An orange sun splits across the African plains as the king of the jungle prowls through the wilderness, his magnificent black mane glimmering in the morning rays.
Suddenly he whips his head in our direction, his nostrils flaring dangerously as our eyes lock with the predator in our midst.
“I’m not actually king of the Pride Lands,” he growls. “Though I should be by right.”
The lion in question is none other than Scar actor Antony Lawrence and the savannah is in fact the stage of Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena, though both put on a convincing show at a behind-the-scenes tour of the city’s biggest-ever musical.
Friday November 18 is the official premiere of The Lion King, a show which has already made history as the fastest-selling musical title in the emirate’s history.
Running until 10 December, the Middle Eastern debut covers 19 shows and 60,000 tickets. And, if yesterday’s sneak peek is anything to go by, audiences can expect to be inspired, awe-struck and chilled to their very core — and that’s just the Scar effect.
Speaking at the preview, American theatre director Julie Taymor told of her 25-year Lion King journey, which saw her become the first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a Musical.
Despite taking the Disney juggernaut to more than 100 cities in 21 countries, Abu Dhabi feels like a particular highlight for the theatre legend, who flew into the capital to personally oversee the opening night.
“When they told me they were coming here and I found out how multicultural it is here, I said ‘that’s the perfect audience’,” says Taymor.
“This is a fantastic place to be doing The Lion King for that reason because it speaks to the world, and you are at the crossroads of the world at this time from Asia to the West.”
Lions in the desert
Discussions to bring The Lion King to Abu Dhabi have been ongoing since 2019, with Proactive Entertainment partnering with the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi and entertainment developer Miral.
And no expense has been spared in putting the production together.
“Together, we shared one vision to bring this legendary musical to the region,” says Taghrid Alsaeed, the executive director of group communications and destination marketing at Miral. “We have pulled out all the stops and the arena has been specially configured to provide a unique, immersive, theatre-like experience.”
For Michael Cassel, CEO of Michael Cassell Group, the international producer behind The Lion King, bringing the production to the “beautiful” Etihad Arena has been the realization of a long-held ambition.
“We started talking about where we could take it that has a vibrant culture that has wonderful audiences, a great melting pot of diversity of experiences and culture,” he says.
“Fast forward to last night and it’s absolutely a dream come true to see this spectacular venue.”
The international production, which will be performed in Abu Dhabi, is the same as the shows running in London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, and the director insists that standards are kept high.
“What we see tonight in Abu Dhabi is exactly the same production that audiences are experiencing on Broadway right now. There is no change on that production,” Taylor said.
“The costumes are the same, the scenic design is the same, everything from the lighting to the sound — everything is first class.”
And “first-class” is an understatement if the previous tours are anything to go by.
A roaring success
Having reached its 25th year on Broadway this week, The Lion King is widely regarded as one of the most successful stage musicals in the world.
Since its premiere, 25 global productions have been seen by over 110 million people on every continent except Antarctica.
Its worldwide gross exceeds that of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in box office history, with accolades including six Tony Awards and more than 70 major arts awards.
And at the center of it all sits Taymor, a creative powerhouse responsible for everything from stage direction to mask molding, despite never having watched the film until she received the call from its producer, Tom Schumacher. Having previously focused on operas and Shakespeare, Taymor was ready for a new challenge, taking inspiration from her travels across Asia to blend the cultural melting pot that sets the production apart to this day.
“The Lion King is ultimately a moving coming-of-age tale,” says Taymor. “There’s not one culture in the world that doesn’t understand that story and that is our common thread as human beings.”
A cultural melting pot
The Abu Dhabi production represents 18 different nationalities and features six indigenous African languages including Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana and Congolese.
“Do you understand them? Maybe not, it doesn’t matter,” says Taymor. “They’re stunning languages and you can follow what’s being shown to you visually.”
And there’s plenty to see. For a global blockbuster, The Lion King’s theatricality is astonishing. Influences from around the world are smashed together in an explosion of spectacle, allowing both distinct flavors and an eclectic carnival spirit.
To recreate the animal-like movements of Simba and co, more than 200 rod, shadow and full-sized puppets are used throughout the performance, a build which took 37,000 hours to complete.
Over 25 species of animals, birds, fish and insects are represented in the show, including 39 hyenas and a whopping 52 wildebeests to recreate the tragic stampede scene, which proved to be the most challenging in the entire production.
“I asked myself: ‘how do I put that stampede on stage? How do I actually visualize wildebeests and elephants and lions and all kinds of animals?’” says Taymor.
“I think there may be four or five hundred different puppets or animals represented on the stage.
“Because of my time in Indonesia and Japan and my experience as a sculptor, I was able to design and make the masks and puppets with the help of Michael Curry, who takes care of the mechanics.
“The set designer Richard Hudson then used rollers with miniatures and multiple masks to create a scene that make you suspend your disbelief. That is the poetry and magic of theatre.”
Another spectacle of The Lion King is undoubtedly the music, featuring hits such as Circle of Life, Hakuna Matata and Can You Feel the Love Tonight.
For the stage show, the film’s original award-winning soundtrack created by Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice has been adapted with the help of South African producer and composer Lebo M, and the results are mesmerizing.
“Lebo became an equal composer with Elton John,” says Taymor. “It’s this fantastic blend of South African traditions and Elton John’s music, which is European pop. That makes this rare fusion of music.”
A timeless tale
In terms of the plotline, Taymor stayed largely true to the 1994 animation, except for one key detail.
“Lion kings don’t exist. They really are the queens. They’re the hunters, they’re the [royal] ones,” she says.
“I called up the producer and said: ‘Let’s make Rafiki female’, she will be the spiritual guide, she will sing the Circle of Life, she’ll be the baboon — and it worked. This was the development of characters way beyond the film version.
“The only other plot change we’ve made in 25 years is an adaptation in Shanghai where we added a monkey king because he is a character in all their stories. What changes is every actor brings their own personality.”
According to both Taymor and Cassel, The Lion King has remained timeless due to its universal humanity, connecting people from all walks of life.
“It’s a large-scale show but when we do it in the rehearsal room without the set, it still moves you,” says Taymor. “It’s incredibly exciting.
“The Lion King might be about humans but not really. It’s like all fables, it’s about humanity.”
“It’s a story that is universal,” adds Cassel. “That is why the show has been so successful, first as a film and now 25 years later continuing to entertain audiences on stage with a story that families relate to.
“I hope that audiences that come to the Etihad Arena over the next three weeks will connect with different characters in the story, connect with the music and be able to go and take those stories home and those learnings to their everyday life.
“Theatre has the power to educate and inspire and this is the start of many more theatrical productions coming to this great city.”
• The Lion King musical at Etihad Arena runs until 10 December. Tickets start at Dh200, matinees begin at 1pm and evening shows at 8pm. For more information or tickets, go to Etihadarena.ae or Abu Dhabi Platinum List.
Emma Pearson is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist with an ever-rumbling belly and permanently itchy feet. Currently based in Dubai, Emma lived and worked across the UK and US before settling in the UAE five years ago. Favourite country: Vietnam. Favourite food: crisps. Favourite writing topics: fitness, feasts and far-flung lands.