One of the most popular stage musicals of all time, The Lion King has been seen by over 70 million people worldwide and is opening in Brisbane today. Disney invited us to step behind the curtain and take a sneak peek at the world that exists off the stage and see just what goes on behind the scenes of this ultra successful musical.
Now in its 17th year, the production runs like a well-oiled machine and each person knows their place. Even though backstage is buzzing with people, there is a sense of calm and relaxed confidence.
The stats are impressive. Since its Broadway premiere on November 13, 1997 it has been played in 18 countries and in every continent except Antarctica. It has been one of the most successful titles in entertainment history with a cumulative gross in excess of $5 billion and has been translated into eight different languages.
Due to the musical’s enormous commercial success, Disney Theatrical Productions have had the luxury of being able to hire the most accomplished people in their fields and this is apparent as soon as you start to wander the walkways behind the stage.
Click through the gallery above to see all the behind-the-scenes photos from the set of The Lion King!
There is loud laughter coming from the hair and make up area as performers sit patiently as layers upon layers of colourful, intricate and eye-popping make up are applied to their faces (and in some cases, their arms, legs and torso too). When we arrived in the room, there were four make-up artists working on performers, transforming them from everyday people into recognisable Disney characters. There was also another performer having his body make up air brushed, turning his skin a gleaming shade of gold.
While we were there, we had a quick chat to Toni Stewart, a dancer and singer who is part of the Swing/Ensemble cast.
How different do you feel after makeup/ hair is competed?
Makeup and hair in our show is a process of complete transformation. Before it, I am just Toni, going about a normal day like anyone else. Putting on the makeup is therapeutic. I reflect over the day I have just had, I take the chance to be calm and I mentally prepare for the show. After it is all done, I am completely transformed. Not only does it make us beautiful, it gives us a sense of responsibility to please our audience. Pride to represent our people and privilege to be part of such magnificence.
What is your favourite moment of the show to perform?
Absolutely the most amazing part to perform is The Circle of Life as a Birdlady! We are the most fortunate because we have direct connection to our audience. Because the character is so beautiful, people always look at us and make eye contact. They smile, laugh, gasp in awe and weep. The best reward is the feeling we get as we witness the transfer of the spirit of the story from ourselves to them.
Leaving the make up area, we walk past a door marked ‘Wardrobe’, and one of the publicists points out that most of the costumes are already in the performers dressing rooms, ready for show time. As we see when we get down to stage level, there is a gauntlet set up for all the quick changes that happen during the show. There are stage production staff milling about, ready to assist with wardrobe changes between scenes and can be seen steaming garments and double checking all the elements of each outfit are ready to go. Many of the performers play multiple animals so each individual wardrobe has a colourful cascade of outfits hanging up, plus shoes, headwear and props. The heaviest costume is worn by the performer who plays Pumba the Warthog. His costume, worn like a backpack, weighs in at over 20 kgs.
With such an extensive collection of costumes, Daryl Myott, Head of Wardrobe, has a huge responsibility to make sure everything is show ready. We asked him a few questions.
What is it like working on such a massive production?
Challenging, though exciting at the same time. It is always very busy and no two days are ever the same.
Your favourite look from the show is…
Mufasa. I would describe the costume as regal and the design is incredibly strong and therefore complementary to the character.
After traipsing through the various areas backstage, we ended up in the puppet maintenance section — a small area allocated to the repainting and repair of the musical’s hundreds of costumes and props. All the masks that appear in the iconic Circle of Life opening of the show were hand sculpted and painted by Tony Award-winning director and designer Julie Taymor, along with designer Michael Curry. With the masks, Taymor created what she calls “the double event” which enables the audience to see the characters as animal and human at the same time. The puppet team were doing touch ups and repairs and were flanked by animal heads which peered down at them from all sides. Also looming over them were huge towering stacks of crates which transport all the parts of the show between locations.
Finally we popped our head around the curtains to see the stage, lit up and being sound tested before opening night. Even though the seats were all empty, it was easy to imagine a full house, enthralled and breathless, watching one of the greatest musical productions tell one of the most loved stories of all time.
We asked Michael O’Donnell, Resident Director, what it’s like to be part of something like this.
What is it like behind-the-scenes just before show time and how do you ensure it all goes successfully?
The backstage area is incredibly busy beginning the half-hour prior to curtain. Every department is in motion to get the show started. And it is not unusual that we have to throw on an understudy for one of our playing cast at the last minute. A last minute replacement affects every department in the building including make-up, sound, puppets and direction. There is even more choreography going on backstage as there is going on in front of the audience.
How many hours of rehearsals are involved each day and how long was the preparation before the show opened?
We generally rehearse eight hours during the week which is full of eight performances. We have endless pick-up rehearsals and notes from the time the cast enters the building until the time the curtain comes down at night. We originally had six weeks to put the show together in Sydney. Prior to the first rehearsal, we had many weeks of auditions over a three-month period.
Ready to see it all come together and experience the magic of the show? The Lion King opens on Friday September 26 at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC. For more information, visit our event guide.