As this blockbuster show returns to Edinburgh, we speak to Disney's Richard Oriel about the secret of its wild success
Musical theatre is like a good meal: it's all about the ingredients. Bring in the best you can, make sure everything blends together well, and it'll be a hit. Never has that proved more true than with The Lion King, a show that has played to 100 million people worldwide.
That the musical started life as an animated film is just one remarkable aspect of its success. You can do pretty much anything on film, and if it's animated there really are no limits. Telling a story on stage is a whole other challenge, but one which Julie Taymor embraced with unrivalled creativity and vision. As director, costume designer and mask co-designer on the show, Taymor approached the adaptation with a clever simplicity. Yes, there is technical wizardry, but many of the theatrical methods employed date back over a hundred years. Crucially, she also assembled a strong team to work alongside her.
'I think the show's success is down to the incredible coming together of all these extraordinary people,' says Disney Theatrical's general production manager, Richard Oriel, who has worked on The Lion King for the past 20 years. 'It's led by Julie and her vision for creating a world of animals. But by bringing in all these other huge creative influences, it's an absolute potpourri of diverse talent.'
The talent Oriel refers to includes Lebo M who composed the African choral music, Elton John and Tim Rice who had already written songs for the film but added more, Hans Zimmer who composed the show's underscore, the choreographic style of Garth Fagan which is rooted in Afro-Caribbean dance, and Donald Holder whose lighting design recreates the African savanna on stage.
'Who would have thought you could assemble that group of people?' asks Oriel. 'But it absolutely delivered, and makes the show rich and textured on every level: musically, choreographically and visually. A lot of very simple theatrical tricks are used in the show, which is part of Julie's genius, and they challenge the audience to expand their imagination and buy into this rather unique world that's been created.'
Having travelled early on in her career, learning different forms of puppetry, Taymor was able to utilise a wide variety of styles in the show, so that everyone, and everything, from Simba the lion cub to a blade of grass, has a mask or puppet to help the performer step into the role. 'The show features pretty much every known puppetry technique,' explains Oriel. 'So the cast is taught a lot of very specific skills. For example, if you're playing Zazu or Timon you have a Bunraku puppet attached to the front of you. And our ensemble, who throughout the show play a variety of animals, flora and fauna, have to work very hard to make sure that whether they're wearing grass on their head or crouching as a hyena, that they're performing it in the right way.'
After opening in the West End in 1999, the show is currently on its second tour of the UK, where audiences can expect the same level of production values as those visiting its London home. 'We don't make compromises,' says Oriel. 'We build all our masks and costumes imagining that people are sitting three feet away from them; but they look just as remarkable 100 feet away. That attention to detail just heightens the theatrical experience. And we're fortunate that the show is maintained in that way and sufficiently well resourced, because an audience's expectation coming to see The Lion King is that it will be of the highest possible quality. That's the most important thing for us, to keep that going.'
The Lion King, Edinburgh Playhouse, Thu 5 Dec–Sun 29 Mar.
Written by: Roger Allers, Elton John (music), Tim Rice (lyrics), Mark Mancina (music & lyrics), Lebo M (music & lyrics), Hans Zimmer (music & lyrics), Julie Taymor (lyrics), Irene Mecchi
Julie Taymor's puppet-powered stage version of Disney's spectacular tale of a dead king and an errant son is a feast of exuberant theatre for the whole family, with show-stopping visual effects, gripping drama and plenty of laughs.