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As Disney's long-awaited Broadway musical, based on its hit animated film, prepares for its West End premiere, Nick Smurthwaite talks to director Julie Taymor and designer Richard Hudson to find out what makes it so special....

Was it greed or vanity that made Disney think The Lion King would make a suitable subject for a stage musical? Either way it seemed an odd enterprise, to say the least. How could you possibly suggest the movie's multiplicity of animal life within the confines of a theatre? How could you depict the crucial wildebeest stampede in which Simba's father is despatched? Then there's the drought, the waterfall, the elephant's graveyard, the African Savannah. Other than financial gain, what would be the point of trying to reproduce on stage something that had worked so brilliantly as animation?

A Different Animal Altogether
The same thoughts obviously occurred to Julie Taymor, the theatre director Disney contracted to work a miracle. Taymor's background was not traditional Broadway but experimental theatre - using masks, puppets, dance and ethnic ritual. Disney's choice of Taymor clearly indicated from the outset that they wanted the stage version to be a different animal altogether.

For Taymor the challenge was to maintain the integrity of her own style, for which she was being employed, while incorporating it into one of the most universally popular stories of recent times. With so many fixed ideas about what the characters looked and sounded like, would audiences accept a new, Taymor-ised version? 'What has to be appreciated is that Disney didn't need to go in this direction to have a hit,' says Taymor, an eloquent and attractive Bostonian in her mid-forties, The Lion King was huge as a film already.'

The apparent impossibility of her task made it all the more seductive to Taymor. Her objective at every turn was to transform The Lion King from a cinematic experience into a live theatre experience. 'I wanted the audience to take a leap of faith and imagination. In a film you cut from one scene to another, but in theatre the transitions can be seamless and a director's challenge is the choreography of those alterations of space and time.'

Masks that Reveal not Conceal
But the real test of Taymor's ingenuity was how to represent the story's vast menagerie without resorting to Cats-like furry suits or sophisticated Doctor Dolittle animatronics. The solution she came up with proved to be not only visually captivating but unprecedented in musical theatre. The principal characters wear masks not over but above their faces, so you simultaneously see the animal and the actor. The effect is at once compelling and primitive, a potent metaphor for the interdependence of man and animal.

'Showing the mechanics, the rods and ropes and wires that make it all happen, is something the theatre can do that film and television cannot,' says Taymor. 'They are literal mediums where the spectator is asked to believe in the reality of the image. Theatre functions best as a poetic medium. The audience, given a hint or suggestion of an idea, is ready to fill in the lines, to take it the rest of the way. They are participants in the entire event.'

In the show's opening scene, the presentation of the newly-born Simba at Pride Rock against a huge, shimmering, saffron sun, a procession of life-size animals makes its way through the auditorium, onto the stage, to the swelling sounds of the Elton John-Tim Rice belter, 'Circle of Life'. The parade includes an 11ft elephant, with four actors visible inside, stately giraffes, each motivated by a single actor on stilts, gazelles prancing gracefully on the arms of dancers, zebra, cheetah, birds, all operated in different ingenious ways by the actors. As one journalist who saw the show in New York reported, 'It's a moment of pure theatrical wonder … all around me adults shook their heads in disbelief, eyes inexplicably moist.'

One of the most powerful elements of the film is the rich humanity of the animal characters, which is why Taymor was so anxious to make the human being an essential part of her transformation process. 'Having made the decision not to hide performers inside animal suits or behind masks, the challenge was to convey the animal's essence while maintaining the presence of the human. I was particularly inspired by the minimalist way animals are portrayed in African art. Sticks or swords could simulate legs … clawlike nails could represent a lion's paw. African-inspired ways of depicting fur, feathers and skin. The cut of the fabrics, their decorations, tones and patterns would evoke an animal's contours and surfaces without sacrificing the character's human qualities.'

Bringing on the British
By the time the distinguished British stage designer Richard Hudson joined the production team, Taymor had already laid a lot of the show's design and narrative foundations. The story had been tweaked by the original writers, under Taymor's instructions, making it weightier and giving one of the central characters, Rafiki, the wise old baboon, a sex change; the setting would be a lot more African than the film; the animals would be more abstract; and the ethnic quotient increased in looks and sounds.

The call from Disney took Hudson completely by surprise. 'A Disney musical is not something I'd ever imagined I would do,' says the designer, best known for his work in opera and the classics. 'I hadn't even seen The Lion King!'

When he did eventually see it, his first thought was 'This is impossible!' But after a few sessions with Taymor and Disney executive Tom Schumacher, Hudson began to see how it might work. 'Julie had such brilliant ideas and was so good at putting them across that she completely won me over. Her energy and inventiveness can be overwhelming and I had to fit in with what she was doing, but we always got on really well. Disney set us up with a big studio, with Julie and I working in adjoining rooms. It was really hard work for about five months. At one point I had ten assistants. Sometimes she had ideas that wouldn't work practically, and I had to talk her into letting them go without appearing to be a party-pooper. There were a lot of changes and cuts that had to be made because we were way over budget. My budget alone was $2.5m.'

Taymor adds, 'It is rare for designers to work in such close proximity. Usually each artist works in the isolation of his or her studio. But it was impossible to separate one design element from another. Patterns on costumes were duplicated in the patterns of the scenery. Colours were constantly compared. Everybody had questions about scale, dimension, and the flow of traffic onstage.'

Art Imitates Life as African Childhood
Though neither Taymor nor Disney was aware of it before they hired him, Hudson was actually born in Africa and lived in Zimbabwe - or Rhodesia as it then was - until he was 18. 'It was one of the things that appealed to me about the project because I have a real feeling for African culture,' he says. 'I looked up old family photos, as well as studying African art and textiles. Just before I started work on it there was a huge African art exhibition at the Royal Academy which was a great source of inspiration.

'I loved the idea of abstracting a landscape, finding ways of conjuring up the colour and atmosphere of Africa. No location, no period, just Africa. I could not peg my designs to a particular date or period as I usually do, and that made me much freer. The story could be taking place today or one hundred years ago. The design possibilities were endless, so long as the scenery evoked Africa, and so long as it helped tell the story.'

Hudson admits that he was pleasantly surprised by the lack of interference by the Disney powers that be. 'I was dreading the technical rehearsals before we opened. I'd imagined there would be this committee of Disney bods in suits at the back of the stalls, muttering and making notes. It didn't happen. Obviously there were hassles, as there always are with musicals, but the show had been so well prepared and facilitated by Disney that everything went pretty smoothly.'

An Award-winning Effort
Since The Lion King went on to win 24 awards on Broadway, including a coveted Tony for last year's best musical, and looks like becoming a worldwide success story all over again, the bods from Disney have every reason to congratulate themselves on being bold enough to entrust their furry little goldmine to such radical talents.

The Lion King opens at the Lyceum Theatre on 19 October 1999, following previews from 24 September.