"Hakuna Matata" is just one of the songs that helped make "The Lion King" a hit on the screen. It's also helped make "The Lion King" a big hit ON BROADWAY -- an enduring hit that goes on and on. With Mo Rocca now we get the lion's eye view:
"So, imagine you've got this big feet and if you're Rafiki. If you're Mufasa, you have a big headdress on. By the way, do not bump your head on the sun!"
Ascend Pride Rock on the Broadway set of "The Lion King" with Thomas Schumacher, and you'll understand why the president and producer of Disney Theatricals feels like something of a proud papa.
"'The Lion King' employs 1,100 people," he said. "It's been in eight or nine languages."
"The Lion King," originally a blockbuster animated feature, has been an even bigger hit on stage. "It has grossed more than all 'Star Wars' movies combined, which is a startling statistic!" Schumacher said.
The story of the lion cub Simba, who goes on a journey of self-discovery before returning to reclaim the throne of his murdered father, Mufasa, has ruled over the theatrical landscape for 20 years now … so long it's hard to remember how audacious (and to some preposterous) the idea of bringing it to the stage once seemed.
"I thought it was going to be an impossible task," said Sir Elton John. "How are they going to make the animals look real? I thought they were going to use, like, baseball mascots and stuff like that -- 'This is gonna be really cheesy!'"
But when opening night came, Sir Elton, who co-wrote the music, says he was at a loss for words. "When I saw it my mouth went (mouth drops). And I had goose bumps the whole time. It was just astounding."
Sir Elton, Schumacher and, well, everyone agree it's director Julie Taymor who elevated the material and deepened its meaning as it went from two dimensions to three.
"I thought, 'If I'm going to take what is an animated film and put it on stage, I must do what theater does best," she said.
Which meant drawing on the years she'd spent studying puppetry in Indonesia and Japan.
No detail was too small for Taymor, who also designed the costumes. And to make sure the Broadway show was more authentically African, she called on composer and singer Lebo M. An exile from apartheid-era South Africa, he wrote new music for the stage version, and was featured in the original cast.
"The journey and story of Simba became my personal story," he said. "I have all those experiences into adulthood. I leave South Africa a young, vulnerable kid, become an adult, and experience a professional life."
Lebo M. co-wrote the song "He Lives in You," when Simba realizes that that while his father, Mufasa, may no longer roam the savanna, he isn't really gone.
Sir Elton said, "That song -- which I didn't write -- is one of the most magical songs. When you lose somebody special, and I've lost a lot of special people in my life, they stay with you."
Even this long into the run, the show sells out virtually every performance.
Rocca asked, "Why do you think it keeps running like this?"
Schumacher replied, "I think there's something deep inside what 'The Lion King' says. It opens with 'Circle of Life.' We've all heard it a million times. But it means that there will be a time after you."
A message that hit home for Julie Taymor the very night "The Lion King" opened.
"On opening night, my father didn't show up," she recalled. "My mother came, she sat down next to me, there was an empty seat. And I said, you know, 'Where's Mel?' I called him by his first name. She said, 'Don't worry, it's gonna be okay.'
"I go, 'What are you talking about, what do you mean? What are talking about?' And so we're having this discussion and my father went into the hospital and my father never got to see it. This is the twentieth anniversary of that time as well, of the loss of my dad."
Over the years, Taymor has overseen each production of the show. We were there for the first meeting of the newest tour when, impromptu, members of the cast stood up to sing -- what else? -- "The Circle of Life."
"We listen to these words and we think about our lives here and the idea that spirit of a person you love does not disappear completely, that you must carry it on," Taymore said. "As different as we may be, our life experiences as human beings are exactly the same. And this is the power of theater."
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