes adversity and accepts responsibility for his pride and land to become king of the jungle.

“You didn’t know how the audience was going to receive it, [but] the energy was beyond belief,” Dlamini recalls to ET. The actress was 29 years old when she was cast in The Lion King, which opened on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Nov. 13, 1997. The show later transferred to the Minskoff Theatre in 2006, where it still plays today. Dlamini’s been performing in the Disney musical, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, for its entire run. That’s more than 8,000 shows. “There was a feeling about The Lion King -- something unique. You could feel it was going to be long-running.”  

The Lion King, now the third longest running show on Broadway and the highest-grossing show of all time, won six trophies at the 1998 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Costume Design and Best Direction, making Julie Taymor the first woman in history to be bestowed with the honor. “It’s been the most joyous, artistic and human experience of my life,” says Taymor, who is back on Broadway directing a revival of M. Butterfly. “It’s surprising because we are still enthusiastic about it.”

Since its premiere, 24 global productions produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, under the guidance of Thomas Schumacher, have been seen by more than 90 million people. “It’s inconceivable,” says Schumacher, the current president of The Walt Disney Company’s stage entertainment arm, who has produced Broadway productions of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins and the upcoming Frozen musical set to open in February 2018. The Lion King marks Disney’s longest-running stage adaptation. “It was bigger than anything anyone had done before. Julie’s vision was massive. What’s hard to believe is it’s still on Broadway.”

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While the animated film roared into theaters with a chart-topping soundtrack, eventually earning Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice a Best Original Song Oscar and Golden Globe for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” Schumacher says that an early version of The Lion King didn’t have music in it at all. “When I started on The Lion King 27 years ago, it was a four-page treatment about a war between lions and baboons. Rafiki was a cheetah; Scar was a baboon. It wasn’t the story we know today. People didn't want to work on [it].

It wasn’t until Schumacher’s husband, Matthew White, proposed the idea to add songs that Disney’s first original animated story started coming together, moving from a documentary-like feature to another entry in the animated musical canon. “He said, ‘Why don’t they sing? They sing in all the hits.’” While Rice was onboard from the beginning -- he was approached while working on Aladdin -- there was some trouble finding him a creative partner, with ABBA and Paul McCartney declining. Eventually they convinced John to get involved and composer Hans Zimmer signed on to do the film’s score.

During the summer of 1994, a few months into what would become the 13-year run of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, Schumacher was working with John and Rice on another musical, Aida. He was also in the early stages of Mary Poppins. Then-chairman of Disney Michael Eisner asked him to develop The Lion King for the stage as well. That’s when Schumacher made a phone call to the one person with puppetry experience he knew was perfect to mount it: Julie Taymor. “Julie's concept is exactly what the show is today. It was very clear in her head.”

“I hadn’t seen the animated film when he called, and I think it shocked [Schumacher],” Taymor jokes.  “When he asked me if I would consider doing The Lion King, it was totally surprising because it was a different world than what I had been interested in. I wasn’t all that fond of Broadway. It wasn’t anything I was aspiring to do.” Taymor liked the story once she finally watched the movie -- but felt it needed work. “I loved the challenge of putting a stampede on stage and trying to figure out how to make the story better.” First came amending the book (with Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi) for the stage. “We had no idea what this was going to turn into,” Allers exclaims of the show that’s now performing on every continent but Antarctica. Second were the visuals: a grand spectacle including a giant elephant that requires four actors to maneuver it down the main aisle of the theater and 18-foot giraffes on stilts.

Taymor’s elaborate costume ideas were revolutionary because of the masks she created to be worn along with them. She designed three different models for various workshops, ultimately going with her original idea of showcasing the human and animal simultaneously, which was “the most exciting [and] the most risky.” “I remember seeing the Hyena costume and [being] like, Who is going to wear that? It was kind of like, Holy moly,something different,” Dlamini remembers of those initial costume fittings. Tom Alan Robbins, who originated Pumbaa for the stage, says “it was unbelievable when we put [the costumes] on.” It was at that point the actor “knew” this was a show destined for greatness.

Similar to many Broadway shows, there were some stumbling blocks in the early stages of production. “We didn’t know how we were going to get through the first year because it was very hard to mount. People didn’t believe what we were doing,” Schumacher says of the critics back then. “‘How will you get it to New York? How will you run it; it’s so hard to do? It certainly can’t tour.’ But what we did was the original idea. We didn’t know we couldn’t do it -- so we did it.”

When the show began its out-of-town tryouts in July 1997 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, there were plenty of kinks at the start. “It never worked,” composer Mark Mancina says of the show’s initial issues with the set. “We thought we were destined for disaster.” Sometimes set pieces like Pride Rock wouldn’t move, so the actors would have to improvise around it. “We couldn’t get the stampede up as fast as we needed to,” Taymor remembers. “So during the first few performances, while we were writing a new scene, Tom and Peter Schneider would go on stage and say to the audience, ‘Aren’t you the lucky ones. You get to sit here and watch while we take our necessary time to set up the next scene behind the curtain.’” That scene between Mufasa and Zazu, as it turns out, is now what Taymor describes as a touching and crucial scene between the characters.

L to R: Tshidi Manye as Rafiki, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa, and Jelani Remy as Simba
Photo: Joan Marcus

Two decades into The Lion King’s run, parts of the show have subtly changed. Nine minutes of scenes, songs and dances were cut for time. “There were things on reflection we could tighten up and so we did,” Schumacher says. At one point, Zazu sings to Scar a butchered version of Frozen’s “Let It Go.” When the show originally opened, the bird sang “It’s a Small World (After All),” making reference to the long-running Walt Disney Parks ride. “Every couple of years it’s that song that people roll their eyes at if they have to hear it one more time,” Taymor says. At one point, Zazu sang “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. “A lot of things culturally change,” Dlamini explains. “A lot of things then aren’t funny today.” The changes aren’t just in New York City. “When we perform it all over the world, all the humor gets adapted to local culture and local contemporary jokes,” Taymor reveals.

But the formula that made The Lion King a blockbuster success isn’t what producers use to mold a hit today. “The biggest lesson is: The recipe for success is the formula for failure,” advises Schumacher. “If you think you know how to do it, you’re in a terrible position. You have to approach everything as if it’s the first time.” Taymor adds: “If you don’t take risks and are willing to fail, then you won’t come up with something that’s fresh and that breaks boundaries.” After The Lion King opened on Broadway, Aida, Tarzan, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (which is still running) followed. “The Lion King didn’t influence the other pieces, but TheLion King made it possible, because of its success, to open a lot of doors,” says Schumacher. “Because of The Lion King, [the producers] gave me the chance to be in Aida. I am grateful to Disney,” says Heather Headley, who portrayed Nala in the original cast and went on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress as the title role in Aida.

There’s a reason why The Lion King has been wowing crowds in New York City for two decades. “Because in The Lion King you have so many people with different backgrounds and races,” explains Dlamini. Now 49 years old and married with a child, Dlamini shares the stage with Jelani Remy, the actor currently playing Simba. “Twenty years and still passionate,” he proudly boasts of his co-star who plays seven characters and understudies for Shenzie. Remy, 30, from New Jersey, started in the ensemble of the Las Vegas production in 2009 and transferred to Broadway in 2015. His face is seen on buses, commercials and billboards all over the world. “It feels like a blessing to be hitting this milestone with this little ol’ show,” he exclaims of being part of the celebration.

Now, when the cast hears those famous opening notes sung by Rafiki, they no longer feel nervous, but energized. “It’s one of the best theatrical experiences,” says Remy, who often watches from the back of the orchestra since he doesn’t have to be in costume until the end of the first act. “It transports you to our world in the Pride Lands.”

“It was days after [the first performance that] I got to sneak out and see the show and figure out what an amazing time it is,” remembers Headley, who admits she wasn’t initially aware how special it was. “Then you figure out that the show is the star itself.”

While many in the cast over the years have moved on to other high-profile roles, including Christopher Jackson and Renee Elise Goldsberry in Hamilton and Caleb McLaughlin on Stranger Things, Dlamini has no plans to leave The Lion King any time soon. “I still enjoy it and am still excited doing it every night,” she says. After 20 years, the show truly lives in her. “I know I am going to bring my grandchildren to the show one day.” When that moment comes, it will be her “circle of life.”