Whoopi Goldberg was scheduled to lead the conversation “Twenty Years on Pride Rock” with director Julie Taymor, but as Disney Theatrical Group President Thomas Schumacher explained, sometimes you have to find a cover—and Schumacher was a a perfect replacement for Goldberg. As he said, he’s worked on it every week for the past 26-and-a-half years. Between the duo, they revealed little-known truths about the creation of the now legendary musical spectacular.
1. That time Lion King stole their Simba from Aida.
When Schumacher took the stage, he regaled the audience with a story. One night, the actor playing Simba had to call out sick; Chris Jackson, of Hamilton fame, was the first cover—but he had the flu. The team called the second cover, who got ready for the role by practicing the iconic rope swing entrance of grown Simba and twisted his ankle. No Simba, no cover, no second cover. So Schumacher called down to Aida at the Palace Theatre, where actor Tim Hunter, who had been a vacation cover on The Lion King, was playing. For one night, Aida loaned Hunter to The Lion King… because the show must go on.
2. Julie Taymor knew nothing about The Lion King when first asked to do the project.
When Schumacher called Taymor to ask her to direct the project, Taymor knew nothing about the property. She had never seen the movie. She had been off doing large-scale opera in Japan. When she saw the Disney animated film and saw the stampede that [spoiler alert] kills Mufasa, she thought, “Wow. That’s a challenge. That’s exciting.” Taymor signed up to direct. “I want to not know how I’m going to do something at the beginning [of it].”
3. It’s because of Taymor that women play such a big role in the stage adaptation.
Emphasizing the women in the narrative was a priority for Taymor, and step one was expanding the role of Nala, but, as Taymor says, “The big idea was Rafiki.” Carmen Twillie was the off-screen vocalist in “The Circle of Life” in the Disney-animated film, a demo singer that Disney never replaced. Ultimately, Taymor was inspired by a female actor friend of hers whom she had wanted to give a part to, but didn’t have one to give. The actor laughed thinking there are never roles for women, and in that laugh, Taymor found her humorous spiritual guide: a female Rafiki.
4. Taymor’s first idea for Act 2 looked a lot like Zootopia.
When Taymor was first developing Lion King, Broadway was not the known end goal. She wasn’t sure if it would play a tent or a planetarium, and wasn’t sure how close to the animated story she would stay; she was testing out ideas. One idea included Simba, at the end of Act 1, running away to the desert to escape his guilt over “killing his father.” Out in the distance there was a mirage, and the mirage was of a City of Lights, like Las Vegas. In this metropolitan city, there was a concept of a half-human, half-animal—animals wearing human clothes. A character named Papa Croc was head of the Pussycat Lounge. And through this theorized plot, Taymor was able to answer a question that had been nagging at her from the film. “Why is there no water?” She could not understand why, with Scar taking power, that meant there was no water. In this proposed version, Scar had sold the water to Papa Croc to light up this desert City of Lights. Of course, that’s not the version we see today—though Taymor said she still likes the idea. That exploration caused Taymor and Schumacher to find their story, returning to the original version. They realized, “We don’t want to go that far,” Taymor said. “And it helped him as a producer understand the limitations.” But it also led to the visual concept of the show…
5. Taymor’s showing humans and animals simultaneously in the design of the show was “inspired by my working on the story.”
Once Taymor discovered that she needed to show both the human and animal traits of the characters in The Lion King, she labored to convince Disney of her design concept. That included creating no-less-than three versions of Scar, three Zazus, and two Timons and presenting all ideas in a staged version at the Palace Theatre. At the end of the day, Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner greenlit the riskiest (and most true to Taymor’s vision) of the designs.
6. The Minneapolis pre-Broadway tryout was not always smooth sailing.
For two weeks, during the run in Minneapolis, the show would stop before the iconic stampede. It was a planned pause; there was an announcement to audiences before the show warning them that it would happen. Why? Because they needed time to put the set pieces together. Taymor knew she would need a scene there to give stagehands the needed time. The solution is what audiences see today: a scene between Mufasa and Zazu that is one of the most emotional in the show. Taymor wanted the audience to know the impactful scene was “the result of a failure.” “Sweet are the juices of adversity,” said Schumacher.
7. The most memorable performance of The Lion King, for Taymor, was in South Africa.
Taymor spoke a lot about the way in which Lion King is a musical of the world, a cross-cultural, multi-racial “common thread.” When they were casting a production in South Africa, they loved a white Afrikaner actor for Pumbaa and a black actor for Timon. In the land of apartheid, the meaning of two best buds—one white, one black—felt impactful and particularly memorable for Taymor. It was as if Timon and Pumbaa went off into the desert—“Hakuna Matata“ style—and missed apartheid. They were an example of what could be.
8. The show art is a result of Taymor’s Japanese influences.
Taymor didn’t want the airbrushed photographs of typical show posters. She wanted the look of Japanese woodblock. She advocated for saffron because it is a spiritual and religious color (“and the color of taxis!”).
9. If Taymor were to adapt another movie for the stage, it would be…
Across the Universe.
BONUS: Of The Lion King Taymor says, “It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.”