The bizarre, telling moment that puts "The Lion King" into perspective comes about two thirds through the first act. Because the audience applauds when Mufasa dies.
As most of you no doubt know, this Disney production (following on the heels of "Beauty and the Beast") is a theatrical adaptation of their most successful animated feature of all time, about the coming of age of a lion cub, Young Simba (Scott Irby-Ranniar), who will one day be King of the African Pridelands, after his father Mufasa (Samuel E. Wright). At least he's the next in succession. But his evil uncle, Scar (John Vickery) has other plans...
...and this is the moment when Scar's nefarious scheme comes to fruition. He has contrived to have Simba trapped, running for his life amid a stampede of wildebeasts, and alerted Mufasa, who of course races to rescue his son...which he does. But not without injury and not without draining the reserves of energy it would take to climb out of the gorge, over the cliff, to safety. Worse still, Scar is at the precipice, where he might easily help Mufasa over. He grabs his brother's paws in his own...and releases them. With a last, anguished cry of "Scaaaaaaaaarrrrrr!!!" Mufasa falls back, back, into the gorge, into the melee of thundering hooves, and when the dust clears...there is only his body. The good, noble, loving King is dead.
And the audience applauds.
Bear in mind that applause is a measure of audience approval; I'm talking here about applause that is strong, spontaneous and revealing, not the perfunctory, obligatory, ceremonial applause that might greet the end of a tepid number. And solid, earned applause in a musical happens for one of only four reasons:  a really great joke (or riposte to a straight line);  a really great song (sometimes a really great performance of a less-than-great song, but I won't explore that variation too deeply here);  emotional catharsis;  impressive visuals, a.k.a. showmanship. This last can mean anything from elegant scenery to elaborate choreography to some kind of physical/vocal dexterity.
What's fascinating about that list of four is--only the first three have to do with storytelling. The last--visuals/showmanship--is for that which exists outside of the story, and is a conscious acknowledgment of theatrical craft.
Well, Mufasa's death is not funny, nor is it sung about. So that takes care of one and two. And it sure isn't a catharsis: in fact it's a moment of heartbreak...the bad guy gets his way, the benevolent king has been murdered and his son is fatherless. You can see where I'm heading here...the only thing left to applaud is...
Showmanship? Visuals? Applaud that now? How the hell can you respond to something outside of the story now, at such a crushing moment? This should be stunning, devastating, Bambi's mother all over again, disturbing iconography at a primal level.
That is it should be disturbing...at least mildly sad, if we're wrapped up in the story.
Except most everybody in the audience already knows that Mufasa's going to meet his doom at Scar's hands, er, paws. Because they've already seen the movie. That's why most of them bought their tickets to begin with. That's why Disney commissioned this stage version. Not because of their altruistic love of high art; but because that movie made them enough money to fill the gorge in which the King met his doom. And because a stage version, if they could get a director to pull it off, would make them even more.
Well, in Julie Taymor they did get that director.
And so the audience applauds as the sound of hooves fades and Mufasa lies lifeless, because, ladies and geniuses...she solved the stampede.
I'll get back to that.
With Julie Taymor, Disney decided to give high art a try anyway. They're acquisitive, but they're not fools (that's why they can Disnify 42nd Street, don't kid yourself), and they could not have missed the industry antipathy to "Beauty and the Beast" despite the public acceptance. The theatrical community resented the literal transposition of the cartoon, the cheesy looking sets (one Tony-Award winning musical dramatist remarked, "$14 million for that?"), the intrusion of the company logo on the title (for formal purposes it was always "Disney's Beauty and the Beast") and the theme-park direction (even now, despite the success, Rob Jess Roth is never mentioned on anybody's A list...or B list...when "who will we get?" is discussed at the Broadway level).
So this time around, Disney decided to acknowledge that they were playing on turf they hadn't yet mastered, and to allow that turf a certain measure of homage. So they revamped and revitalized the decades-defunct New Amsterdam Theatre, which alone earned them a modicum of grudging respect. Then they took their name out of the title (the program reads: Disney presents "The Lion King")...and they sought out a director (and--Holy Political Correctness, Batman!--a woman director at that) who had made her career creating theatre pieces that combine puppetry with mask work and various esoteric international theatre disciplines (e.g. Kabuki)...and, most amazing of all, given Disney's reputation for being hard-assed (a prominent screenwriter once told me, "You begin negotiations assuming their contempt"), they agreed when she said--more or less--all right, but I'm not going to do the movie...I'm going to do it my way. Because they knew they needed her to achieve the theatrical legitimacy that had thus far eluded them. (A Tony-nominated director of musicals, who had at first been terribly skeptical about the project, remarked at the news of Ms. Taymor: "She's the perfect choice. Maybe the only choice. How could they be so smart?") (They're Disney. See above.)
What Ms. Taymor has wrought upon "The Lion King" is frequently nothing short of dazzling. The mask and puppet design (in collaboration with Michael Curry) manages to combine Disney, Africa and her own æsthetic. And unlike the stage version of "Beauty and the Beast", which uses makeup and costumes to render humans into animation characters, Ms. Taymor's costumes and puppets reveal the humanity behind the anthropomorphized animals; the duality of puppet and puppet master, animal and actor, is always visible. (As Mufasa, Samuel Wright wears a crown-mask, sitting atop his head, stylistically sculpted to resemble the cartoon Mufasa. In a moment of intimacy with his son, he merely lifts it off and sets it down. The fussy bird Zazu is a puppet manipulated by sticks--but Geoff Hoyle, the puppeteer/actor below is always visible: in a purple suit with striped piping and a long, feathered tail, a purple bowler hat and court jester face make-up; his shoes are long, orange pointy jester-shoes--representing Zasu's webbed feet. When Max Casella makes his entrance as meercat Timon, he's in a grass-green body suit with a Nehru-like collar, wearing a grass wig and green face make-up. The Timon puppet he inhabits and animates starts just below his chin: limbs and head attached variously by operation sticks to strategic places on the green suit's sleeves and torso, the meercat legs literally built into the front of the pants. Timon's tail emerges from the seat of Casella's pants, as if Timon has merged with him...which of course is the idea. As Young Simba, Scott Irby-Ranniar...is just a boy...wearing pants that sport a tail. The simplicity of the cub is as striking as the complexity of the rest.) And the opening number, "Circle of Life" that opens the show, with its growing gathering of creatures great and small, its gazelle-cycle, birds on sticks, opulent ribbed elephant is--in the most literal sense of the word--thrilling. Eye-popping. Wondrous. Whatever else you can say about the rest of the show, that first ten minutes will stay with you for life. For some it may even be worth the price of admission, all by itself.
Not only because it is infused with a singular vision, but because it sends a message loud and clear. That message being: she's done the impossible! She's found a way to theatricalize the movie!
It's when the novelty of that truth wears off that the excitement levels off as well. Because the rest of the evening becomes about--how will she solve this?--and--how will she make that happen? It becomes about anticipating stagecraft in the wake of the film rather than following a story and experiencing it on a visceral level.
Mufasa's death fall is the end of the stampede sequence. And it's a helluva stampede. And if we didn't know he was going to die, we'd feel something different, but we do know, which drains it of emotional suspense, but leaves the question of what it will look like onstage, and so, unwittingly, we applaud his execution rather than morn his loss. (Those wanting to know what the stampede is like, read the italicized paragraph below; those who'd rather be surprised, skip on down after the italics.)
We hear the rumbling of hooves. Young Simba starts running (in place on a circular disc). A window opens up in the backdrop behind him. Distant silhouettes of the charging creatures are visible cresting the horizon. Another, larger window opens in front of that one, the first still visible. The silhouettes are bigger, closer And moving. Yet a third window opens, larger still, and the chargers are now figurines on a roller, it keeps rolling (like a looped piano roll) and they keep coming and now two traps on either side of Simba open and from these emerge much bigger rollers and the figures on these are not "ines" and they keep rolling, rolling and finally a trap opens in front of Simba, and out comes a godalmighty gigunda roller with the largest figures attached to it of all and now Simba is surrounded...
No matter what genius Ms. Taymor displays, no matter how brilliant her solutions, she can never divorce herself from the movie; not from its moments, not from its character design, not from its dialogue, not from its music. For all that she has stamped the stage version indelibly with her vision, she has still made something of a Faustian bargain to do so, and she's still part of Disney's marketing machine.
I won't moralize about that...truly, I have no ethical stance, pro or con, even privately, Disney is now part of the theatrical landscape, they're providing needed work for artists, some of it lucrative work, and more and more A-list people are entering their stable. There's no denying that reality; as "Star Trek"'s super-baddies, the Borg say, resistance is futile...but it's a reality that does infuse the watching of "The Lion King" with a duality every bit as palpable as the one displayed by the actors' costumes.
Also contributing to the duality is the fact that, as a musical, it has not been sufficiently restructured or reinvented. Visuals aside, it is still, at heart, a 74 minute script that has been attenuated, and still contains those Elton John/Tim Rice songs, which were acceptable when supported (and camouflaged) animation, but which have little theatrical meat when exposed and left to fend for themselves in the mouths of live actors. All but "Circle of Life" are significantly more pallid onstage. John doesn't know how to shape a theatre song, so there are odd lyric scans and attempts at musical humor that are labored at best. And Rice's lyrics tend to tread thematic water, rhyming emptily, or regurgitating things we already know.
And the three new John-Rice songs written specifically for the show, frankly, suck.
I don't mean they're not to my taste. I don't mean I have problems with the stylistic imprimatur or the tone of the sensibility. I don't mean the craftsmanship is spotty. I don't mean they're not as successful as they should be.
I mean they purely, simply, objectively, embarrassingly, suck.
To the point where you wonder who at Disney was in charge that day. For all the quality control and theatrical legitimacy the Mouse House has striven to achieve, you'd think someone would've pulled those guys aside and said: "Tim...Timmy...
Elton...El-man...look, you're British, you're fun, you're cute, `Candle', even while she lived, a classic, `Argentina', how can I not cry...but guys, guys...we're gonna be doing this in front of people, y'know...?"
That said, some of the new music created by several other artists in collaboration with South African composer Lebo M adds a mood of authenticity that the John-Rice songs lack. Another duality.
As for the performances--again, a duality that is philosophical as well as physical. Max Casella is the perfect Timon because he so resembles the movie character--relatively speaking--in size and spirit. John Vickery's stentorian Scar offers brilliantly rendered villainy to accompany his beautifully operated puppet costume--and he remains utterly beholden to the persona created by Jeremy Irons' voice. Same for most of the rest. The only performances that are newly "created" are those of the "good" lions (the less extreme characters) young and old. There, humanity is the dominant feature, and the performers are given some room to breathe.
One can, in the end, look at this stage incarnation of "The Lion King" in a number of ways. As a product for the family market, its success goes without saying, for all the obvious reasons. As theatrical experience on its own terms...as I say, mixed. As a glimpse of the future...
Well, I think it's more a glimpse of Disney's theatrical future. Looked at alongside "Beauty and the Beast", and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (forthcoming, based on the animated feature, that with book and direction by James Lapine), they're still learning how to play, and this is an intermediary step. And like the Borg I glibly referred to earlier, they are beginning to assimilate at a frightening rate. (Translation of "frightening": unheard-of for Hollywood types.) Live-action versions of cartoons will never lose their theatrical duality, but perhaps these adaptations are merely a testing ground, experiments with proven material before the organization leaps off the precipice with something original, created directly for the stage. If, so, Disney is not being unwise. If so, they're doing their homework...with heavy ammo and heavy hitters. It's not the next adaptation of a cartoon whose ramifications we should wonder at...
...it's the musicals conceived for the stage that the Mouse gets right...
...imagine the Disnification of Broadway then...
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