On the first day of rehearsals at a studio in Bristol filled with beautiful puppetry, masks and costumes for a brand new UK & Ireland tour of The Lion King, after the cast had met each other for the first time, they soared into their first ever rendition of ‘Circle of Life’. The song opens with that famous call – “Nants ingonyama” – which was written and sung originally in the 1994 animated film by South African composer and musician Lebo M, who went on to work on and perform in the musical too.
What the cast probably weren’t expecting was for him to be sat in the rehearsal room, grinning at them. But Lebohang Morake, to use his full name, had been in London the night before for the premiere of the new Lion King film – which he’d also sung on the soundtrack for – and couldn’t resist coming to wish another new production good luck.
When we chat afterwards, in a rehearsal room already stuffed with elephant and giraffe puppets from the show, I ask Lebo M if he ever thought he’d still be with The Lion King, more than two decades after the show first opened on Broadway in 1997.
“No. Honestly, no. But doing a second premiere yesterday, and landing here today for a fresh start, it feels very much like the first day twenty-something years ago,” he says. “There’s always that great excitement – you’re refreshed, every new production.”
Lebo M’s music was just one part of the sound of the first film, working alongside Hans Zimmer and with songs by Elton John – but it became absolutely central to the musical. When the director of the original Broadway show, Julie Taymor, was first asked by Disney if she might adapt it for the stage, she’d never even seen the animated movie. It was hearing Lebo M’s spin-off record, Rhythms of the Pride Lands – featuring music inspired by the film but incorporating further South African musical influences and voices – alongside the film that helped her develop her ideas for how to expand and adapt it for the stage.
The musical used songs from that record, and new compositions by Lebo M, and is fuelled throughout by the percussive rhythms and vocal traditions of South Africa – while still keeping beloved hits like ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ and ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’.
“Julie was inspired by my work,” Lebo M says. “She put the music that was the background in the movie in the forefront. That was exciting to me, of course.”
Lebo M recalls being flown from South Africa to the US for a first meeting with Taymor. It was meant to last half an hour.
“We discussed the project for hours!” he laughs. “We ended up going to dinner, and an introduction meeting became work.”
The pair clicked, and Taymor went straight into talking about how they would stage it; Lebo M remembers watching her moving napkins and spoons around the table, as it were an African plain (or a Broadway stage).
“I was like: ‘I’m in’. Sitting with someone so creative and visionary like Julie made it easy to be part of the Broadway production. Even if I was not familiar with that transition from a movie to Broadway, she made it seamless, because her approach was really different anyway,” he says.
Lebo M became part of the cast, as well as being involved on the creative side. How was the experience of opening a big musical? “I was ensemble, I was composer, I was producer… I must have been a crazy young guy,” he says. “All I remember was it was exciting.
“I was probably somewhat of a headache – because I was giving notes while performing. But I think it’s good that I was able to prepare The Lion King ensemble vocally and chorally. As a result, 23 years later I can go to any Lion King production and know what’s right and what’s wrong!”
Every cast for The Lion King must have South African performers within it, Taymor stipulated – and the show has been performed in Lebo M’s home country in 2007, where it achieved a record-breaking theatre audience. But audiences across the globe have taken The Lion King – and its music – to their hearts: over 100 million people have seen the musical, in six different continents, making it the highest grossing musical of all time. This autumn in Britain, the show celebrates 20 years in the West End, as well as embarking on the new tour around the country.
“The Lion King opened a new audience in animation, a new audience in theatre, long before we even go to the obvious new opportunities for South African music and South African talent,” he says. “The Lion King has opened doors in many ways. It’s a very proud legacy.”
Recently, Lebo M was brought back into the Disney fold to record four songs for the soundtrack to Jon Favreau’s new, photorealistic computer animated remake of The Lion King. That’s a project that attempts to make the story look more real – a move in the opposite direction to the one Taymor’s musical took, being a hugely theatrically inventive experience. Audiences can expect to be wowed by how colourful costumes, puppetry, masks and movement are used together to bring the Pride Lands and their animal inhabitants gloriously to life.
But what is it about this story that we keep returning to – that means there’s appetite for The Lion King musical to tour the UK & Ireland, twenty years after it first opened here?
“People can relate to aspects of most of the characters – in every family there’s a Scar, a Timon and Pumbaa, there’s a mother or father of authority. And everyone can relate to death. I’m still amazed how much that touches people,” says Lebo M. “There’s great creativity in the staging of the show, and a great universality in the story.”
Disney’s The Lion King plays The Bristol Hippodrome from September 7 until November 23, 2019. For ticket details visit atgtickets.com/venues/bristol-hippodrome/
MAIN PHOTO: Disney’s The Lion King. Photo by Brinkoff and Mogenburg