Colourful, captivating and creative – The Lion King is top cat when it comes to musicals.
Now, after 15 years wowing the West End, the hit musical is touring the country for the first time – with a seven-week stop in Sunderland.
It’s predicted the show will be a soaraway success when it turns the Sunderland Empire into an African savanna from September 18–November 1.
Stephen Crocker, Disney Theatrical Group’s director of marketing and creative services, says it will be a show unlike anything Sunderland has seen before.
“When the show was created 16 years ago, even then it was incredibly radical, it was such a different way of telling a known story,” he explained.
“Even today, though shows have copied certain elements, it’s still so unique.
“When the Lion King was first discussed as a theatre show it was after Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, but that was a more natural choice to be adapted.
“Lion King was not so obvious as it’s all about animals with no human characters.
“The only way to tackle it was to take a radical approach to re-imagining it. And to do it in a way that engaged the audience.”
The visionary behind The Lion King musical is Julie Taymor, who, as well as being the show’s Tony Award-winning director, was responsible for its costumes, puppets and additional lyrics.
The musical is based on Disney’s 1994 animated film, one of the highest grossing of all time.
But making sure the magic of the film could be realised on stage was no mean feat. Stephen said: “The stampede was always talked about as a big challenge, but that’s what drew Julie Taymor to the musical. Because of the scale and the sense of danger, it was the biggest physical challenge.
“But there were other challenges too: like scale. Working out how to portray the scale of animals on stage, from an elephant to an ant.
“Julie had worked in opera and avant-garde theatre before that, it was a big leap of faith for her.”
The stars of the musical are its puppets and costumes which are a visual feast. Even the world’s largest animals are given a puppet persona for the spectacle.
The tallest beasts in the show are the four, 18-foot giraffes from the song I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, which house two actors trained in stilt-walking.
The largest and longest animal in the show is the elephant, nicknamed Bertha by the back stage crew.
At 13-feet long and nine feet wide, this puppet requires four actors to carefully walk her down the orchestra aisle – a scene-stealing highlight of the show.
On a smaller scale, meticulous attention is paid to the actor’s costumes which are hand-made and hand-beaded – there’s even a dedicated team of beaders on the tour.
Each day the cast’s shoes are dyed to exactly match the actor’s skin tone so they look bare foot.
“Everyone who works on the show is an obsessive compulsive to some degree. Everyone on costumes and masks is so passionate about upholding that vision of the show,” said Stephen.
“It’s been said that anyone past the first few rows would never be able to see that a costume was beaded, that it could just be painted.
“But the actor knows and that informs their performance.
“It’s all hand-made. If it was mass-produced it would take away from the African integrity.” Speaking about why the show’s become such a global success – the musical has been translated into six languages – Stephen said: “Lion King is a re-imagining of the Prodigal Son story that is part of cultures around the world.
“Because it’s so understood, it’s why the film has become iconic. It’s a story people really love and carry with them.
“It took years to figure out how to tour the production, it’s something that when we were running in London seemed impossible.
“We wanted to cover the whole country, but because it’s so costly and enormous to move the show we decided to stay in fewer places but for longer, to give people the chance to travel to see us.”
The show is on a four-month run at Edinburgh’s Playhouse before it hits the road. But there are few venues in the country capable of staging such a huge production. The Empire is one of them.
Stephen said: “Sunderland Empire is one of the most beautiful theatres in the country and one of the few that the show fits into.
“There’s a process before the show when we visit the theatres to see where we can fit the sets, to see where the elephant can fit, to see where we can have the percussionists in the boxes. Each theatre has huge challenges.
“The most important thing, and the reason why it took so long to tour the show, is that we never wanted to be without any elements, we never want to compromise the scale of it.
“People said ‘why don’t you just not do the elephant’ – but it’s not the Lion King without the elephant. We feel like we are the guardians of the Lion King.
“There are a couple of things in the touring production that we have had to do differently. We can’t blow up the floors in the theatres we tour to, so nothing can come up through the floor like in London. But everything else is the same, everything is the same size.
“In fact, the cast in the touring version is bigger. We feel like everybody deserves to see Julie Taymor’s version. Sunderland audiences deserve to see the most astonishing thing they’ve ever seen at the Empire.”
•Tickets, priced from £22.50, for Disney’s The Lion King at the Sunderland Empire, go on sale from January 21, from 10am, via 0844 871 3022, in person at the Empire box office or online at www.thelionking.co.uk.