JULY 28, 1997 VOL. 150 NO. 4




As anyone who has seen The Lion King knows, Hakuna Matata means "no worries," but on this July afternoon in Minneapolis, Minn., director Julie Taymor has plenty of them. She is in rehearsals for her new stage version of Disney's animated film about Simba the lion cub and his struggle to take his rightful place as king of beasts. Her long, dark hair pulled back and an intense expression on her face, Taymor is trying to work out some kinks in the Hakuna Matata number, which ends the first act. The pop-up cactus plants need to inflate sooner. The "bug boxes" that roll across the stage, displaying grubworms, spiders and other crawly creatures, are moving too slowly. More troublesome, the number lacks a little oomph at the end. She tells Max Casella, who plays Timon the meerkat, to try some twirls and flourishes, and maybe a wave to the audience, as he exits and the curtain falls.

It is hard to tell, though, how the scene will really come off, since today Casella is working without the puppet he uses to portray Timon: days and nights of (literally) being attached to it have hurt his back. Taymor isn't the kind of director merely to sew up an actor in an animal costume. In the show, Casella stands behind the 5-ft.-tall Timon model, which he manipulates with rods and wires. Others in the cast wear elaborate headpieces representing the animals they are portraying. Indeed, Taymor's entire production is highly stylized and impressionistic. A rushing waterfall is conveyed simply by a rippling stream of silk. Leaping gazelles are suggested by a Rube Goldberg contraption of wheels and spokes. "The poetry of the theater is that it allows the audience to use its imagination to fill in the blanks," says Taymor. "They become complicit in the theatrical experience."

Simba, I don't think we're in Disneyland anymore. Disney's first Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast--based on the film and directed by a theme-park veteran, Rob Roth--was a traditional stage confection that came as close as possible to being a literal, three-dimensional re-creation of the movie. Yet to direct the stage version of The Lion King, the most successful movie in the company's history, Disney has hired someone who made her name in the avant-garde theater. It was a daring choice, for live theater has become an increasingly important part of the Disney empire. Beauty and the Beast, now in its fourth year on Broadway and with nine companies worldwide, is estimated to have brought in $150 million in profits. The company has two more musicals in the works, King David and Aida, and has renovated (at a cost of $34 million) the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway--where The Lion King will open this fall, after an eight-week run in Minneapolis that officially begins July 31. If the show is a hit, it could be another long-term money machine.

None of this fazes Taymor. "I told them I wanted to go for elegance, not cute," she says. "The Lion King is a very commercial work, but what they've let me do is very experimental. I was totally delighted and surprised." Tom Schumacher, Disney's executive vice president of theatrical productions, first encountered Taymor when he was a producer for the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival, where he hoped to put on a musical she had co-written. That didn't work out, but a decade later--after Taymor had won acclaim for her presentations of opera (Oedipus Rex), children's works (The Green Bird) and, last season, a Tony-nominated musical fable, Juan Darien--Schumacher approached her again. This time he asked whether she wanted to direct The Lion King. Taymor hadn't even seen the film, but after Schumacher sent her a videocassette and the sound track, she agreed to give it a try.

She built some prototype puppets out of cardboard, showed them to Disney executives--including chairman Michael Eisner--and got the job. She not only directs the show but has also designed the costumes and (with Michael Curry) the masks and puppets. The Disney folks scoff at the notion that she was a risky choice. "I don't think the Julie part is the risk," says Peter Schneider, president of Disney animation and theatrical productions. "Putting The Lion King onstage is the risk." Schneider and Schumacher have both been looking over Taymor's shoulder in Minneapolis, watching rehearsals and consulting with her after preview performances. "She is extremely open to collaboration," says Schneider. Taymor seems comfortable with her corporate kibitzers. "If you really know what you're doing and have a strong concept," she says, "you're much more willing to listen to other people."

But mostly, she asserts, "they let me do what I wanted to do." She has expanded the story a bit and added several engaging new songs, including three by Elton John and Tim Rice, the original composer and lyricist, and several African tribal numbers adapted from music written for the film by Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina. Getting her complex production into stageworthy shape, however, has not been easy. First, just before rehearsals started in Minneapolis, Taymor had to have emergency gallbladder surgery. Then, she faced a host of technical problems, from malfunctioning props to elaborate scene changes that couldn't be made quickly enough. For the first few preview performances, the show was forced to insert a pause just before the big wildebeest stampede to give the crew time to change the set. (Taymor has since inserted a new scene to bridge the gap.)

Taymor and the Disney executives admit that tensions were high before the first preview, which was attended by Eisner, on July 8, but they were greatly relieved when the show came off without a major hitch and drew an enthusiastic response from the audience. Theatergoers continue to burst into applause at least half a dozen times each night when they first glimpse Taymor's startling designs. Indeed, though the show has a way to go before it is ready for Broadway (some pruning of its 2-hr. 45-min. length would help), it is an ingenious and sometimes thrilling piece of stagecraft.

The technical problems haven't all been solved. In one performance, Simba's father Mufasa's mask fell off just before his big death scene. In another, characters who were supposed to fly remained stubbornly earthbound because of a cable foul-up. Taymor deals with such matters each day in a series of notes to crew members. "It felt very dark as the grass came in," she told stage manager Jeff Lee one afternoon, referring to the women wearing grass headdresses to represent the African savanna. A burst of unexpected applause from the audience covered up a key musical passage. Timon wasn't lighted properly in the waterfall scene. The wildebeest costumes were shedding.

The actors are feeling some wear and tear too. Though the puppets and masks have been made as lightweight as possible, a physical therapist has been kept busy treating sore backs and muscles. Then there's the challenge of learning to act while playing second fiddle to Taymor's models. Says Casella, who once played Doogie Howser's best friend on TV and didn't know the show involved puppets when he went to audition: "The first thing Julie told us was, 'Don't upstage the puppet.' As an actor, that's the last thing you want to hear." Taymor has nothing but praise for her game cast, which also includes John Vickery as the villainous Scar and Samuel E. Wright as Mufasa. "They have been unbelievably patient. No one has said, 'I can't do this.'"

The question is whether Broadway audiences, who now expect grandiose realistic effects like falling chandeliers and flying helicopters and sinking ocean liners, will take to her concept just as readily. "The most exciting thing is to reach an audience that has never seen [my work] before," she says. "If I were seven years old and watching this, it would change my idea about theater." Given the strikingly original work already on display in Minneapolis, that will be true for more than just seven-year-olds.


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