Photo BY MATHEW MURPHY, courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust
Since 1997, 85 million people have seen “Lion King: The Musical.” Throughout nearly 20 years of performances, audiences have delighted in the most classic moments: Rafiki’s blessing, Scar’s betrayal, Timon and Pumbaa’s carefree chorus, and the like. And while the chords of “Hakuna Matata” morphed into a mark of childhood, director Julie Taymor and a crew of dancers, singers, and actors prepared what would soon become the highest grossing show in Broadway’s history. The very first audience to lay eyes on that monumental piece was right in Minneapolis.
“We knew we had something, but we weren’t fresh to it like a new audience was,” says Taymor. “When we got to Minneapolis and did our first preview we were completely unprepared for the audience’s response.” The audience engaged with fervor, proving to Taymor and the cast that they were doing something right. The show worked out its kinks in Minneapolis, sending the well-vetted version back to the east coast and its iterations around the world.
When catering to international audiences, with each new country comes a new tweak. “This show becomes owned by every country that performs it,” says Taymor, noting that adapting to regional lingual trends and cultural humor is vital to create a genuine connection with the audience. “You can’t have Borsch Belt Humor in Shanghai.”
With each new casting for a show, “The Lion King” didn’t only establish itself as an international success, but a pluralistic standard for Broadway. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t brag about it, but the fact is there was no show more non-white on Broadway than ‘The Lion King,’ and what was phenomenal about it was that it wasn’t about race or racism,” explains Taymor. “It was always about racism in America somehow when African Americans were featured on Broadway,.”
In 1997, there was little mainstream effort at inclusion and diversity in theater productions. Major Broadway actors were overwhelmingly white, and those who weren’t were usually cast in a production centered around race. So when Minneapolis audiences experienced a more representative casting, the show became “all about race in a good way. Finally, a young kid could see a Black king.”
Now, musicals like “Hamilton” are lauded for their pluralistic efforts, but Taymor affirms that “The Lion King” was a quiet trailblazer in its early casting.
The Lion King
Now through Sunday, August 7
Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Buy tickets here