Return of the King

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January 16, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

Behind the scenes of ‘The Lion King’

On July 8, 1997, a musical unlike any the world had ever seen opened at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. “The Lion King” was not the first stage production of a popular Disney movie, but it was easily the most daring. Directed by avant-garde theater veteran Julie Taymor, the show’s combination of traditional Disney material with African masks, Japanese puppetry techniques and cutting-edge set design seemed like a huge risk.  

“We all wondered whether or not it was going to work, especially when we saw the costumes. They were something that no one had ever seen before,” said Orpheum Theatre operations manager Dave Marietta. “But this one we knew was a success on opening night. We looked at the audience in the monitors and right away we knew.”

To call “The Lion King” a success is definitely an understatement. Since its Minneapolis debut, the show has been seen by more than 54 million people in 14 different countries. It has won more than 70 global theatrical awards in every possible category: costume design, lighting design, scenic design, choreography and more. It took home the Tony for best musical in 1998 and made Julie Taymor the first woman ever to win a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical. It is the seventh-longest running musical in Broadway history and one of only five shows in theater history to play for more than 10 years.

With its return on Jan. 11, Minneapolis becomes the first city in North America to host “The Lion King” for a fourth time. That’s only appropriate, considering that Minneapolis and the Orpheum were instrumental in shaping the very content of this beloved stage production.

According to Marietta, Disney considered several locations for the debut of the show, but landed on the Orpheum for Minneapolis’ theater audiences and the venue’s ability to host the ambitious show. “We’re an important market and we have really savvy people here. If word gets out that it’s a good show, that’s what works,” he said. “It all boiled down to we were the best place.”

Marietta, who has worked at the theatre since 1966, remembers receiving a call from a group interested cutting a hole in the floor of The Orpheum’s stage for a potential production. He said that wasn’t a problem. Then he learned how big the hole would be.

“They said the hole would be 35 feet by 55 feet, which was how big the whole stage was back then,” said Marietta. “I asked who they were. They said Disney. I said ‘Yeah, okay. We can work it out.’”

Work it out they did. During the rehearsals of the original production, the team learned of technical limitations that forced them to rewrite parts of the show. The sets were so complex that the crew couldn’t switch them out fast enough. “So they had to add stuff to the show to give us enough time to change the scenery,” said Marietta.

Just as the Orpheum changed “The Lion King,” so too did “The Lion King” change the Orpheum. The aforementioned hole in the stage was for Pride Rock, the show’s signature set. A towering 18 foot-wide cliff that is the site of several key scenes, the giant structure was raised and lowered through the floor on an elevator system that prompted major changes to the area below the stage. “It was a big project,” said Marietta. “We had to move sprinklers out of the way, electric conduit, all the beams that hold the stage up had to get cut out.”

Fortunately, the touring production of “The Lion King” has been refined so that such drastic steps are no longer required of the theaters that host it. The touring version of Pride Rock is akin to a giant remote control car that can be steered onto stage rather than rising from the floor. The massive set collapses down from 18 feet to eight feet at its smallest, folding into itself like an accordion.

“As a road show, you have limitations, so we came up with this concept rather than having to drill down and tear up everyone’s basement,” said Michael Carey, the show’s head carpenter. Even this “simplified” version of Pride Rock weighs a staggering 8,500 pounds and requires a dozen car batteries to operate. “It’s a beast,” said Carey.

Pride Rock isn’t the only oversized aspect of the production. It takes 18 tractor-trailers to move the production from city to city. The production includes two complete sets of scenery, more than 200 puppets and a cast and crew of 134 people. That includes 49 cast members, 19 wardrobe staffers, 18 musicians, 11 carpenters and one physical therapist. The entire show takes about 60 hours to set up and begins in one city about a week before finishing its run in the last — the crew was hard at work in Minneapolis while the cast was still performing in Baltimore.

Hanging above the performers during the show is roughly 138,000 pounds of equipment, including almost 700 lighting instruments and many of the show’s huge sets, which are hauled up into the ceiling to provide room for the performers moving around backstage. In short, staging “The Lion King” is a massive, complicated task. It requires a massive amount of work on the part of everyone involved but, according to Carey, it’s all worth it once the each performance begins.

“You may have a hard week on the show, but when you hear the audience’s reaction it’s all worthwhile,” he said. “The audiences are amazed no matter where we go around the country.”

FYI
The Lion King runs Jan. 11–Feb. 12 at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave. For ticket information, visit HennepinTheatreTrust.org