In a sense, it’s a tale as old as time – of a youngster coming of age and coming into his own. The fact that it was told by cartoon lions and hyenas notwithstanding, the fully animated feature-length film presented by one of the world’s most recognisable brands was a hit.

That’s true whether talking about the Disney animated film or the musical that was born of it.

In some ways, The Lion King is a remarkable story, not just for its storyline but for the tale’s genesis.

Many films or stage shows are interpretations of some previous work or an individual’s remarkable deed. Generally, Walt Disney Pictures follows form.

However, unlike their standard fare (think; Beauty and the Beast) The Lion King is Disney’s first wholly original animated film – meaning that writers and producers brainstormed the whole story from start to finish.

Although unanimously praised, it endured harsh criticism, especially from Japanese audiences for its parallels to the anime series Kimba the White Lion.

All of the above refers to the Disney film. What about the stage show?

Now, Superprof tells a different story: how The Lion King wowed audiences around the world, how it adapted to cultural elements wherever it played and how mere actors became marvellous jungle beasts.

You should know that it is not easy for the average performer to turn into a reasonably credible giraffe

We have front-row seats to the stage production of The Lion King and the curtain is about to go up!

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The Lion King: a Synopsis

The artistry of Lion King unfortunately meant the performers had to wear corsets
For Lion King Live, performers had to sing wearing tight corsets - as Alphonso Jones does in his role as young Simba Source: Wikipedia Credit: Alphonso Jones II

It’s morning on the savanna. A proclamation has caused all of the animals to gather at Pride Rock for the presentation of the Lion King’s scion, Simba.

Rafiki approaches, staff in hand. He utters an incantation and breaks open what looks like a pomegranate. With the juice, he marks the newborn lion cub. He then sprinkles dust, which causes Simba to sneeze. Rafiki then takes the baby lion and holds him aloft, presenting him to the rest of the kingdom. All of the animals bow.

Simba is a frisky young lion, always seeking adventure and occasionally getting in trouble.

One such time, his father chases him through the gorge to rescue him from a stampeding herd of wildebeest. Simba comes out of the ordeal shaken but unharmed; the same cannot be said for his father, Mufasa.

Scar, Simba’s uncle, who orchestrated the stampede expressly to end Mufasa’s reign, urges his nephew to run away before anyone can discover that he played a part in his father’s – the king’s death.

The evil Scar adroitly plays young Simba’s guilt against him. It takes the now-adolescent lion a long while and a chance encounter with his childhood playmate to realise that, in fact, he had no hand in his father’s death… but that knowledge comes much later.

After years in the company of his friends Timon and Pumbaa, he must return to Pride Rock, fight the evil that has decimated his home and claim his rightful place as the Lion King.

Laden with symbolism, The Lion King depicts a commonplace event – growing up, wrapped in questions of morality.

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The Story Behind the Story

This tale draws on elements of the Bible, specifically fleeing one’s home, as Moses and Jacob did. You could also draw parallels with Cain and Abel and most certainly recognise a devil in Scar’s character.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is plainly evident in Simba. Virtually every facet of the young lion mirrors Hamlet, from the loss of his father and running away to the moral dilemmas he wrestles with.

Finally, The Lion King is a tale that everyone can relate to: coming of age is not easy whether you are human or lion. Stepping up, eschewing the easy life and accepting responsibility are all a part of growing up.

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Who Played Simba?

Unlike some shows to play on Broadway and, after their successful run, go on tour, The Lion King characters were all local to the theatre the show played in.

For instance, Japanese audiences enjoyed performances from an all-Asian cast while, in African countries, local actors took the roles.

Furthermore, most countries translated the show and songs into their native language – save, of course, for that opening call:

Ingonyama ingwe’ enamabala

There is much to be said about the symbolism of the opening song and scene, and even about that chorus line, spoken in Zulu.

We’ll talk more about the music in the next segment.

To give you a snapshot of which actors played what role in which country, we’ve compiled the following list.

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Lion King Casts

CharacterWest EndBroadwayParisHamburgJohannesburg
Young Simba
Roger Wright
Luke Youngblood
Jason Raize
Scott Irby-Ranniar
Jérémy Fontanet
Sofiane Ledhem
Gino Emnes
Otis Jacinto
Andile Gumbi
Tshepiso Morake
Young Nala
Paulette Ivory
Dominique Moore
Heather Headley
Kajuana Shuford
Léah Vincent
Ketsia Toto
Malia Zoungrana
Tsholo Monedi
Hlengiwe Maseko
MufasaCornell JohnSamuel E. WrightJean-Luc GuizonneMichael Edward-StevensSello Maake-Kancube
ScarRob EdwardsJohn VickeryOlivier BreitmanMarc HetterleMark Rayment
TimonSimon GregorMax CasellaChristian AbartOliver GricePeter Mashigo
PumbaaMartyn EllisTom Alan RobbinsFabrice de La VillehervéLakke MagnussonPierre van Heerden
RafikiJosette Bushell-MingoTsidii Le LokaZama MagudulelaVelephi Patricia MnisiBuyisile Zama
Stephanie CharlesTracy Nicole ChapmanCéline LanguedocAnastasia BainCandida Mosoma
BanzaiPaul J. MedfordStanley Wayne MathisValery RodriguezJerrel HoutsneeSimon Gwala
EdChristopher HoltKevin CahoonMickaël ViguierEnrique SeguraMichael Bagg
ZazuGregory GudgeonGeoff HoyleDavid EgurenJoachim BenoitLyall Ramsden
SarabiDawn MichaelGina BreedloveMelina M'PoyAraba WaltonZoe Mthiyane

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The Lion King was choreographed by Garth Fagan
The Lion King musical makes use of puppetry to bring the animals to life Source: Wikipedia

The Music of the Lion King

You would probably be hard-pressed to find anyone who has seen The Lion King that doesn’t know that Sir Elton John wrote all of the songs and Sir Tim Rice wrote all of the lyrics.

Additional musical elements for the show were scored by Hans Zimmer.

What you might not know is that the stage show reprised all of the songs of the original film and added two more.

Zazu’s Morning Report was original to the film but was edited out. In the musical, it was sung by young Simba, Mufasa and Zazu during the show’s first run on Broadway. Regrettably, it was cut from subsequent performances.

Sir Elton further enriched the stage show with Chow Down, sung by the hyenas as they chased Simba and Nala through the elephant graveyard.

Other songs not featured in the original film include The Madness of King Scar, The Grasslands Chant, They Live in You and Rafiki Mourns.

The only condition Sir Elton attached to his providing the music for the film was that at least one song would be a ballad that would play well on the radio; he made no such stipulation for the stage show’s additional music.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the award-winning ballad Sir Elton penned is Can You Feel The Love Tonight but it wasn't the only song from the Lion King soundtrack that made it to radio; Circle of Life also got substantial airplay, peaking at #11 on the UK Singles charts.

Hakuna Matata, another award-winning song, did not garner any radio play but is universally recognised.

Les Miserables has some pretty memorable songs too

Differences between Film and Show

Overall, the stage show remained true to the original film.

Besides the additional music and the scenes they depicted, there were a few notable differences between the stage and screen versions of the story.

  • In the film, Nala was supposed to be exiled for refusing Scar’s advances; that explains why, in the film, she is roaming around alone when she meets up with adolescent Simba. The scene was included in the stage show.
    • Her banishment was scrubbed from the film because of the implication of sexual harassment would not have been suitable for young audiences.
  • Julie Taymor, the Broadway producer, noted that the story had essentially no female leads – unlike, say, the Broadway show Chicago. She made Rafiki female, a direct contradiction to the film.
  • The Lioness Hunt – both the song and the scene did not feature in the movie. For the show, an elaborate dance was choreographed, made all the more difficult to execute because of the large, bulky headgear the lionesses wear.
  • Timon is one of the most difficult characters to play because that actor had to work the puppet attachments of his costume, straining his arms, back and neck – rather a contradiction to his easygoing nature.

In all, the live-action film that Disney Studios released this year comes close to capturing the feeling that the original film evoked but one might rightly say that the stage show raised the bar on any future Lion King endeavours.

Your turn to chime in: how do the most popular musicals compare from stage to screen?

The Broadway staging of Lion King earned the show a Tony Award for best choreography
The Lion King opened at the New Amsterdam theatre in New York in October 1997 Source: Wikipedia Credit: Andreas Praefcke

Production Notes

The Lion King Broadway show was nominated in 11 categories and took Tony Awards for best musical, best direction, best choreography, best costumes and best scenic and lighting design.

In London, it was nominated eight times; it won the Lawrence Olivier Award for best choreography and best costume design.

Did you know? Julie Taymor didn’t just direct the show, sh designed the production and the costumes.

In France, The Lion King swept their awards ceremonies and, in Australia, it took Best Musical and Best Costume Design awards, among others.

Initially thought to be a minor production, it The Lion King debuted far from New York. Its overwhelming success brought it to Broadway stage three months later.

It moved to the Minskoff Theatre, another house in New York’s theatre district, to make way for another Disney theatrical production, Mary Poppins.

Still, its raging success meant it would continue to play; to date, with more than 9,000 shows, The Lion King is Broadway’s third-longest running musical.

In London, the show opened at the Lyceum Theatre in 1999 and hasn’t stopped running yet. Members of the cast twice performed at the Royal Variety Performance with senior members of the Royal family in attendance.

If you’ve not yet seen The Lion King musical, you still have a chance to do so! After all, how could anyone pass up the chance to visit the Pride Lands?

Now discover the story behind the hit musical, Hamilton...

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