Queen of "The Lion King" Julie Taymor Used Masks, Puppetry and Other Stage Tricks to Transform the Disney Animated Film into a Broadway Musical. the Result Is a Box Office Bonanza - and a Work of Art

By Abarbanel, Jonathan | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 15, 1998 | Go to article overview

Queen of "The Lion King" Julie Taymor Used Masks, Puppetry and Other Stage Tricks to Transform the Disney Animated Film into a Broadway Musical. the Result Is a Box Office Bonanza - and a Work of Art


Abarbanel, Jonathan, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Jonathan Abarbanel Daily Herald Correspondent

When the Walt Disney Co. brought "The Lion King" to Broadway last December, the musical dazzled audiences, but that was no surprise. After all, the original animated film had a huge following, and Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" already had shown how an animated film could be transformed into a crowd-pleasing stage spectacle.

But then "The Lion King" started earning genuine respect from critics - critics who had admired "Beauty and the Beast" primarily for the size of its budget.

And last week, members of the theater community expressed their admiration by bestowing six Tony Awards on "The Lion King," including the award for "best musical" - the coveted prize that eluded "Beauty and the Beast."

Why did "The Lion King" arouse so much more praise than the lavish "Beauty and the Beast?"

The answer lies in the gorgeous look of the show.

Audiences gasp when the show begins and they see a life-sized giraffe gallop across a savannah rendered in burnt orange and flaming yellow. The giraffe, like so many of the animals in the show, is animated by a human, plainly visible on stilts, whose head serves as the base for the animal's long neck. Other animals, some of them puppets and marionettes, cavort throughout the show.

The Tony Awards committee acknowledged the stunning appearance of "The Lion King" by bestowing an award on Richard Hudson for his set design, Donald Holder for his lighting, and Garth Fagan for his choreography.

But two of the awards went to Julie Taymor - the person most responsible for "The Lion King's" deep visual impact.

Taymor received awards for her direction of the musical, but also for her costume design - an integral part of the show.

As director and co-designer, Taymor determined how the animated film would come to life, and, somehow, she persuaded Disney to go along with her unusual conception.

The result was so dazzling that The New York Times published an editorial praising her - and praising Disney for letting her do it her way.

Her imaginative choices, the editorial stated, "demonstrate the agility and imagination of Ms. Taymor and her colleagues. But they also demonstrate something even more striking - the Walt Disney Company's willingness, in this case, to reinvent a known, and fabulously profitable product, not by dumbing it down to live action, as in the stage production of 'Beauty and the Beast,' but by allowing Ms. Taymor to test the limits of representation and theatricality."

Whew! Heady praise indeed!

Taymor earned this praise with one of the first decisions she made after accepting the challenge of bringing "The Lion King" to the stage.

Instead of trying to duplicate the look of the animated film, as "Beauty and the Beast" had done, she would re-create - indeed expand - the story.

A work of art

As a result, "The Lion King" is not only a commercial hit, but a work of art as well.

Taymor used masks, puppets and animal costumes, but not just the familiar sort. She also incorporated traditional Asian stick and shadow puppets - techniques she previously had applied to her interpretations of Shakespeare and other classics.

Not widely known to general theater audiences, Taymor had directed on Broadway only once before, but she was highly regarded as an innovative director of Off-Broadway shows, regional theater productions and opera.

In "The Lion King," Taymor decided, some puppets would be worn like clothing, others would be mechanized in clever and unexpected ways (such as wildebeest mounted on tricycles). Animal costumes would be nothing like the Mickey Mouse or Goofy "suits" one sees at Disneyland.

Since the animal characters from the smallest bird to the largest elephant are anthropomorphic - that is, imbued with human processes of thought and feeling and speech - Taymor declared it essential that the human bodies and faces always be visible within the masks and costumes, or beneath the strings and sticks. …

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