Lion King Musical: Highlights and Fun Facts
First produced in 1997 to thunderous applause and in near-constant rotation on Broadway, London’s West End, and countless national and world tours, the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King is a success story more than twenty years in the making. Taking the theater world by storm just three years after the animated movie broke box office records in 1994, The Lion King Musical is a modern classic of live theater.
You know the story: the young lion cub Simba, heir apparent to the Pride Lands as the son of the king Mufasa, comes into his own after a terrible tragedy that sees him claiming his birthright as king of all the beasts. But you’ve never seen it told quite like this. In fact, whether you’ve sat through it a thousand times or you’ve never seen it at all, we’re betting there’s plenty you might not know about this Disney masterpiece that’s been conquering stages around the world for more than 20 years. Here are the best and most interesting highlights and curiosities regarding the Lion King Musical.
Longer Than The Original
If you’ve ever wondered how long is the Lion King Musical, you’ll probably be surprised to know that the stage production clocks in at about 2 hours and 30 minutes. That might feel long but it’s more or less standard for a Broadway musical’s runtime; in fact, two other popular musicals, Cats and Les Miserables, run for 2 hours 20 minutes and 2 hours 50 minutes respectively, so the Lion King Musical is pretty much right smack dab in the range of what you’d expect for a first-tier Broadway show, complete with intermission just as you would expect.
Yet if you compare the stage version of the story to the original Lion King, the animated film that inspired the musical, you’re in for an even bigger surprise! The original Disney film only has a runtime of a breezy and short hour and a half. That means there’s around a full hour of additional songs and story added into the stage adaptation, content that you can’t see anywhere else except for in the audience of a live show. Even the 2019 remake of the original film only has a 1 hour and 58-minute runtime, which means the musical is still the most expansive version of the story of Simba, Mufasa, and the lions of Pride Rock!
Expanding the Songs
The original animated version of The Lion King has some famously catchy songs, courtesy of legendary musicians and lyricists Elton John and Tim Rice. These songs and original music are present in the Lion King Musical for sure, as there’s simply nothing more iconic than now-famous earworms from the original like “Hakuna Matata” or “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”. That being said, however, with an additional hour of the story in the stage play, the need for even more music to flesh out the story inspired Disney to bring out some big guns to live up to the already iconic nature of the original screenplay’s tunes.
How big are we talking? Disney tapped no one other than Hans Zimmer, the legendary film composer, and a cadre of associates with dozens of credits to their names. Between Zimmer and his partners Jay Rifkin, Ray Maninam, and Lebo M, they’ve composed music for more than 200 films. Lebo M, in particular, has a long history with the original Lion King, as his voice is the first the audience hears during the famous opening chant of the animated film and he’s widely considered responsible for the tone and style of the story in its entirety. Meanwhile, as if that wasn’t enough clout behind the new music for the musical, legendary screen and stage writer/director Julie Taymor shepherded the whole production into history as director. Now that’s an all-star production team!
Not enough information for you? Here’s a list of the new songs added to the musical, in order of their appearance. If you’re familiar with the story of The Lion King, these song titles will make lots of sense to you. If you don’t know the story (and who doesn’t, at this point, really?) you might be in for a few spoilers, so be forewarned!
- Grasslands Chant
- The Lioness Hunt
- Chow Down
- They Live in You
- Rafiki Mourns
- One by One
- The Madness of King Scar
- Endless Night
- Simba Confronts Scar
Fleshing Out the Story
With its longer runtime and its expansive new song list, it’s only natural that the story of The Lion King as presented in the original animated film is considerably more fleshed out in the musical version. The core narrative remains the same, of course, in that young Simba leaves the pride after the tragic murder of his father Mufasa, grows up in exile, and then returns to reclaim his rightful place as ruler from his uncle Scar, who usurped the throne, but there’s now a much richer and deeper development for Simba and all the other characters in the story as well.
There are, in fact, several new scenes in the musical, including one where Mufasa and Zazu discuss the king’s parenting style in regards to Simba’s development. Another scene, added to underscore Simba’s feelings of powerlessness after fleeing from the pride, shows him unable to help his new friend and foster-father Timon after the meerkat nearly drowns. Meanwhile, one of the biggest expansions of the story is how Nala, Simba’s childhood friend, and love interest, flees the Pride Lands with the blessings of Rafiki and the other lionesses in the wake of Scar, now suffering from mental deterioration, attempting to make her his own mate.
Costume and Casting
If you’ve never seen the Lion King Musical and you’re only familiar with the film productions, you might be in for a shock: there are no actual animals prowling the stage for the live version of the show. Instead, the costume direction for the Lion King Musical takes an evocative approach that combines human actors in elaborate outfits that reflect their status as African animals such as lions, mandrills, and the like, often consisting of makeup, headdresses, and costumes inspired by African art. Other animals, such as giraffes, are represented through puppetry, by actors walking on elaborate stilts, or a combination of both, making it a rousing and enchanting spectacle for the eyes and the ears.
The casting choices for the Lion King Musical are just as inspired as those for costuming. The decision was made early on to adjust some of the roles to provide a more nuanced and exciting show, with perhaps the most notable change being that the role of Rafiki, the mystic mandrill that acts as an advisor to both Mufasa and Simba, becomes not just the narrator for the musical but also was recast as a female role. All of these differences haven’t taken away anything from the story but in fact have expanded and added to it, helping the musical on its way to one of the most popular (and highest-grossing) stage productions of all time.
Legendary Theatrical Runs
The Lion King Musical has been in production, in one form or another, pretty much nonstop since 1997. In fact, in 2019 the show had its 9000th Broadway performance, a feat only matched by two other giants of Broadway: Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera. Of course, the Lion King Musical hasn’t only been shown on Broadway, as there have been three American tours over the years, with the Gazelle Tour starting in 2002, the Cheetah Tour in 2003, and the Rafiki Tour in 2017. Meanwhile, productions starting in 2000 in Los Angeles and 2009 in Las Vegas have also helped spread the joy of The Lion King throughout the US.
Worldwide, the Lion King Musical has also been just about everywhere! Canadian, Mexican, and South American tours all dazzled audiences on this side of the Atlantic, while runs in England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Shanghai, Australia, and a number of other locations in Southeast Asia like Singapore and Thailand mean this musical has been literally performed around the globe. In fact, the only continent where the Lion King Musical hasn’t performed is Antarctica!
The Most Successful Broadway Musical of All Time
The Lion King Musical is not just one of the most popular and successful Broadway musicals ever — it is, bar none, the top of the heap by a wide margin. This show earned more than any other musical in history in just 20 years from its 1997 debut, with a run of 8 billion dollars from 1997 to 2017. In fact, at that point, it had officially earned the Walt Disney Company more money than Star Wars, a franchise that’s practically a license to print money. But the Lion King Musical is more than just a money maker. Plenty of movies and musicals make loads of cash without any other accolades after all, but this stage production has also collected a huge array of major awards for excellence as well!
In fact, the original Broadway production just about swept both the Drama Desk Awards and the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical, Best Director, Best Lighting, Best Sound Design, Best Choreography, Best Scene Design, Best Puppet Design — the list goes on. And that’s to say nothing about the awards handed out to the cast for their performances. As if that wasn’t enough, subsequent productions of the Lion King Musical in England, France, and Australia also came home with a bevy of awards as well. There’s no other way to slice it: the Lion King Musical is a winner!
Where Can You See the Lion King Musical Today?
Itching to join the merriment and spectacle of Broadway’s most successful and beloved musical ever? You’re not alone — the demand for tickets to the Lion King Musical has been overwhelmingly strong for more than two decades. While the 2020 coronavirus outbreak certainly threw a monkey wrench into both the Broadway show and the North American tour, but dates are scheduled for the fall and winter of 2020 and beyond into 2021.
On Broadway in New York City, the Lion King Musical is being put on by the Minskoff Theater, located at 200 W. 45th St in Manhattan. Nowhere near the Big Apple? Don’t worry! The North American Tour has shows scheduled from the West Coast to the East Coast, with shows scheduled (or postponed and rescheduled) for Colorado, Arizona, California, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and even upstate New York. This means you’ve got no excuse: start planning today and you’ll be ready when the time comes for Simba, Mufasa, Timon, Pumbaa, and all the rest come back to your neck of the Pride Lands!
The Final Word on The Lion King Musical
There’s nothing better than seeing a world-famous Broadway musical live and in person. Well, there’s maybe one thing better: seeing the most famous and successful Broadway musical ever live and in person! The Lion King Musical has been winning awards, breaking records, and leaving audiences cheering for more than two decades, and this isn’t ending anytime soon — in fact, there’s no reason this incredible musical won’t be around for your children to introduce to their own kids someday in the future.
Whether you’re a fan of the original film, a Broadway buff, or simply someone that loves incredible music, a riveting story, and jaw-dropping costumes, choreography, and performance, or just a Disney fanatic, the Lion King Musical has something for everyone. You’ll be stirred to laughter and tears; you, and whoever you take along with you, will remember the experience for the rest of your lives.