The Lion King’s 5000th West End performance

Last week, I was invited to the Lyceum Theatre by Disney Theatrical to see the 5000th West End performance of The Lion King.

I’ve reviewed The Lion King before on the blog, so nothing else to add there. Once again, though, the main reason for my being there at all was to take photos for The Stage’s party page. Some will be in print in Thursday’s issue, but a selection are below.

Top 10 Disney films that should be stage musicals

Over the weekend came news that Disney’s theatrical division is working on some new adaptations of films from its back catalogue. Freaky Friday, Father of the Bride, The Jungle Book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dumbo are all in development, as is an adaptation of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and a reworked version of The Little Mermaid. Newsies and Aladdin had previously been announced.

Ironically, before that article was published I had been having a conversation on Twitter about Disney films that could be adapted for the stage, as a direct result from having reviewed The Lion King.

While the announcement above includes lots of new projects, I was left thinking: what other films from the House of Mouse could make the transition to the theatre? So here are ten of my suggestions, in a more-or-less-arbitrary Letterman-style countdown from 10 to 1. And note I’ve ignored many of the Perrault-inspired fairytale features (Cinderella, et al), which sail a little too close to the British panto oeuvre.

Which has the potential to be the next Lion King, and which the next Tarzan, I wonder?

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The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre

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.

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Big mouth strikes again

I’m quoted in a Guardian story about the continued success of The Lion King, which has taken over £34 million in box office revenues in its 11th year in the West End.

The only reason I got to quote was that the piece’s author, Maev Kennedy, happened to ring the Stage offices as this week’s issue was going to press, so our knowledgeable news team were all tied up. So Guardian readers were made party to my thoughts instead – both online from last night, and on page 3 of today’s print edition.

Scott Matthewman, of the Stage, said: “It looks as if a big family outing to a big West End show is not necessarily counted as discretionary spending, in the way that regular cinemagoers might cut back. The shows which generate repeat visits, and target a family audience – like The Lion King – are doing particularly well. The Lion King, with the might of Disney behind it, is also putting a lot into education outreach work, so if school children are going to pester to be taken to one London show, that’s going to be the one.”

I have no idea whether any of that is true. It’s just what came off the top of my head as the call came through. I might have had a better, more cogent theory if I’d actually seen The Lion King even once during its 11 year run. As it is, it’s yet another in an embarrassingly long list of West End stalwarts I have yet to see…