Of all the animated musical films produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation since The Little Mermaid signalled the rebirth of the genre, the Lion King musical stands as one of the greatest (and I say that as one of Ashman and Menken’s biggest fans). The involving story of a scheming uncle who kills his brother, the king, before usurping the throne that rightfully belongs to his young nephew has often been compared to Hamlet – and while I think that’s an oversimplification that does neither work any favours, The Lion King is certainly more Shakespearean than it is the Andersen/Perrault fairytale that is the Disney studio’s more usual stamping ground.
One thing that’s noticeable, though, is how Western the original film is. With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and a score by Hans Zimmer, aurally its feet are square in the Euro-American tradition of the musical. Save for the opening strains of The Circle of Life, many of the songs show no sense of place, no indication that the story is taking place on the African plains. Even Hakuna Matata, which takes its title from a Swahili phrase, is arranged as a Dixieland foot-stomper, bringing to mind The Jungle Book’s Bare Necessities.
The success of the film and its accompanying soundtrack CD saw a more interesting “sequel” CD, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, which saw the film’s existing songs and score rearranged, mixed with new and traditional African melodies to produce a wonderful fusion of styles.
It’s a shame that Rhythm of the Pride Lands is so hard to find these days, as it provides a clear bridge between the animated film and the stage musical, which I got to see for the first time last night, a good ten years after it first opened in the West End.
The resultant stage show is an engaging mix of styles, with big Broadway-style numbers sitting alongside traditional African dance. Truth be told, in places the different styles appear to be competing with one another, and I found the numbers which embraced African musical and dancing styles wholeheartedly by far the most effective.
The typical Disney trait of anthropomorphising animals to give them human characteristics is achieved in several different ways. Many background characters are depicted using a variety of puppetry techniques, from simple shadow puppets to huge, multi-person elephants. The principal lions, hyenas and Rafiki, the shamanistic baboons, retain a more human form, with a variety of headdresses and masks helping to accentuate various characters’ more feline characteristics (for instance, as the evil Scar slinks across the stage, the way his mask extends in front of him helps elongate his body in a predatory, cat-like manner). And then there are the comedy backup characters, Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa. Their visual design is the closest the stage production comes to slavishly copying the film. At the same time, though, all three performers achieve the most difficult job, of imbuing their puppet work with such charm and character that we have no difficulty at all ignoring the human operator, seeing only the character into whom they breathe life.
The necessities of a theatre performance mean that some of the big scenes from the movie – most notably Mufasa’s fall to his death in the middle of the wildebeest stampede – lose the gut-wrenching quality that made the film such a hit in the first place. Bt that’s more than made up for in the visuals throughout. Indeed, the stampede itself is an impressive spectacle, although I suspect it looks even better from the stalls than it did from our seats in the Royal Circle.
Recently, one first act number, The Morning Report – a new addition for the play that did not appear in the film – has been dropped from the production. In some ways I can see why this has been done – from hearing it on the Broadway cast recording, it feels out of place musically, a retro list number that sounds more akin to the Sherman Brothers era of Disney musicals. Dropping it helps shorten a first act which is a tad overlong even without it. But in its absence, there is a substantial section of Act I which consists of little but expeditionary dialogue and setup, which causes even the most hardened of theatregoers to grow a little impatient.
A bigger problem last night (apart from a couple of weak performances from understudies – hey, it happens) was the quality of the sound mixing. Some performers were clearly audible throughout, others fared better when singing than when talking, or vice versa. The hyenas in particular, though, were more or less inaudible. In a show such as this, the sound challenges are not inconsiderable – not only do the orchestrations demand substantial percussion which could easily drown out voices, but you also have to contend with an audience that sees the loud bits as occasion to shout to their neighbour, and the quiet moments for foreign parents to loudly provide instantaneous translation for their children. I don’t think any of last night’s sound problems were a result of the more unruly elements of the audience, but their incessant chatter certainly didn’t help when it was a genuine strain to hear what was on stage anyway.
More than a decade since it first hit the West End, I am sure that the production is not quite as tight as it would have been on the first night. Despite any scrappiness that has crept in since, though, it is still a visual spectacle that is unlike anything else in the West End. I’m sure it won’t be another ten years before I make a return visit.