Try as it might, the creative team behind "The Lion King" could not get the sun to rise.
In a sprawling New York City studio in 1996, a trio of designers tried experiment after experiment to produce a spectacle that might concentrate the majesty of an African sunrise onto the stage of a Broadway theater.
After a series of half-scale attempts with newfangled lighting effects and other sophisticated stage trickery, inspiration suddenly struck. Julie Taymor, whom Disney had plucked from the edges of the avant-garde a year earlier to helm the innovative musical, made an astoundingly simple suggestion: "Why don't we turn the sun into a puppet?"
The resulting object, assembled by scenic designer Richard Hudson from little more than clear plexiglass rods and torn strips of dyed China silk, inspires gasps from audiences when it's hoisted up on a pair of visible wires.
"When I watch that now, 14 years down the line," Hudson said, "I'm thrilled."
Thursday, after a six-year absence, that little thrill and the two-hour fable of danger and heroism that follows it will return to Shea's Performing Arts Center for a monthlong run.
And that simple sunrise -- evoking the shimmering horizon of the African dawn while laying its mechanics bare for the audience to see -- is a distillation of the "Lion King" ethos and the unique creative process that turned it into one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history.
The incubation of the musical, which for many has proven that gargantuan profits and artistic risks can go hand-in-hand, grew out of a combination of intelligence, daring on the part of Disney and sheer luck.
It certainly helped that each major member of the creative team was pulled in from the outer fringes of Broadway -- with Taymor hailing from the worlds of experimental theater and puppetry, choreographer Garth Fagan from concert dance and Hudson from dance and opera.
On top of that, Hudson said, Disney offered the creative team a surprising degree of leeway.
"[Then-Disney CEO] Michael Eisner had made it clear right at the beginning that he didn't want it to be a reproduction of the film," Hudson said by phone from Strasbourg, France, where he is working on the scenery for a new opera. "That was a freedom to me, in that I didn't have to watch the cartoon and reproduce that onstage. I could come up with fresh images that told the same story."
The show also gave Hudson a chance to go back to his roots. And here's where luck comes into the equation:
When they hired Hudson to work on "The Lion King," Taymor and Disney were unaware that he had been raised on a farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which afforded him an intimate knowledge of the look and feel of the African landscape.
"I have a very strong sense of space and color and the whole atmosphere of Africa," he said. "Now I live in Europe, and that's the one thing I really miss about Africa, the sense of space and distance and the sunrises, the sunsets and the fantastic colors."
All of that makes its way into a production that has been praised for being more genuinely African -- in its music, its scenic and lighting design, and its choreography -- than the immensely popular 1994 animated film on which it is based.
Taymor became famous for her creative use of puppetry and costuming to bridge the gap between humans and animals -- allowing audiences to see elements of both in the actors' performances. Human faces and animal masks appear simultaneously, creating the unlikely conditions for a suspension of disbelief somehow deeper than what was possible in shows such as "Beauty and the Beast," in which actors appear in full animal costumes.
"I think the audience, when they can see the mechanics of something, there's something very pleasing about that," Hudson said. "When you can see the person who's manipulating the puppets, I think there's a certain delight in that. The audience looks at it and they feel they're in on the show."
Fagan, who was recruited by Disney and Taymor to let his eclectic style loose for the first time on Broadway, echoed Hudson's sentiments and talked about the process of inserting his sensibility into the musical milieu.
"You are getting a duality," said Fagan, whose company is based in Rochester. "You are getting lionesses that are dressed like lionesses, but are really sexy, fierce women who hunt to feed the pride and have to kill gazelles or whatever's on the menu that day. But at the same time, they're sensual."
"Same thing with the hyenas," he continued. "They're just cut-throat, no-good bums, but you've got to show their humanity, too. That was a big challenge for me."
Just as Hudson brought his experiences in the African bush to create spectacles like the shimmering sunrise and the show's famed wildebeest stampede, Fagan brought the entire breadth of his experience to bear on the project.
"I am nourished by all the cultures and languages and rhythms and costumes and foods that I've tasted. And I've done it all. I've been to every major city in the world and enjoyed their culture," he said. "I wanted to include all the different types of dance that I knew and that I'd studied so that kids, especially, who came to see the show could get an education."
The inclusion of so many styles of dance -- from ballet and modern dance to hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean -- not only helped to vault the musical to popular heights but also built the audience for concert dance among children, Fagan said.
"If they took ballet, they'd see ballet there, but they'd also see hip-hop. And if they took hip-hop and ballet, then they'd also see African and Caribbean dance, so the kids could understand what a broad, rich tapestry dance is."
The return of "The Lion King" to Shea's comes at a time of renewed interest in the film, which topped the box office last week in movie theaters in 3-D rerelease and comes out on Blu-ray on Tuesday. In a month we'll know what effect the theatrical run will have on attendance at Shea's; during the last visit from the show, it totaled 129,000.
For Fagan -- as, one suspects, for Taymor, Hudson and Eisner -- "The Lion King" remains one of the proudest accomplishments of a long career.
"We were all challenged to come up with our finest work by Julie, who had come up with her finest work," Fagan said. "It was hard work, but that's how you get quality stuff."