“Lion” Pride: Disney’s Spectacular “Lion King” Celebrates 20 Years on Broadway

“The Lion King,” the Tony Award-winning Best Musical that created a new definition for spectacle in its eye-popping production, has reached a new plateau—not only in the African plains but also on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre—after celebrating its 20th anniversary on November 13th.

The story of lion cub Simba became an unprecedented worldwide phenomenon. Audiences of all ages were dazzled by its imagination, color, music, and joy.

Props go to costume designer and mask co-designer Julie Taymor, who became the first woman in Broadway history to win the Tony for best director of a musical. Taymor stays in frequent touch with the show and has a team in place to keep it fresh.

At a November 5 gala performance, many original cast members, Taymor, and composers Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice were on hand. There’s also going to be an unheard-of special gift to lucky “Lion King” lovers: a free —that’s right, free—performance on November 15.

Jelani Remy (Simba), Adrienne Walker (Nala), L. Steven Taylor (Mufasa), Stephen Carlile (Scar), Fred Berman (Timon), Ben Jeffrey (Pumbaa), and Cameron Pow (Zazu) co-star in the cast of 52. To keep the musical faithful to its African origins, South African performers have been integral members of the company. There are six indigenous African languages spoken in the show: Congolese, Sotho, Swahili,Tswana, Xhosa (the “click” language), and Zulu.

“The Lion King” is the third longest-running musical in Broadway history, just behind “Chicago” and the champ “The Phantom of the Opera.” The production has been seen by over 90 million in 19 countries—on every continent except Antarctica.

Tshidi Manye as Rafiki and Ensemble. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The show’s award room is crammed with honors from around the world. Here, it garnered six Tonys, including Best Musical, and, among numerous other honors, the New York Drama Critics Award for best musical. The Grammy-winning cast CD is certified platinum. In the U.K., TLK won London’s Evening Standard Award for Theatrical Event of the Year and Olivier Awards for choreography and costume design.

TLK’s music is a fusion of Western popular music and distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa. The majority of the Tony-winning score is by Elton John and Tim Rice. Contributing additional music is Hans Zimmer, who wrote the movie score. Songs include: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” [Oscar, Best Song], “Circle of Life,” the vastly popular “Hakuna Matata,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “They Live in You,” and the haunting ballad “Shadowland.”

The book has been adapted by Roger Allers, who co-directed Disney’s animated feature, and Irene Mecchi, who co-wrote the screenplay. Choreography is by Jamaican modern dance master Garth Fagan.

Since the musical’s 1997 Broadway premiere, there have been national tours and 24 productions mounted worldwide. Worldwide grosses exceed that of any entertainment title in box office history. TLK is still a solid hit on London’s West End.

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia: The production features a menagerie of more than 230 giant puppets, representing antelope, baboons, birds, elephants, giraffe, hyenas, lions, meerkat, and warthogs. Tallest, of course, are the 18-foot giraffes; the biggest is the elephant, which stands only five feet shorter.

To make “The Lion King painstakingly accurate, hair and make-up designer Michael Ward drew inspiration researching various African tribes. One of the behind-the-scenes craftspersons is make-up supervisor Elizabeth Cohen, who has her share of stories about when things don’t go as planned. “It’s our job to get it right,” Cohen said, “but there are always things you’re not prepared for.”

Take, for instance, the time a former Nala, played by Kissy Simmons, complained of illness. “We only had one cover for her, and she was very pregnant.” Backstage crews, like Boy Scouts, learn to be prepared. During intermission, Cohen and her make-up team pulled the cover from the ensemble. But you can’t keep a trouper down. Simmons bravely raised her head and said, “I’m okay. I can go on.” And out she went, just in time for her big solo. However, even the applause wasn’t a cure-all.

When Simmons exited stage, she informed the stage manager she couldn’t continue. “We discreetly plucked our cover off stage to quickly transform her into Nala,” says Cohen. The hair and sound folks went to work. Wardrobe supervisor Kjeld Andersen scrambled to put together a costume. They had her in the wings within seconds of Nala’s next entrance. “When she appeared,” laughs Cohen, “the audience had to wonder how Nala had gone from tall and statuesque to short and pregnant.”

With little make-up or touching up to do in Act Two, Cohen’s friends often ask why she stays on site until the curtain. She laughs, “That story explains why!”

Jelani Remy as Simba

It would be an understatement to say it takes a village to put on each performance of “The Lion King.” For instance, there are 142 people directly involved. These include 51 cast members, eight of whom are South African, 24 musicians, a wardrobe staff of 19, a three-person hair and make-up department, not to mention a physical therapist, the stage and puppet crew, and five stage managers to keep check on everything.

Taymor, with designer Michael Curry, hand-sculpted and painted the masks appearing in the iconic “Circle of Life” opening, which, with the help of their department of mask makers, sculptors, puppeteers, and artisans, took 17,000 hours to build.

In celebration of TLK’s 20th anniversary, the show is giving away every ticket via a free lottery to the 8 P.M. performance Wednesday, November 15.

“Though it’s been seen around the world, ‘The Lion King’ was born in New York City,” says Disney Theatrical president and producer Thomas Schumacher. “This free performance is our chance to thank New York City for 20 years of loving support. It’s our hope that audiences who could otherwise not experience Julie Taymor’s glorious vision will join us to toast the musical born here in our hometown.”

Snapchat users can unlock a custom TLK lens (Broadway’s first ever) within the Snapchat app using a unique Snapcode. Once unlocked, users will be able to virtually “try on” Simba and Nala masks through Augmented Reality technology.


Ellis Nassour is an Ole Miss alum and noted arts journalist and author who recently donated an ever-growing exhibition of performing arts history to the University of Mississippi. He is the author of the best-selling Patsy Cline biography, Honky Tonk Angel, as well as the hit musical revue, Always, Patsy Cline. He can be reached at ENassour@aol.com.

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