The Lion King turns 20 in the West End – exclusive interview with composer Lebo M
South African musician and producer Lebo M has been involved with The Lion King since the very beginning
South African musician Lebo M has been involved with The Lion King since the original 1994 animated film, through the numerous stage productions around the globe all the way up to the film's live action remake 25 years later. It would be fair to say he knows more than most about the story and its impact around the world!
To celebrate 20 years of The Lion King in the West End, we caught up with Lebo to ask him about his personal journey with the production and also his starring role with the iconic opening call in "Circle of Life"...
How did you first become involved with The Lion King production?
After the movie became a huge phenomenon, I was called in to work on the first Broadway show which is where I met original director Julie Taymor. We started talking about the musical which for me at that time I couldn't relate to – I couldn't get my head around the idea of going from that animation to a stage production. It was meant to be a 30-minute meeting but I spent most of the day with her. It was so interesting to hear her describe Pride Rock and how she was going to approach the show.
How has the show helped to promote diversity in the West End?
I doubt I am qualified to speak in detail for the West End but in general I am very conscious of The Lion King's impact globally. The nature of the show means it is not limited to a white cast or a black cast – we have talent from all over the world in every show. London is even more special for me because it came at a time when we realised South African talent could play these principal roles.
It must have been incredible to be involved in the remake of the film that came out earlier this year?
To be completely honest, this was the first time the project became scary. 25 years on, to be involved in a remake was challenging. Until I sat in the first directors meeting I was very scared because I didn't know where else the franchise could go. In retrospect the movie just brought another new energy – it was so exciting after the premiere to return to working on the theatre shows.
Does it ever feel overwhelming working on The Lion King?
No it is not overwhelming, the key to it all is I am only one part of an awesome creative team led by Julie Taymor. It is because of this that I never feel I am doing things alone. We are a family, and this job is something that I wake up and love doing.
Do you have a favourite song in the production?
Even if I did, I could never say it! To be honest, the song that grew with me is "He Lives In You". It is a song that gets a great reaction from people that have seen the show and seems to touch them differently. I can relate to it now personally because I buried my father two years ago, so it stands out. I don't want to use the word favourite but it is the most special song for me.
Finally, given you sang the "Circle of Life's" opening call in the 1994 film, you must have heard some funny versions of this line over the years…
I have heard all kinds of versions of this line! There is always a drunk uncle at a wedding who will burst into song. The most fascinating thing about that iconic beginning is that it feels much more alive on a stage than in the film, because it is so physical. I can comfortably say experiencing it on stage with the cast and the animals in the aisles, I get the same goosebumps now as I did twenty years ago. I know exactly what will happen but the beginning never gets old and this is why I will be doing the show until I am 99.