“The Lion King”: Scratching the surface


“Few people even scratch the surface, much less exhaust the contemplation of their own experience.” 

~Randolph Bourne

I recall the sixth grader (who was having a particularly horrid year in school) experiencing the awakening, hope and inspiration that seeing a show like The Lion King can give to youth and adults alike.  My mother had saved for us to go and experience the best of her trade, crème de la crème costume design. She was determined to have her little cub’s first brush with the world of Broadway be second to none. Showing me the kingdom and everything the stage light touches. By the end of “Circle of Life”, we were emotional and hugging each other in giddiness. I distinctly remember her pointing from our seat in the balcony to the stage, shouting: “THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THE ELEPHANTS!” That defines the epitome of my “childlike wonder”, which is something not often cherished or even made contact with. Not many can recall it once it’s lost.

It’s true that nothing compares to the first time. When I saw the Lion King again at the Orpheum, I wasn’t as immersed in the story as I was when I was 11. Nor the music. Nor the humor. My teenaged moodiness I felt during “Hakuna Matata” replaced the passing craze of childlike wonder.

    Young Simba: What’s a motto?
    Timon: I don’t know, what’s a motto with you?
    Me: …

Yeah, couldn’t see that one coming from 10 leagues away.

Despite my complete indifference towards the over worn Disney humor, my second viewing of the Lion King was one that instead of immersion, stimulated much thought.  The cast had an authenticity that I previously hadn’t been able to appreciate. When the beautiful and captivatingly powerful Nala (Syndee Winters) prowled onto the stage, she set the tone for the Pridelands. She moved with precision, her presence was eloquent. Each line of her remorseful tune “Shadowlands” echoed.  The words didn’t just stalk through the aisles of the house, but have rattled around in my mind since:

“And where the journey may lead you
Let this prayer be your guide
Though it may take you so far away
Always remember your pride.”

And indeed, memories of the first time came flooding back. To say the Zulu chorus resonated with me would be a gross understatement. The Lion King has a tendency to completely reverberate with theatergoers world-wide, as it is one of the most universal stories and diverse casts to be found. Several members of the traveling cast were born in South Africa, so the language and the landscape of the show is made all the more unique by their part played.

It was fascinating to think my hometown historical theater was home to one of the first of thousands of performances of this wildly-successful show.  I’ve seen the Orpheum backstage, and can attest the changes and cost of hosting such a production.   Many thousands were spent in repairing the theatre after accommodating the hydraulic stage. The famous drought scene, just before “Shadowland”, brought all that labor and backstage effort into perspective.

Young Simba: Haha! You’re so weird.
Scar and Me: You have no idea.

In many ways, The Lion King is not only an experience that young kids can enjoy.  There are many cerebral aspects to the show as well. It is fascinating to see how such a spectacle can come to fruition, from such simple Disney origins.  The mind of a technical or costume designer can reel at the artistry and authenticity of it all. The 11 year-olds who have never seen a Broadway show can feel the magic of childlike wonder at seeing “people in the elephants”.  Any theatregoer around the world can feel connected to the art of this show.  
    Please, if you have a kid, take them to see this show. It’s best the first time. You won’t even scratch the surface after the second.