Julie Taymor’s Broadway beast is anything but Disney-fied
I don’t know who coined the phrase “theme-park musical,” but that descriptor was more than appropriate by 1987 when Andrew Lloyd Weber imported to Broadway his pinheaded, pinball paean to railroads, Starlight Express. With its cast of fearless actors-singers-dancers zooming around the Gershwin Theater on roller skates, impersonating choo-choo trains, it was, to many, the death knell for all things good and Sondheim.
|Dancers leap among Julie Taymor’s gazelles while Thandazile A. Soni portrays the witch doctor Rafiki in The Lion King’s opening scene, “The Circle of Life.” The Broadway stage production opens April 13 at the Majestic.|
Others gobbled it up with glee, and why not? New York had, by this time, fallen to a chorus of now-and-forever felines prancing through a most agreeable if minor musical that had somehow been elevated to Holy-Grail status. And Phantom and Miss Saigon were making the trans-Atlantic journey complete with jaw-dropping special effects to thrill theater-goers who valued spectacle over song.
On our own shores, Disney Theatrical Productions bombarded Broadway with a smash-hit retooling of its cartoon classic, Beauty and the Beast, giving a generation of chorines the chance to sparkle as singing-and-dancing cutlery.
So when Disney’s The Lion King premiered on Broadway in 1997, it made sense to expect something similar. It was, after all, based on a cartoon feature just like Beauty, and it was moving into the huge and hallowed New Amsterdam Theater, once home to The Ziegfeld Follies.
That’s where Julie Taymor comes in. And that’s where all expectations were smashed to smithereens. When was the last time anyone saw a Broadway spectacular with roots in Asian theater, African masks, and tribal dance? When was the last time a pop-friendly Elton John score had been meshed with South African musical traditions? When was puppetry ever elevated to artistry in Times Square? Never. But the show, as everyone knows, was an instant and worldwide success due in large part to Taymor’s vision.
Local audiences will have a chance to see what all the fuss is about when the show’s national cast comes roaring into town for a lengthy sit-down at the Majestic Theater beginning April 13. With a company of 40 and as many bodies backstage, not to mention a sprawling live orchestra, it is one of the biggest touring shows San Antonio has ever hosted.
Space does not allow for cataloging the staggering stops along Taymor’s road to Broadway; let’s just say the journey reflects her fascination with and mastery of the many cultural traditions that have informed and inspired her most acclaimed works. I first encountered the “Taymor touch” in a revival of The King Stag, Serban’s now-historic staging of Carlo Gozzi’s 18th-century fable for American Repertory Theatre. Taymor designed the costumes, masks, and puppets. This was theater magic: An intimately eye-popping epic rooted in the wonders of folklore, mime, and dance.
Not only was I hooked, I understood why the usually articulate Ben Brantley had finally laid down his pen in his review of Taymor’s The Green Bird. A gorgeous interpretation of Gozzi’s comic fantasia, Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “...the scene defies coherent description. Ms. Taymor, who practices a form of visionary theater that is equally hard to sum up, has produced the sensation of falling into a mutating Magritte painting.”
In 1996, her highly praised Juan Darién at Lincoln Center offered an idea of what was to come when critic Mel Gussow wrote that many of her masks were “as totemic as Mayan sculpture.”
However, unlike these works, Taymor’s Lion King had to play eight performances a week in an 1,800-seat theater in a world where artistry and commerce make for a prickly partnership. On top of that challenge, masked actors and dozens of puppets were replacing the much-beloved animated characters of the original film. Yet, almost 10 years later, it is still playing to near-capacity with an average ticket price of $85.00.
The Lion King
April 13-May 21
After The Lion King juggernaut, Taymor didn’t rest on the proverbial laurels, nor did she return to Broadway. She conquered cinema with her look-at-me-I’m-breaking-all-the-rules delivery of Titus, a take on the early Shakespearean gore-fest about the Roman general Titus Andronicus, a character so blood-soaked he makes Sweeney Todd look like Mother Theresa. A brutally fascinating meditation on violence in the modern world, Taymor’s Titus was not for all tastes, but it was a banquet for fans and naysayers alike who were served up an original retelling of an old tale, complete with all the visual splendors of her stage productions.
In recent years Taymor has directed and designed operas around the world (The Magic Flute and the original Grendel among them) and Chicago’s Field Museum mounted a major exhibition of her designs. She hasn’t abandoned the silver screen, either. She is finishing her third major feature, a live-action and animated work tentatively titled Across the Universe, set in the anti-war protests of the 1960s with songs by the Beatles.
Taymor’s best film work so far is no doubt the mesmerizing biopic Frida, featuring Salma Hayek as an artist who was as iconoclastic as Taymor herself. In fact, if la Kahlo had made a movie about her own life, it may have very easily looked like this one. Few contemporary filmmakers can blend color, shadows, and sound to such a hallucinogenic effect.
Comparing Taymor to Kahlo isn’t much of a stretch. She has already been likened to a pantheon of geniuses from Federico Fellini to Joseph Cornell, her worked described as everything from “exhilarating” to Grand Guignol. But, as with Kahlo, there is no one like her. Just check out the pageantry of The Lion King’s first 15 minutes and you’ll know what I mean. Who says Elton John and puppets can’t get along?