The Lion King has broken box office records as the fastest selling musical in Abu Dhabi’s history…

An inspirational score, breathtaking costumes and an iconic story: The Lion King musical, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, has made its mark on the world. The tale is familiar for most: a young lion named Simba, an animal kingdom, and a wicked uncle trying to usurp the throne.

Most came to know this story from the cartoon feature film released by Disney in 1994, but its popularity skyrocketed after a musical adaptation was introduced to Broadway. But how did The Lion King stage show come to be? A risk-taking director, a speedy premiere outside of Broadway and unique theatrical story telling all played a part in creating one of the most popular musicals of all time.

Making the musical

In the search for a musical adaptation for The Lion King, Disney tapped Julie Taymor – at the time 44 years-old – who was known for her experimental puppetry and risk-taking theatre productions. She hadn’t even seen the movie and wasn’t sure if she would want to take the job because she didn’t believe Disney and her aesthetic could match. After an initial viewing of The Lion King, she saw many elements that are timeless in storytelling: a young man outcast from his home, royalty seething for power, tales of romance and innocence.

Taymor began workshopping the musical in August 1996 and later premiered it for the top Disney executives. All the biggest risks were taken, including changing Rafiki to a female character because Taymor believed there was a lack of a strong female lead in the story.

With brilliant details, musical vitality and relentless energy, this musical theatre adaptation of a Disney classic took the stage soaring, and in July of 1997, the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota debuted The Lion King, The Musical.

At the time of its first public premiere, Taymor expressed that she expected to see many audience members show up to see if she had sold out to the powerhouse that is Disney – curious if she would create a musical much like a theme park attraction. On the contrary, Taymor was picked for her reputation of taking risky decisions; she was urged to do the unexpected. In the end, Taymor succeeded in meeting her goal: “catch the essence of the movie but not do the movie.”

Iconic milestones

November 13, 1997, marked the opening for The Lion King’s Broadway debut, to which it was met with rave reviews across the Big Apple, including the New York Times, who described it as “irresistible, refreshing, sophisticated, nothing else like it.”

With notable success and six Tony awards, the musical went international. In London’s West End, the Lyceam Theatre welcomed The Lion King on October 19, 1999, and 23 years later continues to wow audiences young and old.

Today, The Lion King has been seen by over 110 million people worldwide in over 100 cities across 21 countries, and now you can be one of them. In a first for the region, The Lion King roars into Abu Dhabi for an historical four-week run in the UAE capital from November 16 to December 10 at Yas Island’s Etihad Arena. Don’t miss out.

The Lion King by numbers

200 – The number of puppets – rod puppets, shadow puppets, and full-sized puppets – used throughout the performance to recreate the animals on stage

5.5 metres – The height of the giant giraffes where actors, trained in stilt-walking, climb ladders to fit inside

6 – Indigenous African languages spoken on stage: Swahili, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Congolese, and the click language Xhosa. Fun fact: ‘hakuna matata’ means ‘no worries’ in Swahili

70 – The number of major international theatre awards won, including six 1998 Tony Awards

25 – Animals, birds, fish, and insects represented throughout the show, including 39 hyenas and a whopping 52 wildebeest

What’s On chats with Simba

Having played the role of Simba on Broadway, as well as in the West End, Las Vegas, and North American tour, Dashaun Young chats to What’s On about his unconditional love for the show…

You’ve played the role of Simba since 2007. Do you remember how you felt when you first landed the role?

I felt extremely overwhelmed, proud, and ridiculously nervous to take on such an iconic beast of a role.

Can you still feel the love for the role so many years on?

Absolutely! Never have I done a show that has challenged me to push myself so much as an artist. The physicality of the role alone is so much more than any typical musical theatre part. I consistently have to figure out how to keep my body, voice and mind in tip-top shape to perform this character on a nightly basis. However, I love a challenge. Growing into this role has been a fun education in adapting.

Have you felt like you’ve changed the way you’ve played him or understood him as you’ve become older?

I believe my performance in this role has matured. I’ve fine-tuned my delivery to create a much more well-rounded and truthful portrayal of Simba. When I first played the role, I had never experienced true love or the loss of someone I was close to. I tried to tap into my understanding of those themes, hoping those emotions would be conveyed to the audience. Now I truly understand what life can feel like and it’s brought me to a more truthful interpretation of Simba on stage.

What do you think it is that audiences like the most about The Lion King Musical?

I believe Abu Dhabi audiences will enjoy the entire show – it’s truly a one-of-a-kind spectacle.

How do you hope Abu Dhabi audiences will react?

I’m hoping the show generates lots of excitement during the Abu Dhabi season. The story is so beloved for audiences and the musical has never visited the region before. I believe audiences will be overcome with emotion, much like all the other engagements we’ve played on this tour.

Do you have a favourite scene from The Lion King musical that still impresses you?

Circle of Life is still to this day my absolute favourite part. There is a moment when Rafiki finishes calling to everyone that the future king has been born. Once the lights come up and reveal the procession walking towards Pride Rock, you see animal puppets for the first time. You regularly hear audience members gasp, applaud, or rise to their feet in admiration. It’s absolutely magical.

This is a huge moment for theatre in Abu Dhabi. What would you say to encourage people to see it?

You simply cannot miss it. It’s one of the most unforgettable experiences you can have. The cast of the International Tour are so excited to get back together for the Abu Dhabi season and I truly feel it’s going to be a very special moment for us.

Images: Provided