“Anything can be shown in an animated movie;” I thought before I went to see the Broadway musical version of Disney’s Lion King on the 15th of October. “They can never come up to the movie fans’ expectations by a play.” In the next few hours, I was going to be proved wrong repeatedly.
The movie version starts with a sunrise and an African chant, and as the animals marched towards the Pride Rock to see the newborn lion prince Simba, the animators weaved pure magic on screen with the lights and colours and birds flying over rivers that reflected the sun (see video above). That movie would have been my favourite animated movie even if I had never seen another scene of it. I was naturally skeptical of an onstage rendition of this magical moment, especially after I saw the stage at the Minskoff Theatre. It seemed too small to convey the grandeur of the scene to about a thousand people.
Then the lights went off and the show started, and I realized that the size of the stage didn’t matter. They were going to use the whole theatre as their stage.
Over the next two hours and forty-five minutes, I forgot where I was, or what I was witnessing. As the giraffes and zebras and antelopes flocked onto the stage, and the elephants and rhinos and birds joined them walking out through the aisles of the theatre, pride rock slowly rose out of the stage. See the video below. Naturally photography and videography is prohibited in the theatre but I found this stuff on Youtube. It seems to be a legal professionally done recording, probably for some TV publicity programme. Particularly watch the movements of the giraffes, the zebras and the cheetah.
But then, human beings rarely learn from their mistakes, and it was only natural that I would expect them to fail to recreate the onscreen sorcery in various other scenes, like the songs “I just can’t wait to be king”, “Be prepared” and “Hakuna Matata”, the scary elephant graveyard scene, Simba’s meeting with his dead father, and most of all, the wildebeest stampede scene. I won’t say how they were done – you may get something if you search Youtube. I will only say that each of these scenes was done wonderfully. At virtually the blink of an eyelid the stage would transform from Scar’s cave to an elephant graveyard full of hyenas, to grasslands with a star-studded sky, to a gorge full of stampeding wildebeests, to Rafiki’s baobab tree with Simba’s picture on it, to Timon and Pumba’s lair with exotic plants and insects. Sometimes the actors performed so close to each other that a collision seemed imminent, but nobody ever missed a step. They have been doing this for the last ten years and of course, mistakes were out of the question.
Although whatever I write is insufficient to describe the show, I feel a special mention needs to be made of the puppeteer-actors who played Timon and Zazu, and the three hyenas of Scar. They operated their puppets so smoothly that I felt they simply vanished from stage and the puppet only remained. It’s a strange feeling; a fully grown man is roaming around the stage holding onto a puppet bird beak-synching it to his dialogues, and most of the time you don’t look at the man at all! Your eyes automatically get dragged to the bird alone. It is the same way for Timon and the three hyenas, and also for all the other animals that made brief appearances on stage. You know there’s a man inside (or even on the outside in case of Timon and Zazu), yet you see only the animal that they are representing. The child actors representing Simba and Naala were perfectly natural in their act, and I also liked the actor playing Scar very much. He has an amazing voice and dialogue delivery style that makes the character come alive.
Most of the cast was African, and the whole musical was
All good things come to an end, and so did this amazing play. After the curtain fell on the final scene, it was raised once more and all the actors came and lined up on stage, with their masks off. We gave them a standing ovation. They definitely deserved it. But as the applause died down and the crowd streamed out of the theatre, I was thinking of the people who were behind this. Who designed the elephant graveyard, the hyena suits, the wildebeest stampede? Those faceless people were the real heroes of this performance, the ones that transformed an onstage play into a fairyland storytelling. They maybe well known in their own circle, but they remain unknown to the general public. Maybe that is the way real artists work, be it the sculptors of Kumortuli or the art directors of Disney Studios, away from fame and publicity. Probably that is why they can deliver such quality work year after year.
I also thought something else: Why can’t we have such musicals in Kolkata?