Thursday, January 8, 2015

Broadway Buzz: Disney's THE LION KING Takes Audiences on a Cultural Odyssey

Tshidi Manye as "Rafiki" in the opening  number
"The Circle of Life" from THE LION KING National Tour.
© Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
It's no secret that Disney's The Lion King offers audiences breathtaking interpretations of the African savannah and its native wildlife, all of which set to awe-inspiring choreography and exquisite costumes.  However, not quite as evident to those without a music or puppetry background is that The Lion King incorporates artistic customs inspired not just from Africa, but from around the globe!

First, and most noticeable, is the music.  The Lion King's musical score is influenced by both western popular culture and African rhythms.  The songs and the instruments are used to give the audience insights into each character as well as advance the story. 

When the decision was made to adapt the animated film into a musical, the creative team decided that additional songs would be needed in order to fully tell the story.  Specifically, The Lion King incorporated the work of musician Lebo M.  With his help, the score was able to tap into the complex and beautiful rhythms of South African music.  Lebo M. co-wrote music and lyrics that would add to the original songs that Elton John and Tim Rice created for the film, introducing American cast members to an African style of singing.

"World Music: The Rough Guide" states, "South Africa is distinguished by the most complex musical history, the greatest profusion of styles, and the most intensely developed recording industry anywhere in Africa."  In The Lion King, this passion is evident from the very first note to the final bow.

Patrick R. Brown as “Scar” in THE LION KING National Tour.
© Disney.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.
Also inspired by the cultures and customs of Africa are the masks used to give each actor their animal qualities.  In Africa, masks are considered a functional work of art, and they serve to breathe life into storytelling.  Director Julie Taymor was very inspired by African masks, describing them in The Lion King DVD as "more abstract, much more stylized, much more essential."  She, in partnership with puppet expert Michael Curry, decided to make masks that would not hide the person behind them.  They termed this the "double effect" where every mask allows the audience to see the both mask's fixed expression and the actor's varying and ever-changing face.

Next, we travel to Japan for a taste of Bunraku puppetry.  In The Lion King, we see large beautiful puppets on the stage, but we can also see the puppeteers operating them.  This style is derived from the Japanese tradition of Bunraku, named after its founder Uemura Bunrakuken.  Like the masks, the audience receives another "double effect" by getting information about the characters and the story through both the puppet's and the actor's movements on the stage.

Also used in The Lion King is shadow puppetry.  You may not have realized it, but you've probably practiced this form of storytelling when you were sitting by a campfire or using a flashlight in a dark room, using your fingers to create images on the wall.  It's fascinating that this form of puppetry has been around for thousands of years, potentially originating in Greece or even China.  When we meet Scar, he is hunting a mouse - here we see the Indonesian form of shadow puppetry called wayang kulit, where flat puppets are shown before a muslin screen.

So as the curtain goes up on your upcoming visit to the Orpheum to see Disney's The Lion King, we encourage you to keep an eye out for these fascinating cultural inspirations and take note of how much depth and beauty each element adds to the overall experience.  To discover even more about the show, it's influences, and how it went from screen to stage, download The Lion King's official study guide here.

Disney's The Lion King plays at The Orpheum Theatre February 3 - March 1, 2015.  Tickets are available for purchase at, by calling 866.870.2717, on the Orpheum website or by calling the Orpheum Box Office at 901.525.3000.

Source: The Lion King Study Guide, The Lion King Backgrounder

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