I never did do musicals. While I can play any number of songs from many musicals on guitar and piano, I’ve often found musical productions themselves – on film and on stage – to be overblown, mawkish, portentous and, sometimes, pretentious affairs. My tastes across the performing arts have always leaned towards performers and performances that take a “less is more” approach rather than “everything but the kitchen sink”, be it Beckett or Bob Dylan. Similarly, while music remains my first love, I’ve never once wanted song, as a form, to be a vehicle for dramatic narrative. My favorite music – again, on film and on stage – is twisted and bended out of language; give me Mamet Speak over ‘Maria’, give me Pinter’s Pause over ‘The Sound of Music’.
Yet, here I am at a media call for The Lion King, the biggest theatre production ever to come to Ireland. Requiring 23 giant trucks to haul it from Manchester to Dublin, it’s a production on a scale that few venues around the globe can accommodate. Throughout the day, press releases, PR people and, not least, Stephen Crocker – Disney Theatrical’s Director of Marketing and Creative Services – are all giving The Lion King the hard sell to those members of the media assembled atThe Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.
Of course, they don’t need to sell anything. Over the next eight weeks, 85,000 people will flock toThe Bord Gáis Energy Theatre to watch this lavish production, complete with 50 actors, singers and dancers from 17 different countries. Already, 70 million people have watched the show in 15 different countries across 5 continents, since it was first performed on Broadway in 1997. The tour of Ireland and the UK has been four years in the making. Crocker, however, seems unfazed by the enormity of the production. He knew that expectations from audiences outside of Broadway and the West End were high.
“One of the assumptions when we were going on tour was that the show would be somehow shrunken down and not be the London version, or the Broadway version. I think a lot of people assumed that it would be a smaller version of what had gone before, because it’s such a huge production that it didn’t look as if it could be brought on tour without any sort of compromise. But there was never any intention to do that, because Julie Taymor’s vision deserves to be seen in full. Similarly, why does an audience in Dublin deserve to see a lesser version of the show than an audience in New York? It’s crazy. So we had to find a way to bring the full scale of it, because that’s just what the show is.”
The affection for The Lion King is not just held by the tens of millions who have seen the production since 1997, but also by cast members. Actor Stephen Carlile beams when speaking of the effect the show has on audiences. “I love seeing what this show does to people: it really makes people very, very happy”, claims Carlile, who plays Scar, the show’s villain. Described by Carlile as “bonkers…a nasty piece of work”, the actor never felt any creative limitations in building the character. “I can have a lot of fun with the role: anything goes.” Jeremy Irons originally voiced Scar in the 1994 animated movie version of The Lion King. Carlile, however, never once considered aping the distinctive voice given to his character by the Oscar-winning Cork resident. “I never really thought about it. I just played the part as I wanted to in rehearsals. This production is very fresh and we didn’t feel we had to adhere to anything that had been done before.”
The cast also includes South African Nicholas Nkuna, who plays Simba. The seasoned actor, who is the youngest actor ever to perform the role of The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera discusses the difference between those two roles. “Huge difference. The Phantom, though I see him as a good guy, is obviously considered the bad guy. Simba is obviously the king, the good guy. With emotions, it’s so different and it was challenging coming from a very dark character to a very light, though still strong character. He’s a good guy, but he’s lost. He struggles to find his way.”
For Carole Stennett, the Londoner who plays Nala, the biggest challenge was mask work, which is featured heavily in the production. “It was a nice, new element that I had to explore and develop.”
Though all professionals and, clearly, not short of any confidence or self-belief, Gugwana Dlamini, who plays storyteller Rafiki, the “heartbeat” of the show, as she puts it, has at times allowed the weight and the enormity of the production to get to her. As the performer who utters the first notes on stage each night, she does worry, at times, that she may make a hames of it.“Every night, for real, every night. I do get scared every night. Trust me. It’s the first note the audience hears every night. I’m not getting the opening note from the orchestra, so it has to be exact. Energy wise, if I’m flat at the beginning, I’m going to be flat throughout the whole number. So the energy – physically and vocally – has to be there. Meditation helps me. I pray. I pace up and down the corridor, every night, thinking about my notes.”
Watching sections from songs performed during a run-through for the press, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of it all. Percussionists are fully set-up in the boxes of the wings of the theatre. The operatic splendor of the costumes and choreography is something that Dublin has possibly never seen quite at this level. And as a city that boasts world-class theatres that stage world- class performances, 52 weeks of the year; that consistently brings through writers, directors and actors, though lacks a Broadway / West End-type hub for musical theatre, it’s feels like a refreshing development for the arts in Ireland.
And while Disney’s The Lion King doesn’t appeal to me now quite as the animated film did in 1994, I can appreciate the production in the context of Paul Simon’s Graceland and that classic 1986 record’s accompanying documentary, last year’s Under African Skies. The songwriting genius behind a countless amount of great songs was one of the first western artists to bring a full, uncompromised vision and representation of African culture – music, particularly – to the west. With his Mali Music project, Blur front man Damon Albarn also immersed himself in the music and culture of the continent, which he further explored on Blur’s 2002 album, Think Tank.
So while I remain a spectator not fully converted to the form, though fully appreciative of the collective effort and co-ordination that goes into an event on such an unparalleled scale, The Lion King’s roar shows no sign of quieting any time soon.
The Lion King will play the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin from: Saturday 27th April – Saturday 22nd June 2013. For more information go to www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie