Lion King - Taking Mom to a Momsical

Photo by Joan Marcus
Recently my mom decided she wanted to see a Broadway musical. She hadn't seen one since Applause, which she says she saw with Anne Baxter*. (I googled -- Anne Baxter did indeed take over Lauren Bacall's part. Mom has a good memory.) I know my mom -- she only wants to go to "momsicals" -- classic tuneful scores with good singing and dancing. I knew anything raunchy or avante garde would be a no-no. I went over several options with her: Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Phantom of the Opera, and Lion King. My mom rejected Phantom: she had seen the movie and didn't like the "stalker" storyline. She rejected Fiddler as well: she didn't like the music. King and I she said "only should be done with Yul Brynner." But Lion King she was very interested in, so Lion King it was.

On a snowy Sunday afternoon I found myself packed like sardines in the Minskoff Theatre, where Lion King has been ensconced since 2006. I guess I'm finally seeing it nearly 20 years after it opened but hey, better late than never. (It opened in 1997 at another theater). I can't say this is a deeply artistic show but I definitely saw the enduring appeal of Julie Taymor's adaptation of the Disney cartoon. The tunes by Elton John ("Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata") can be hummed by kids. The puppetry is creative and visually appealing. Richard Hudson's designs evoke the African jungles and Safaris without a hint of fussiness. The opening tableau with all the jungle animals marching down the aisle and onto the stage was stunning -- the show finds a way to grab the audience's attention from the very beginning and has no real down-time.

As with any long-standing musical every moment and effect now runs with the efficiency of a Foxconn iPhone assembly line. There's been some additions in dialogue: at one point Zazu launches into a few bars of the ubiquitous Frozen anthem "Let it Go" and Scar groans "Anything but that!" which got exactly the kind of applause it was designed to get. I looked at the cast bios and saw that many of the cast members have been with the show for a few years, and their experience shows. This is a well-oiled spectacle.

I did miss a lot of the tenderness of the Disney film. Julie Taymor's puppet designs are more awe-inspiring than lovable -- I was thinking she could have used some of Jim Henson's talent in making puppets seem like warm, cuddly little things. The only characters who approached their film lovability were Timon and Pumbaa and Zazu. Scar (Gareth Saxe) was delightfully evil. I was happy to hear the same snarky "Oh goody" line from him. (That's my favorite line in the movie.) Simba, Mustafa, and Nala were somewhat colorless compared to the movie although Julian Silva as Young Simba was cute. But those are small complaints. My mom loved it. She particularly loved the fact that there wasn't much dialogue, just a lot of singing and dancing. This was her type of musical. When we went home and described the musical to my dad he said, "You say it's an 8, but it sounds so bland and inoffensive that it's more like a 6."

Fred Berman and Ben Jeffrey as Timon and Pumbaa
Jeffrey Kuhn as Zazu

It's kind of interesting to observe the Darwinian nature of Broadway. A few weeks ago I saw the final performance of Dames at Sea, a perfectly charming, small-scaled vehicle that just never gained any box office traction. Meanwhile, tickets to Hamilton are over $500 a pop. What's the difference between a blockbuster and a bust? In the coming months I'm embarking on a project of trying to see as many long-standing Broadway musicals as possible to get an answer about why some musicals play to closed off balconies and heavily papered theaters and others (like Lion King) still play to full houses 19 years after its opening. So Lion King is my first stop. Next stop: Phantom of the Opera (I think).

*I tried to mine my mom for memories of what Anne Baxter might have been like playing the "Margo Channing" to no avail. She said she didn't speak much English at the time. "Was the musical good?" "No." Well that settles that.


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