Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Lion King in South Africa - by Lee MacDonald

It is a wonder that I ever loved The Lion King.

Back in the early nineties I worked a few shifts a week in my local Disney Store through college. In those salad days of the concept (that is prior to the over-saturation of the chain when north of 700 stores existed) it was a way for Disney fans to feel closer to the magic – and it worked. Being surrounded by Mickey Mouse boxed mugs, basic tees and the signature plush mountain was a welcome immersion into the Disney magic. However there was one part of the job that could be excruciatingly painful – like pulling teeth. And it wasn’t having to stand on greeter duty saying “hi” and “welcome!” for an hour every shift. It was the constantly recycling video footage. The loop ran for thirty minutes so you saw every segment at least eight times per shift. However there was one sequence that always affected me deep to my emotion core despite seeing it hundreds of times prior to my first theatrical visit to see the movie – and that was the opening Circle of Life number from Disney’s The Lion King. The second that the sun rose over the Savannah and the Zulu warbling of Carmen Twillie filled the store with the Nants’ ingonyama chant goose bumps prickled up and my attention was immediately drawn to the procession of animals to Pride Rock. Without exception it got me every time. Over and over again.

That has never changed. People talk about the Second Golden Age of Animation commencing with The Little Mermaid which may be true but it reached its zenith with The Lion King. The movie spawned a host of other critically acclaimed and commercially successful product such as Disneyland’s incomparable The Lion King Celebration parade (arguably the greatest cavalcade to ever roll down Main Street) and of course the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. The latter has grossed over $3 billion worldwide which to put into context to the original movie is four times its worldwide box office receipts. The show continues to play in a host of cities around the world including Las Vegas, New York, London, Paris, Hamburg and Tokyo.

Back in Issue 13 of Tales from the Laughing Place Magazine I had the privilege to talk to founding cast member Ron Kunene about the South African heritage that profoundly influenced the Broadway musical. Ron talked extensively about the rhythmic call and response technique that is used by Rafiki and the visual imagery used through the show that are allegories for South African culture. Director Julie Taymor strove to immerse her vision of the movie in the local narrative which is a reason why the show has been so successful – it isn’t just a book report of the film. After years of negotiation Disney were finally able to take The Lion King musical home in 2007.

South African impresario Pieter Toerien partnered with composer Lebo M (who had worked extensively on the original Broadway version) to bring The Lion King to a brand-new venue built specifically for the musical, the Montecasino Teatro, located in the Fourways suburb of Johannesburg. The Lion King played to packed audiences for 36 weeks, making South African history when it broke all box office records in South Africa, with over 550,000 people watching the show. This Disney musical is the longest-running and most successful show in South African theatre history. The show also received the distinction of being awarded the Best Production of a Musical category in the 2007 Naledi Awards.

The cast was almost entirely sourced from the local area and the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra provided the musical accompaniment. In addition Disney’s recording partner EMI decided to release the cast recording on CD to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the stage production. The unique difference to this version compared to other OCRs is that it was recorded live at the Montecasino Teatro which adds a grandness and richness to the album that sanitized studio recordings lack. It is a wonder to hear South African performers reclaim the Zulu chanting, the Khosian “clicking” and Lebo’s intricate poly-rhythms. In addition the CD includes a bonus track of Lebo M’s One by One (that opens Act II). Lebo has produced a new remix called Umhlaba Wabantu (which translates as “world of the people” in Zulu) which has a very different vibe due to the addition of new music to the track. It is a real treat for any The Lion King fan. The full track listing can be found here:

The juggernaut that is The Lion King rumbles on. Although the sun has set on Simba’s time in South Africa a host of new cities are lining up including Madrid and the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore this September. These new productions combined with the existing resident shows and the touring versions will ensure that the musical continues to build on its tremendous success that has resulted in more than 50 million people having seen the majesty of the Pridelands on stage.

Lee MacDonald, Publisher, Tales from the Laughing Place Magazine


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