Julie Taymor Roars
Bernstein, Jacob, Newsweek
Byline: Jacob Bernstein
The Broadway director is back with a vengeance.
The first thing you see at the beginning of The Lion King on Broadway is a giant orange circle. It appears in the form of the sun, the backdrop on stage, and, as the show's director, Julie Taymor, will tell you, it's intentional: a "leitmotif, like in opera" for the Circle of Life (which is itself the first song of the show), of giving and taking, of the ways in which we go from high to low and back again. Over the next two hours, terrible things happen: Simba, the young lion at the center of the story, witnesses the death of his father, is driven from the kingdom, retrenches in the wilderness, and learns, ultimately, how to fight back and claim his place at the top of the food chain.
"It's the circle of life and death," Taymor says. "The sun that rises at the beginning and sets at the end after an incredible tempest of events and dark times. And if you don't have those experiences your life is probably not as rich. And now I'm beginning to talk about myself."
She certainly is. In March of 2011, after becoming one of the most well-known Broadway directors of her generation, Taymor found herself a pariah when she was fired from Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the beleaguered Broadway musical adaptation of the Marvel comic-book series that she'd been developing for nine years.
In the press, Taymor, who was blamed for the show's myriad problems, became a caricature, a powerful woman brought to her knees for our enjoyment, the Martha Stewart of the theater world. Which Taymor finds more than a little unfair. "What did Martha Stewart do: something criminal," says Taymor, 59. "I didn't do anything criminal. That's the thing."
But after more than a year in the wilderness, Taymor is clawing her way back. In April The Lion King, which in many ways was the springboard for Spider-Man, broke the record for the highest-grossing Broadway show ever. Its box-office total in New York sailed past $850 million to surpass Phantom of the Opera, no small feat given that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has been running about a decade longer. Meanwhile, Spider-Man producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah Harris settled with Taymor's union and began paying Taymor's directing fees, which total nearly $1 million so far. (Although if there was an upside to getting stiffed, it was to reestablish Taymor as David to their Goliath. They are still haggling over royalties on the book.)
And so Taymor agreed to meet with me for what would be her first interview in months. We decided to go to a matinee of The Lion King, which she hasn't seen in a while. She says she is glad to be back, both because The Lion King can always use a tuneup, and because she loves her crew, some of whom have been there since the inception.
"Unlike other shows," Taymor says, clearly referring to Spider-Man, "I adore this whole team. It's just the most supportive group. Why does something work that's experimental, that's trying to break ground, that did break ground, that was risky? You have to have a group of people behind you who are going to be there for the long haul."
Taymor made her name doing wild, experimental productions of operas like Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (she's currently developing a movie based on the original story from which the opera is derived) and Oedipus Rex. As a director with a background in Shakespeare, Taymor went to Awaji Island, Japan, to study puppetry after graduating from Oberlin, and she brought that training, along with her obsession with mythology, to both The Lion King and Spider-Man.
"I came from the avant-garde," she says. "My aesthetic was very different."
That aesthetic helped make The Lion King--adapted from the Disney animated film--a runaway hit, winning it six Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Director. But it was hardly an easy birth. "We didn't know if this imagery was going to work with a mainstream audience," Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney's theatrical wing who hired Taymor, says of the elaborate puppetry she used in the show. …