There are 232 puppets, a 150-strong crew and cast and that’s just the start. Sarah Freeman on the new touring production of The Lion King.
First a few facts. Each night 150 people are required to stage The Lion King. Since its 1997 premiere the show has grosssed more than $4.7bn. Now the seventh longest running musical in Broadway history, it is also one of only five productions to have played for 10 years or more in both New York’s theatre heartland and the West End.
The Lion King is not so much a show, more a brand, which may explain why it has taken so long to stage the UK tour. Disney tend to be a little protective of their name and for a while it seemed that taking such a big show on the road would be impossible.
“We were always certain of one thing,” says Stephen Crocker, director of marketing for Disney Theatrical Group and a man brimming with the same all-American spirit which you see in the theme parks. “If we were going to tour we wanted the show to be of the same quality as the one in the West End. We didn’t want to scale anything back.
“We struggled for a while to work out how we could transfer such a big show from one theatre to another, but as the years ticked by technology basically caught up with our ideas.”
The next job was to choose theatres which could hold such a big production. The Alhambra in Bradford was always near the top of the list.
“Every venue we went to, the one question I had to ask was, ‘Right, where can we hide the elephant?’. With a show like The Lion King you can’t just turn up to a theatre and hope everything will be ok, it requires meticulous planning.
“It’s been really hard work to get to this point, but now the curtain has gone up it’s definitely been worth every headache.”
Currently at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, 23 trucks will pull into Bradford later this month where it will begin a seven-week run. Within that fleet will be the show’s 232 puppets, along with the various headdresses and masks which have made the staging of the show so iconic.
“I know that a lot of people thought you couldn’t do The Lion King on stage,” says Crocker. “There was an appetite to try because the film had been so popular, but how do you bring several lions, a couple of giraffes and even a mouse to life in the theatre?”
The answer was provided by the show’s original director Julie Taymor. Already well-versed in using masks and large scale puppetry, her vision is at the heart of The Lion King’s success.
“She really is in a league of her own and I’m not sure it would have worked in anyone else’s hands,” says Crocker. “Julie Taymor is The Lion King and without her talent I’m not sure the show would ever have been realised.
“I remember seeing it for the first time and like a lot of people it just took my breath away. It’s incredible really how you suspend disbelief within the first few seconds of the show going up.
“You forget these are actors on stage and total embrace them as animals.”
It was a similar kind of puppetry which was also the making of War Horse. While the world of film may be always in search of the next special effect, in recent years theatre has learned the value of more traditional techniques.
“The puppets we use in The Lion King are incredibly detailed, but what I love about them when you are sat in the audience is how beautifully stylised they look.
“If someone had said 15 years ago that the two top selling shows in the West End would be based on puppetry, no one would have believed them. But that’s what The Lion King and War Horse are. Together they have had a really big impact on how theatre is produced.”
The show had its first performance at the Lyceum Theatre in October, 1999. It has since been seen by more than 10 million people in London and this national tour is expected to build on that success.
“Going to the theatre in London is expensive,” says Crocker. “If you add in travelling from Yorkshire, then for many families it’s just way out of their budget.
“Also, why should people have to travel from Bradford or Leeds all the way to the capital to see these big productions? The story of The Lion King is timeless, it’s about community, responsibility and taking your place in the world.
“There is something very life affirming about the story and after all these months of planning it’s just so exciting to see the show have another life out of the West End.”
The Lion King, Alhambra, Bradford, March 20 to May 7. For tickets call the box office on 01274 432000 or online at www.bradford-theatres.co.uk