LEAPS OF FAITH
There are no rules and no guarantees when trying something new. But we can learn from the successes of others - especially those outside our field. 1 Welcome unexpected proposals Aged 16, Julie Taymor went to Paris and joined the Jacques LeCoq mime and theatre school. At 18, she returned to the US to study anthropology, folklore and shamanism. Julie then won a Fellowship to study Bunraku theatre in Japan and shadow puppet forms in Indonesia.
An unconventional career path. After four years study and travel, she went back to the US and directed four Shakespeare productions. Then to Japan to design and direct Stravinski’s Oedipus Rex, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Strauss’ Salome. Not easy-going family entertainment. Given the track record, her next call was unexpected - especially as she’d never heard of a children movie called The Lion King (TLK). 2 Accept a challenge (especially if you don’t have a choice) Producers Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher were part of the Disney animation business. They had taken two years to get their “African idea” into story form, and another three to get TLK film made and into market. Five years was a standard time line in pre-computer animation. Schneider and Schumacher were movie men. The Disney theatre division had one success under its belt: *Beauty and the Beast*, which was a handsome staging with the common Broadway look and feel - designed to repeat the experience of seeing the film. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Synchronised dancers, full orchestral arrangements, singing candlesticks and teapots. TLK had a very different look and feel. Scheider and Schumacher were not convinced that TLK would be a musical. But at the time it was the 5th highest grossing movie in history; so the CEO Michael Eisner was keen to capitalise on its success. He also needed someone to take the helm at the theatre division. Schneider and Schumacher got the job - and the TLK adaptation project. And fortunately, Schumacher knew Julie Taymor’s work. 3 Help others to see differently After she saw the film, Taymor said it’s going to be fun figuring out how to stampede animals on a stage. To de-risk some of the risk, her contract was in three parts; the first was to reach agreement on how to stage the story. Calling on her Indonesian experience, the gazelle wheel came to represented the entire concept.
With one person moving across the stage you got six or seven leaping gazelles. When she presented the wheel to Eisner, she explained that in traditional puppet theatre there would be black-masking to hide the wheels. “Let’s get rid of the masking, because when the mechanism is visible it’s even more magical.” That was where theatre has power over film. On top of that, the little gazelle wheel is the circle of life. So over and over again, with the audience conscious or not, it reinforces the idea of the wheel. Eisner got it immediately. 4 Don’t discard failed ideas The next part of her contract was to turn an 89 minute film into a full evening musical. Taymor came up with a plot line for Act II that would take Simba to an oasis in the desert, full of animals who have evolved halfway to human. Papa Croc, was a new villain who took water from the desert (hence the drought in the film) to power the electricity in his Vegas-like city. Simba would end up becoming a champion fighter in an arena, earning the nickname ‘The Lion King’.
In the end, Taymor and Disney decided not to use this, but to stick more closely to the action of the film. But Taymor had figured out the animal ‘mask’ on the human performer. In fact, everything that worked in the final show came about because of the work done on the concept they abandoned. “Everything is a good idea until it’s badly rendered.” Julie Taymor 5 Much risk is held in the minds of others “Hiring Taymor was not the biggest risk,” said Schumacher (albeit a year after the show opened). “Not hiring her would have been a bigger risk.” Everyone else on the director list had a background from mainstream musical theatre. With particular lenses and particular expectations. So did the potential audience. Before the show opened, word was on the street: A Disney production was going to be like *Beauty and the Beast*. As it was animals, it was going to be giant foam heads, like Mickey and Goofy in a theme park. That’s the baggage carried by an established brand. So the team posed itself a question - to producers, to creative, to performers, to marketing: What if this wasn’t The Lion King from Disney, but The Lion King from the Royal Shakespeare Company? Different aesthetic, different design, different talents, different lenses...
..and globally to date, $6.2 billion revenues.
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