Getting to romp backstage with the lions at the Lyceum Theatre has to be one of the most fun things we’ve ever done in the West End. The Lion King’s opening Circle of Life is truly one of the great moments of live theatre, and being offered the chance to explore this enthralling backstage world is a genuine thrill.
We’re with Laura O’Toole, marketing co-ordinator for the London Production of Disney’s The Lion King. From the first moment Laura meets us at Stage Door, we can feel that she has a real passion for the show. There is a buzz about every part of the building and as we walk through to the stage we pass actors, crew, wardrobe and dozens of other people resetting for that evening’s performance.
The auditorium is beautiful, having been completely restored for The Lion King’s predecessor, Oklahoma. Our jaws fell open – it’s impossible not to feel like a kid, stepping onto the vast Lyceum stage and looking out at over 2,000 seats, allowing more than 16,000 people per week to see this magnificent spectacle. For many it’s their umpteenth visit, for others their first: for everyone it’s awe-inspiring.
Most striking is the incredible level of attention to detail. Huge claw marks scar the huge expanse of stage. Everywhere we look we see circles: The Circle of Life is more than just a song – it is one of the enduring themes of the show and the vision of gifted director Julie Taymor.
When Thomas Schumacher, the President of Disney Theatrical Group in New York was tasked with bringing The Lion King to life on stage, he thought it might be impossible – until he brought Julie Taymor on board. Julie has so much experience in so many different cultural forms of puppetry, performance and expression and lit the creative spark which have made the show a huge global hit.
Moving away from a literal representation of animals was truly inspired. The Lion King does not try to hide the puppeteers. Instead the actors and puppets live and breathe as one. The audience can see how everything works – something Julie Taymor describes as a “Double Event”.
In a sense, theatre is The Lion King’s natural home – the story of a Lion Cub trying to follow in his father’s footsteps draws many parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Despite the business of theatre going on around us, there is also a hushed reverence for the puppets and costumes.
The wings of the Lyceum (stage left) are relatively small. They have to accommodate a hugely impressive Elephant’s Graveyard not to mention an awe-inspiring array of the show’s puppet characters. The wings on the opposite side are tight to say the least. It’s a challenge – every inch of space is taken up with storage and organised with military precision. As we are backstage between matinee and evening shows, there’s a fair amount of maintenance going on. There are over 200 puppets in the show, plus spares which are kept up in the in-house puppet workshop – extras in case an understudy or swing has to come on. Each puppet is tailored to an individual performer, so if a swing has to cover, their harness must be adjusted and fitted to the puppet.
The Cheetah has a rotational head and strings which attach to the head of the dancer. The Cheetah’s body has a harness worn around the performer’s waist. It is this effect of having the puppet and the performer’s face on show together which Director Julie Taymor refers to as a “Double Event”. She believes that when an audience is let in to the technical mechanics of Live Theatre and how the magic is happening, they can suspend their disbelief even more strongly.
“When The Lion King opened on Broadway in 1997, it took existing art forms and used them in revolutionary ways.”
What Taymor was trying to do with all the puppets was maintain the essence of the animal, so for example trying to find the curve and grace of the Cheetah mirrored in the human experience and relationships of the performer.
We’re privileged to be allowed to handle the Cheetah. What’s striking is how light the body is. Many of the puppets are made of carbon fibre – strong and incredibly lightweight. The Zebra has a completely different texture – as many of the costumes and puppets as possible use natural fibres in their construction. The Zebra sits on the shoulders of the dancer which allows a completely different style of movement and physicality. The Zebra is designed to be much more bouncy and upward moving, more lively than the stealthy Cheetah.
Vital to the success of the show are its strong female characters. The stage show took the film and further developed the female roles. Rafiki became a woman – an incredibly wise and insightful narrator. In the film, The Circle of Life isn’t attributed to any one character but in the stage show, the number is given to Rafiki. She prophesises Simba’s return to the Pride and brings strength and balance.
Nala also develops an essential role in the stage production; it is Nala who goes to find Simba and bring him back, Nala who challenges Scar and fights to protect her pride. This gender balance was so important to Taymor.
Circles influence the show’s design and are evident both consciously and subconsciously throughout The Lion King. They are in both the sun and lake – even the antelope wheel runs on circles – so The Circle of Life really does transcend everything.
We descend beneath the Lyceum stage, deeper still into this magical world.
Under the stage are rows of stunning lioness head-dresses, all light as air. The bodies include cascades of silk and every day, even between shows, the wardrobe department will be checking every costume for any cracks or tears. The lioness corsets are made by hand and there are 30,000 beads on each – these are seriously heavy!
How the numbers stack up
- 37,000 – hours to build the puppets and masks
- 750 – pounds of silicone rubber were used to make the masks
- 232 – puppets in the show
- 106 – Ants on the “Ant-Hill Lady”
- 60 – lbs of grass used for the Grasslands Head-dresses
- 27 – kite birds in the show
- 25 – species of animals, birds, fish and insects represented in the show
- 18 – feet in height, the tallest animals in the show (exotic giraffes in the song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”
- 13 – feet in length of the elephant (it collapses to 34 inches wide to go down the theatre aisle)
- 11 – weight in ounces of Mufasa’s mask
- 9 – weight in ounces of Scar’s mask
- 5 – inches, the tiniest animal in the show (the trick mouse at the end of Scar’s cane)
There are buffalo heads from small to frankly enormous. The biggest heads are carried by dancers who somehow manage to move in them. We’re allowed to handle one and again it’s flabbergasting how light these vast props can be.
The cast does a two hour dance class once a week with the resident dance supervisor to keep on top of the style and format of moves required for such a unique show. Dance supervisor Thea Barnes has been with the show since it opened. There are so many styles of dance in the show – everything from ballet to breakdancing. The puppets themselves make different demands on performers; the giraffes require huge upper body strength, whereas others require more suppleness and cardio – the whole cast has to be incredibly fit.
Dancers have to jump out of their skins to create the effect of the gazelles leaping across the stage, providing one of the enduringly iconic images of The Lion King. Dancers carry a gazelle in each hand and also wear one on their head. It’s one of Laura O’Toole’s favourite moments too. “The height the dancers achieve is quite incredible and the choreography paints such grace and harmony between performer and puppet”.
Ensemble performers have an area at the side of the stage for their makeup. Between scenes makeup changes can be incredibly quick. There are even special brushes, tailor made to give the swipe of the scar from a lioness’ claws or zebra stripes in a single brushstroke.
One of the greatest challenges for Julie Taymor was to create a stampede on stage and to give the perception of the stage being deeper than it really is. Again, that’s where the idea of circles and rotation and “Double Event” are used to such effect and where the audience can see the mechanics of what’s happening, allowing their imagination to run free.
We walk a flight of stairs back in to the wings and rather eerily find ourselves in an elephant graveyard…where we meet Zazu.
Zazu is the most complex puppet in the show. Most performers have 6 weeks with their puppet when they join the company: Zazu takes three months to master, just because he’s so intricate. There’s a hand control for Zazu’s beak which is fitted specifically to each individual’s hand because the pressure of each performer’s digits is unique; Zazu’s eyes, wings and beak move – that’s without the dialogue, movement and acting!
Finding ourselves beside a giraffe, it’s amazing to see how small the hooves are, upon which each performer has to balance. The actors mount the giraffe costumes in the wings – the performer’s safety is paramount, so they can’t go on until they are completely secure. Even walking demands the most enormous core and upper body strength. But the design is so clever and to see them walking across the stage is spellbinding.
Finally, we meet Mufasa and Scar. Mufasa’s mask is symmetrical to represent his even temper, his stability and nobility. Scar has the only significantly asymmetrical mask to show his dishonesty and deviance. Both Mufasa and Scar have masks which can sit high above the performer’s head but also come down in front of their face – all managed through a remote control hand-piece. The actors have to manage all of that control while acting to ensure the whole performance is seamless – what they do is quite incredible and the physical exertion is enormous.
Perhaps the most remarkable about the puppet characters is that they are as impressive close up as they appear on stage – the detail is breath-taking and their beauty astonishing. The puppeteers check every puppet daily to make sure everything is up to scratch – in fact every department is meticulous in checking each element of the show so that every performance is perfect.
Buy Tickets for Disney’s The Lion King – the original London Production and discover the magic today!
21 Wellington Street, London, WC2E 7RQ
Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday 2.30pm