“The Lion King was interpreted as many things: an allegory for our times, a spiritual journey, a broad comedy, a Hamlet knock-off, another story forwarding the patriarchal structure, a cash cow, a timeless myth […] Not surprisingly, no one said it looked like a Broadway show in the making. Thomas Schumacher, President & Producer, Disney Theatrical Productions
We would be rather impressed to meet someone who hasn’t come across The Lion King’s iconic luminous yellow posters scattered across the country during its expansive 2012 UK tour. Luckily for us, October 2020 marks the show’s opening at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of the family musical, The Lion King is a theatrical adaptation of the 1994 box office success, following the story of a lion cub, Simba, whose beloved father, Mufasa, the King of the Jungle, is killed by his wicked, jealous brother, Scar. The film is inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, only it is a child-friendly, animated, musical film that features animals instead of incest.
Earlier in the day, it was announced that Nick Afoa will be playing Simba when the show comes to Manchester. A rugby player turned stage actor, Afoa has played the role of Simba for three years in the West End, after first playing it in Australia. (Jay is particularly excited about this; he had been hoping Afoa would do the tour).
The preview night at the Palace Theatre consisted of the musical numbers ‘Circle of Life’, the Academy Award-Winning ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’, ‘Shadowland’ (a number written especially for the theatrical adaption) and ‘He Lives in You’. These performances were interspersed between Damian Hunt (a former actor and son of Jan Hunt) and a lady called Olga presenting and explaining the process behind Disney Theatrical Productions, transforming the film into an equally successful theatre show, attracting over 100 million people worldwide.
Julie Taymor was heralded as the “genius” behind the show’s success, transcending capabilities of storytelling with her vision to combine innovative costume designs with the performers’ movements. Taymor’s vision as Director and Costume Designer led to Broadway history being made: she became the first woman in theatrical history to win the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical. We found this part of the presentation especially interesting as we had previously not considered just how challenging it must have been to tell a story about animal characters through human performers without it looking gimmicky. There had to be so much detail in the dance training and costume designs for it to be a convincing show.
We were particularly impressed by how the preview night actually answered the main burning question we had before arriving: what makes this any different to any of the past 20 years worth of The Lion King onstage?
The Disney representatives explained the production’s commitment to creating an inclusive audience experience. This includes having Access Performances for those with hearing or visual impairments, alongside Relaxed Performances for people with autism, sensory and communication needs or learning difficulties via lighting and sound tweaks to create a more friendly environment.
We were told that two-thirds of audience members during the first UK tour were first-time theatregoers. This was especially heartening to hear. We were encouraged to email the team any further suggestions on how to make the show even more inclusive and accessible. Even though 100 million people have seen The Lion King worldwide since its theatrical debut in 1997, the company is evidently committed to continuing the search to improve its accessibility for all, as opposed to being complacent with its commercial success.
The evening also brought our attention to the award-winning outreach Education Programme and its new addition, the ‘Circle of Life’ award, with free resources, lesson plans and workshops for teachers to use alongside watching the show. It was quite moving to consider all the children within Greater Manchester who will have the opportunity in October to see such an epic show within their own city and be able to take ownership of the play through the programme. For many children, The Lion King and the ‘Circle of Life’ award will be the first time they are taken to the theatre, and the company’s investment in creating a spectacular show to watch and an equally comprehensive study pack to engage with will undoubtedly spark the start of many of their interests in theatre. It was great to see that Disney Theatrical Productions are actually committed to investing in their target audience as opposed to creating content they can cash in on.
You can sign up for ticket alerts for The Lion King at ATG.