After calling Manila home for the last 5 months (and counting), The Lion King finally opens to the public, extending the reach of the circle of life far beyond the reaches of the African savanna and into the rest of the world with its first ever international tour.
Without so much as beating around the (African) bush, The Lion King opens with a emotionally evocative and spiritually stirring Zulu chant that violently punctures through a stillness that has rendered the audience rooted in their seats. As the rhythmic spoken word builds, it suddenly relents, seamlessly coalescing with music that is now seared deep within the crevices of our hearts and minds.
“From the day we arrive on the planet,
And blinking, step into the sun.
There’s more to be seen than can ever be seen,
More to do than can ever be done.”
Then, like the glory of a sunrise, the stage warms up to a gradient of orange filling up the bare space. And then slowly, familiar characters of the African wild start filing in herds: first the regal giraffes, the sensual cheetah, followed by the graceful flock of birds and then finally, it all comes together with zebras, wildebeests, gazelles and elephants. This is the circle of life as we have come to enjoy as the vivid and spirited animated feature film, but this time, it was a distilled reality right before our very eyes on stage. And right on cue, the tears start streaming from our faces. As the lights came to full force, it was clear that there was no dry eye in the house.
Naturally, an applause followed, which can only be described as thunderous and quite frankly, ground-shaking. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the primal effect of The Lion King. And finally, the city of Manila can witness the story of life, loss and love firsthand.
With over 20 years, 25 productions, an audience of over 90 million and a worldwide gross of $8.1 billion to its name—so far—The Lion King is now set to take on over the world with its first international tour produced by the indefatigable Michael Cassel Group in association with Disney Theatrical Productions. “Every time I see the show, I get swept away,” says Michael Cassel. “The sense of community and that telling of the story is what makes this show so special. Then you add that to the theater where you have the puppetry and the design, it really has a profound impact on the audience—whether you’ve seen it for the first time or not.” A longtime discussion, one of the clearest and firm decisions from the beginning was to assemble a company that was as diverse as possible. That and it had to take root in the city of Manila. “I am delighted that we can begin this journey with Manila’s enthusiastic and welcoming audiences,” he concurs.
“I think that’s what makes this production incredibly exciting, because as Lebo M. says, it’s a family,” explains Michael Cassel. “So, you have a family of this creative team that have gone and originated this show all around the world, and then we combine that with the melting pot of this company that we assembled here in the Philippines. What it does is allows everyone to bring their unique talents to the productions and give our creative some really wonderful talents and cultural experiences that we’re able to draw on to create this new version of the show that we can show the world. With this new company, we’ll be able to go to cities where they never thought The Lion King was possible to play.”
With the decorated curtain being raised with previews and sold out shows as early as March 18, the decision early clearly paid off big time as the production has just recently two more weeks into The Lion King, with shows running up until May 20 before it sets sail to nearby countries such as Singapore, Korea and Taiwan.
At the heart of The Lion King is an unparalleled narrative that takes you through the wringers of life (no spoilers here, especially for the rare percent who haven’t seen the film or musical before). Setting this piece of literature in motion is the music that has quite possibly become a soundtrack of a handful of generations at this point. Whether it’s a soaring anthem of pride, a bopping pop ditty about the throes of youth, a malevolent zinger complete with hissing and cackling, or a heart-racing ballad of the push-and-pull of love, there is a song or score for everyone in The Lion King.
One of the brilliant decisions of the high-priestess of The Lion King production, Julie Taymor, was to bring in Lebo M. to the fold when setting the Broadway musical up decades ago. Responsible for the opening chant in the film, Lebo M. has taken the musical to greater heights, enrapturing an audience even more than it already possibly could. And quite interestingly, the source of inspiration for the score of music came from a point straight out of a lucid dream for the South African composer and producer. “At the time of doing the movie, it was quite a turning point in my life, a turning point in my country. And that became the emotional and spiritual center of writing the music. It was a time when we were going from the old South Africa and into a new dawn led by Nelson Mandela,” he relates. “So, when you are creating such a blessing of a project that you can personally relate to, translating the lyrics and the meaning of life of Simba going into exile, the authenticity and authority of Mufasa is quite iconic in one’s personal life and therefore, it became seamless to [appropriate it in a grander] context.”
These musical moments are best underscored during such numbers as They Live In You, Endless Night, He Lives In You (Reprise).
Just as soon the 15-minute intermission rings in, the audience is clearly consumed by the show, left either visibly stunned, wiping their faces clean or excitedly chattering about the first act. “The process of recreating The Lion King is fantastic to witness,” relates Felipe Gamba, Director of International Strategy for Disney Theatrical Group. “It’s magical process; it’s a hard one but there’s no greater joy to see it be enjoyed by audiences and to realize that the connection we have as cultures around the world, we can be one, and to witness that is thrilling.” What a timely message to get across, indeed.
In the end, The Lion King teaches us many things, among them how love in all forms persists, survives and most importantly, saves. A story worth telling even after two decades, there is no stopping this circle of life. At this point, the horizons span far across the grasslands and pride rock, seeing a form of light touch base as far as the eyes and imagination can see.
As the well-deserved standing ovation that lasted for more than just a few minutes settled to a stillness reminiscent of the moments before the curtains were raised, we see a beaming father showing his son and daughter the original Hakuna Matata scene on his phone. Seeing the impressionable eyes of the kids light up and then putting it together with the spectacle that they have just seen was a touching sight to witness. “What will happen to Simba now?” one asked. Well, kid, that’s for you to find out and realize now. Your guess is just as good as ours.
Right then and there, the story of The Lion King lives on.
Videography by Kim Marasigan