A two-decade circle of life on Broadway is an exceptionally rare commercial feat.
“The Lion King”, the Disney
-produced Broadway musical based on the 1994 movie of the same name has, like MarketWatch, just celebrated its 20th anniversary. And so after the evening’s performance at the Minskoff Theater in Manhattan’s Times Square, Sir Elton John — composer of the show’s songs — took to the stage to sing “Circle of Life,” one of its most iconic hits.
Sir Elton was joined onstage by director Julie Taymor and lyricist Tim Rice, as well as cast members past and present.
Thomas Schumacher, producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions, told the audience that 733 productions had opened and closed since “The Lion King” launched at the New Amsterdam Theater in November 1997. (The show transferred to the Minskoff in 2006 to make way for Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” one of the 733 to have come and gone on the Great White Way.)
Here are five reasons “The Lion King” continues to reign on Broadway:
“The Lion King” is now the biggest musical of all time, grossing $1.4 billion in its 20 years on Broadway and $7 billion world-wide. (There have been productions in Africa, Asia, Mexico and Europe, notably in London’s West End where it has been continuously playing since 1999.)
The show grosses around $2 million a week on Broadway. With an average ticket price of $150, the musical regularly exceeds 99% of the Minskoff Theater’s 1,621-seated capacity and 99% of its potential gross.
Given the laws of supply and demand, it would make absolutely no sense for the show, which is about a young lion’s journey to avenge the death of his father, to contemplate closure in the near future.
Step into the Circle of Life with Broadway’s first Snapchat Lens! pic.twitter.com/rE3g7TUl6K
— The Lion King (@TheLionKing) October 30, 2017
‘I JUST CAN’T WAIT TO INNOVATE’:
“The Lion’s King” lavish blend of puppetry and animal costumes has been much-imitated by subsequent shows, all of which have enjoyed shorter lifespans. But it’s easy to forget how innovatory and imaginative Taymor’s production was considered two decades ago, especially for a Disney family musical.
Central to Taymor’s transformative vision was her look to Africa for musical inspiration as well as visual sensibility and production design. She recruited South African musician Lebo M who was also at the Minskoff for the anniversary show, to supply new music and arrangements.
“The movie’s five songs by Elton and Tim were amazing, but we had to fill it out,” Taymor said on stage after the performance. “[My] big idea was let’s take the background vocals and put them in the foreground. Who’s going to sing the “Circle of Life”? Who’s going to be the chorus of this thing? South Africa is the spirit and soul of “The Lion King.”
But while Taymor and her creative team also benefited from good material and a giant brand, which helped them roar in the first place. After all, the Hollywood version of “The Lion King” grossed $322 million domestically in 1994 according to Box Office Mojo. (It’s since made $120 million in re-release revenue.)
“We knew it was a hit when the show first opened on Broadway,” Sir Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics to Elton John’s songs for the film, told MarketWatch following the 20th anniversary. “But I wasn’t really involved that much with the stage show. Elton and I had written the songs for the film and the show used them to great effect.”
— John Sant (@JohnSant87) June 6, 2016
POP CULTURE PHENOMENON:
It’s never a hindrance for a stage show’s brand to capture the zeitgeist, which has happened with “The Lion King.” It’s a pop cultural staple, which makes it a rite of passage for tourists visiting New York and showgoers elsewhere, but its themes remain relevant.
Take politics: “The Lion King” has been a prominent fixture in the political cycle of life since it opened. Bill Clinton saw the show in September 1998 as U.S. President, together with first lady Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper Gore. (Gore compared the Republicans to Simba’s wicked uncle Scar).
Fourteen years later, when Hillary Clinton was campaigning to be president, “Lyin’ Queen” Clinton memes were popular among Trump supporters.
“The Lion King” has also been referenced in TV shows ranging from “The Simpsons” to “Dr. Who.” And since Disney just announced a live action remake, due in 2019, starring Donald Glover, Beyoncé and Seth Rogen, interest in the stage show is unlikely to dim.
Disney could have quite easily pulled the plug when they realized how different the show was to the movie. Indeed, Tom Schumacher recently recalled to Playbill, “When they, the studio folks, came to see the first workshop, they hated it and it’s exactly what we have onstage [today] . They all told us to do something different and they didn’t.”
Ultimately Disney, then led by Michael Eisner — who attended the 20th anniversary performance — gave Taymor and the other artists free rein to step outside the cinematic kingdom, inspired by the fact that “The Lion King” was the first Disney movie to be an original story, rather than one based on existing source material.
How long will Simba keep singing on Broadway? “The conditions that will determine how long ’The Lion King’ plays on Broadway have nothing to do with “The Lion King”, Disney Theatrical’s Schumacher said. “They’re to do with Broadway audiences and how often people will still be going to the theater.”