Since its Broadway premiere in 1997, the musical has been seen by more than 65 million people worldwide. And, the director Julie Taymor – whose brilliant costumes are so famous that they’re now part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Museum – became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical. (It won five other Tonys, along with 70 other awards, include the 1999 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.) Also superlative? The talented music and lyrics team: Elton John and Time Rice. The duo, who created the music for the film, have adapted all the film’s big hits for the stage, from “Circle of Life” to the Academy Award-winning song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight."
The story is simple but timeless: The lion cub Simba, who is born in the African heartland, is destined to become king. But evil interferes: The devious uncle Scar slays Simba’s father, King Mufasa, and blames it on the young cub. Simba, deeply sad and ashamed, goes into self-exile. As Simba wanders the jungle, he grows into a lion and eventually returns to reclaim the throne. A jealous brother who kills the king and banishes the young prince? Yes, it’s Hamlet of the animal kingdom.
Perhaps most remarkable is the way in which the African landscape comes to life – via the human figure. All of the natural elements – like new buds of grass – are performed by actors, who blossom from the ground and then sway back and forth as the winds cross the African plains. The actors also expressively use their bodies – writhing, pouncing, leaping – to perform the astonishing array of animals: Zebras prance, antelopes arch their backs and giraffes teeter like stiff-legged ballet dancers.