It's been fifteen years almost to the week that I first saw Disney's The Lion King in what was its first year in the West End. I don't think even Disney could have predicted that sixteen years later the show would still be London's most popular musical, selling out performances eight times a week and playing to packed crowds.
Judging the show against the current climate of the West End, I worried some of the magic may have faded, but Julie Taymor's staging and costume design remains some of the most innovative, impressive and breath-taking to ever be seen on stage - musical or otherwise.
Disney Theatricals have grown in strength and statue since the production originally opened on Broadway in 1997, but The Lion King remains the jewel in the crown for theatrical integrity and pure spectacle. Seeing the show again in context of Disney's more recent efforts 'The Little Mermaid', 'Newsies' and 'Aladdin', you realise how they pail in comparison in terms of creativity and kick yourself for taking Taymor's work for granted.
Based on the 1994 animated film, one of the last in the period of the 'Disney Renaissance', the heart-warming tale follows the lion cub Simba as he learns to take his place in the great "circle of life" following the murder of his father Mufassa by his evil uncle Scar. The show combines low comedy (side-kicks Timon and Pumba) with shades of 'Hamlet', resulting in a near perfect and original story that delights both children and adults.
The level of detail in the costumes, make up and puppetry is utterly staggering and Taymor creates a visual feast for the eyes aided by Garth Fagan's authentic and energetic choreography that makes you forget you are watching humans. This is blended with the subtlety of the direction that at its most powerful shows a waterhole drying up with just the simplest trick and binds together a fully immersive technical feat. There is simply nothing like this musical on a production level and the fact it stands the test of time and is yet to be bettered is proof alone of its success.
The show has had some tightening up in recent years, with one song trimmed ("The Madness of King Scar") and one deleted all together ("The Morning Report") to keep the run time to a family friendly level. All of the set pieces are there - from the opening section where the animals come together to celebrate "The Circle of Life" to the Wildebeest stampede and the battle for Pride Rock. The ingenuity however comes from scenes such as "The Lioness Hunt" and "One By One" that bring a fresh authenticity to the score and showcase a universally talented, athletic and agile ensemble.
The Lion King is an outstanding creative and emotional musical and will no doubt remain the King of the West End for many years to come. As Disney Theatricals continue to grow their stock and with a Broadway production of 'Frozen' on the horizon, I hope the show isn't taken for granted, as theatre practitioners the world over can learn from Taymor's alchemy.