The Lion King is the most financially successful production in entertainment history - we go behind the scenes

In 1991, Julie Taymor received the MacArthur Fellowship.

Disney's The Lion King has been a huge hit on stage. (Credit Catherine Ashmore).
Disney's The Lion King has been a huge hit on stage. (Credit Catherine Ashmore).

In the US, it is known as the “Genius Grant” and with good reason; it’s essentially a recognition that you have, as the Americans might say, gone ahead and proved it: namely that you’re a genius.

Taymor received the award six years before she created the theatrical phenomenon that is The Lion King. If the people behind the MacArthur Grant are ever questioned about decision-making, presumably they simply whip out a photo of Taymor and point out they christened her a “genius” years in advance.

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Taymor, make no mistake, is a bona fide genius and her stage creation of The Lion King is all the proof you need. Fortunately for Yorkshire folk, if you haven’t yet seen the story of Simba on stage, there’s a chance to remedy that when it arrives in Bradford at the Alhambra theatre for an almost two-month run next year.

Backstage photography at Disney's The Lion King. (Picture: Helen Maybanks).

It was due to be at the theatre last year but, well, you know. It had to be rescheduled but because of the amount of time it will be in the city, the next available dates were March to May next year.

Is The Lion King worth eight times as long as a usual show? I headed south to find out in January last year when talk of Covid was barely making the news. Let me take you back to that heady moment.

London in January 2020 and at a Wednesday matinee the “Lion King” theatre (or the Lyceum Theatre if you want to get technical) is filling with youngsters on a school trip, tourists and, in front of me, four Londoners who are returning for a third time.

The Lion King begins with its theatrical flourish (I won’t spoil the surprise, but there is nothing as mundane as the curtain simply rising in this production) and what unfolds over the next couple of hours is nothing short of staggering.

The stage show is spectacular, aided by the backstage crew. (Picture: Helen Maybanks).

I’ve seen this production twice now, once in London and once when it toured to Yorkshire, and both times it felt like an achievement that shouldn’t really be possible. How did Taymor create a drought in the African landscape on stage?

And how did she create the stampede, a key moment in the film and the theatrical recreation of which is easily one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen on a stage in my four decades of theatre-going?

Perhaps most impressive is how Taymor was able to sneak past everyone the fact that The Lion King is one of the most avant garde pieces of theatre you will ever see, disguised as one of the most successful mainstream musicals the world has ever seen.

Don’t believe me? Puppetry of all kinds? Check. Contemporary dance? Check. Storytelling invention and innovation that you might find in the most experimental of theatre companies? Ditto.

Backstage after the show I’m given a tour of the production and learn that at an early preview over two decades ago Disney executives were more than a little confused and concerned when they saw that The Lion King wasn’t going to be put on stage with people in big furry costumes.

What Taymor seemed to be creating was not what they had envisioned when they asked her to direct the show. She had to fight the execs to hold on to her original vision, and we should all offer thanks to the theatre gods that she did.

She imagined into reality things that had never existed before. Nobody knew how to put a wildebeest stampede on stage and through the power of her imagination, she made it real. “She’s definitely a genius,” says Nancy Shakerley, education and outreach manager for Disney Theatrical Group who shows me behind the scenes.

In 2014, The Lion King became the most financially successful production of all time, taking £3.8bn at the box office – more than any other theatre or film release – which means a summing up of the plot seems a little superfluous.

However, with more than a little echo of Hamlet in there, the story tells of Simba, the lion cub destined to become the lion king after his father Mufasa. After Simba’s uncle Scar kills Mufasa and ascends to the throne, Simba flees and comes of age with two companions who become firm friends, Timon and Pumbaa. When he returns to take his throne, he faces off with his uncle in a fight to the death.

A magnificent story, it is elevated by the inclusion of some quite beautiful Elton John songs, from Circle of Life to the endlessly catchy Hakuna Matata. Add to all of this Taymor’s vision and you have, understandably, the most successful production of all time.

“She comes over to see the show now and then and it’s tweaked as it goes along to keep it up to date and fresh,” says Shakerley as we head backstage. An amusing little dig at another Disney property, Frozen, has recently been added to the script at the performance I see, for example.

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A surprise awaits. Stage right, where we enter, is tiny. It’s almost unfathomable that a show that looks as epic as this does out front can be crammed into such a small space. As we cross the famous Lyceum, we see that on stage three men are fighting. Wait, is that? “Yes, that’s Scar and Mufasa.”

The actors who play the warring brothers haven’t gone method – they’re in judo outfits and are practising martial arts with a trainer. It takes serious levels of stamina and fitness to be able to do a production like this, so between shows the actors do some training.

“There’s actually a lot of choreography that happens off stage, here in the wings. Because there is such limited space and so many performers and so many costumes, everything has to be incredibly precise,” says Shakerley.

We cross the stage, in front of a grappling Mufasa and Scar, and head down below where, 20 minutes earlier, the cast of 38 were running around and completing a whole series of quick changes. The costumes are hung up on specific hooks for each actor to be able to grab and whip on at the drop of another costume.

Then Shakerley shows me something in which perhaps the key to the success of this production lies. We’re looking at the costumes worn by the female lions and each one appears to look a little different. “They are. Each one has a different set of individually sewn on coloured beads. The colours are all slightly different and represent where each of the lionesses sits in the hierarchy of the group,” she says.

Whose idea was it to have such intricacy in the costumes? No prizes for guessing. “Julie Taymor’s. She literally had a hand in every single bit of this production. You can’t see each individual bead in the audience, obviously, but the actors know,” says Shakerley.

Of course there are about 3.8 billion other reasons why The Lion King has enjoyed such success, but that attention to detail is definitely one of them.

hen the production finally arrives at the Alhambra next year, I know you won’t be looking at the colour of the beads. But when the overall effect of the production pulls at your heartstrings, that tiny detail will be part of the magic.

The Lion King runs at Bradford Alhambra from March 24 to May 28, 2022. Tickets 01274 432000.