|Scar, left, and Mufasa in scene from 'The Lion King' /Courtesy of Disney|
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Disney's musical "The Lion King," one of the most successful stage shows in history, will visit Korea once again after 12 years and for the first time in the original English production.
The international tour of "The Lion King" will begin at Daegu's Keimyung Art Center in November and then move to Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul in January 2019 and the newly opening Dream Theater in Busan in April.
"'The Lion King' is a global phenomenon like no other in the history of live entertainment. We are incredibly proud this show keeps on living, with nine different productions currently staged," Felipe Gamba, director of International Strategy for the Disney Theatrical Group, said at a press conference in Seoul on July 30.
Based on the animated film of the same name, "The Lion King" musical has attracted over 95 million viewers from 100 cities in 20 countries since its 1997 Broadway debut.
|Felipe Gamba, director of International Strategy for the Disney Theatrical Group / Courtesy of Clip Service|
Though people might think the show is mainly for children, it conveys more of a philosophical message of coming of age and the circle of life.
"We never think of 'The Lion King' or other Disney musicals as family shows or shows for children. It is a show that can be enjoyed by people of any age and one of the wonderful things about Disney storytelling is that it appeals to the children in all of us. But when conceiving the show, we aimed for sophisticated adults as our audience," Gamba said.
The show boasts a large scale, including the Pride Rock and Elephant Graveyard set and numerous puppets and masks to portray the animals' land, and it was difficult for the production to travel abroad. That was why it took 20 years for the first-ever international tour production of The Lion King to be launched.
The tour production visited Manila, the Philippines, in March and is currently playing in Singapore, before heading to three Korean cities in November.
"Over 100 people are travelling for the show with scenery, props and costumes. It's literally a moving city. It was difficult to find the right partner to conduct an international tour," Gamba said. "One of the challenges for the tour is that we don't compromise. The show is the same beautiful show anywhere it plays and audiences will see the show as it is without any compromises."
The international tour company consists of cast members from 16 countries and Gamba said such a composition conveys the message of "The Lion King" more clearly.
"The mixed nationalities are a big plus for the international tour as the message of The Lion King is what brings us as one. There is a notion that this multinational company has been assembled to tell the story," he said.
The international hit had already arrived in Korea in 2006 as a Korean language version produced by Japan's Shiki Theatre Company. However, the production lasted only for a year with meager success, unlike invincible triumphs in other countries.
Gamba said Shiki has a specific system different from other commercial production companies and it was not suitable for operating an overseas production despite the company's success in Japan.
"They had good intentions, but it was challenging. The Korean theater market has shown remarkable growth since then and it will help us for this international tour," the director said. "Korean audiences have a clear appetite for musical theater and are very receptive."
|Nala, left, and Simba in scene from 'The Lion King' /Courtesy of Disney|
Puppets and masks
Director, costume designer and puppet designer Julie Tamyor is the mastermind who made the animal characters believable on stage.
Instead of hiding puppeteers, Taymor brought the mechanism and those who manipulate the puppets forward, saying the show is not about animals but humans.
For instance, a dancer pushes the Gazelle Wheel across the stage and the wheels turn to make the gazelles leap, while the dancer pushing the rig is completely visible. Taymor called this "humanimal" or "double event," revealing the art of puppetry and not hiding the human element.
She designed masks for principal roles as well, adapting specific characteristics needed to keep the core of the characters. The masks are placed over the heads of the performers, instead of covering their faces, sticking to Taymor's philosophy.
The director also expanded and deepened the plot and characters from the 90-minute movie to make a two-and-a-half-hour stage show. One of the major changes is strengthening the character of Nala, a young lioness. Taymor made her more of a warrior who is willing to fight for her nation.
Composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice composed a few new additions for the stage musical and African composer Lebo M contributed to make the music deeper and more moving through choral sounds from South Africa.
|Mike Schaperclaus, music director of the international tour of "The Lion King" / Courtesy of Clip Service|
The international tour's music director Mike Schaperclaus has been associated with the show for a long time.
"I've been connected to The Lion King since 2003. I started as a percussionist, promoted to conductor, and then music director," Schaperclaus said. "I knew when I started The Lion King that it would change my life as a musician. It indeed changed my career and life."
The music director said actors and musicians from 16 different countries consisting of this production make the show more special. "It is a very special score to work on. They are willing to do something together and this group effort makes The Lion King," Schaperclaus said.
One of the notable things about the show is that two percussionists are visible to the audience the whole night.
"They play a variety of percussion instruments from African drums to Cuban and Brazilian instruments. We also have djembe, marimbas, carimbas and other ethnic flutes in the orchestra, which showcase the multicultural aspect of the show," the music director said.
|Ntsepa Pitjeng, actress who will play Rafiki in the international tour of "The Lion King" in Korea / Courtesy of Clip Service|
Ntsepa Pitjeng, who will play the baboon Rafiki in Korea, is from South Africa and joined the show through an audition held in her home country in 2009.
"I played Rafiki in four countries and can't wait to perform it here in Korea," she said. "Having traveled with this show, I met new people and learned new culture and languages. I can't wait to meet Koreans and learn Korean culture here."
The actress said her character is like a centerpiece of the story.
"The message of The Lion King is so timeless. The show tries to relate with the message of remember who you are and know where you came from and these messages don't get old but handed down from generation to generation. If you see the show now and 10 years later, you will relate to it differently."
The baboon is originally a male character in the animation, but changed to a female in the stage adaptation. Pitjeng said she thinks the character became female to add the beautiful voice of a woman to the music as well as to emphasize the spiritual and healing quality of Rafiki, since most shamans and traditional healers in Africa are wise women sharing wisdom and healing.
"When Rafiki calls out to the animals to come and see the cub, she is literally shouting out. The first note of the opening number The Circle of Life has to be strong, powerful and heard. It is magical performing it every single night," Pitjeng said.
The actress said the most challenging thing about playing Rafiki is to balance between the animal and human characteristics, not wearing heavy makeup or a large neck piece.
"I am a loud and energetic person and Rafiki could easily become a baboon on all fours. However, I always try to embody her and include some human qualities at the same time," Pitjeng said.