When the Broadway musical The Lion King saw its world premiere hereabouts, give or take 20 years ago, I wondered: How was Disney going to do this? Would they turn a charming story set in Africa into an installment of the Tarzan legacy?
Would it be a plastic hit, one of those shallow productions for which Broadway is infamous? How culturally authentic was it? Fair questions.
Pursuant to which I interviewed choreographer Garth Fagan, director Julie Taymor, stars Samuel E. Wright and Tsidii Le Loka, saw a week of run-throughs, including previews, and, by opening night, walked away with my jaw on the floor. Then I wrote that The Lion King is authentic. To beat the band.
Fagan culled choreography from Central African countries. Taymor combed African culture to painstakingly create masks and puppets. For good measure, Lebo M of Soweto, South Africa did the musical arranging and contributed songs to the score by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Wright, for his audition, walked in, looked around, saw hopefuls doing their best to imitate James Earl Jones. Wright (Mufasa) sidestepped that approach, auditioning as a Masai warrior.
Le Loka’s casting as Rafiki, in and of itself, spoke volumes. She was a celebrated singer-composer in South Africa, hailing from the kingdom of Lesotho, when this show catapulted her to international stardom.
So, beyond a doubt, the authenticity of The Lion King is undeniable, such that I am dragging Mahmoud El-Kati down with me on opening night next week at the Orpheum.
In addition to that wonderful aspect, the production was, of all things — nearly fell off the floor once it dawned on me — a Black musical. Okay, not at the executive level, but, yes, the casting was overwhelmingly African American and, for that matter, African.
Including the national debut of one Ms. Heather Headley (Nalla), who stopped the show on a dime with her solo, “Shadowland.” In fact, the performances, all around, were off the proverbial hook. Wright, who has been in the Disney stable for ages (that was him doing the role of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid), sang “They Live in You” with such compelling majesty it gave you goose-bumps.
You had two of the cutest young talents God ever breathed life into, Scott Irby-Ranniar and Kajuana Shuford, as young Simba and Nalla. And there was Tracey Nicole Chapman, simply hilarious as Chenzi (the Whoopi Goldberg part) playing a knucklehead hyena. It was — sue me for sounding corny — heartwarming to experience such positive affirmation of what it is to be Black.
It also turned out to be a shame about Jason Raize, who portrayed the grown-up Simba. Here was an enormously gifted vocalist, handsome and buff with a brilliant future ahead of him. He sang “Endless Night” with heavenly, almost heartbreaking grace. And, in 2004, committed suicide. Truly, one beautifully done, wonderfully sung number followed another for opening to closing curtain.
Haven’t seen a show quite like it since. Too bad, ’cause we could use more of them, stage productions performed by Black stars that are popular and put Black culture out there. Until something comes along, you can do a whole lot worse than settling for The Lion King.
Disney’s The Lion King opens January 11 and runs through Feb. 12 at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.