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On Broadway and the road, 'The Lion King' still roars

Studio executives often have bad ideas.

This was the case one day in the early 1990s, late in the development of "The Lion King," when Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted on shoehorning a comic version of "Stayin' Alive" into the 1994 film.

Co-director Roger Allers and writer Irene Mecchi were not on board with Katzenberg's suggestion for a comic song sung by Timon and Pumbaa, the film's now-famous comic duo. Instead, they created their own cheeky version of a Hawaiian war chant and gave an ad-hoc performance for Katzenberg along with co-director Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn.

"Don played an empty Sparkletts water bottle as a drum, and one of the animators could play the ukulele," Alles said. "Rob played Timon and I played Pumbaa, and we did the Hawaiian war chant for Jeffrey."

Though Katzenberg was still not convinced -- studio bosses can be so stubborn -- but the song had already been edited into a test screening, and audiences loved it.

An iconic movie moment was born.

The 'Lion King' lineage on Broadway

For the first time, that ad hoc Hawaiian hula dance has made its way into the musical version of the 1997 Broadway smash, which begins a monthlong run on Dec. 13 in Shea's Performing Arts Center.

Mecchi and Allers, in a joint phone interview, praised the collaborative process that resulted in the 1994 film and the 1997 musical -- each of which shattered records in their respective box offices.

The musical, directed by Julie Taymor and featuring music by a bevy of contributors including Elton John and Tim Rice, is celebrating its 20th year on Broadway. It has been touring for nearly as long, last visiting Buffalo in 2001.

Aside from the insertion of their ad-hoc hula dance, Allers said, very little about the show has changed from its original stage version.

It still features the innovative puppets, masks, stagecraft and spectacle that wowed audiences and critics alike upon its debut. It still features a mixture of African tribal music and 20th century pop. And perhaps most importantly for the likes of Katzenberg, Allers and Mecchi -- it still pulls in boatloads of money on Broadway, online and on the road.

The film, for its part, remains the number-one G rated movie in history, grossing more than $400 million worldwide. But that's peanuts compared to its Broadway counterpart, which ranks as the highest-grossing musical of all-time, at $1.4 billion as of June, according to Entertainment Weekly.

What accounts for this spectacular success?

"I think it was that happy accident of people ending up working together who really sparked off one another," Mecchi said. "The feature animation process is so collaborative when you can finally get a team that really could finish one another's sentences and are all working on the same thing."

The collaborative spirit of the film production process, both Allers and Mecchi said, translated to Taymor's working style on the stage version. The division of duties among creative team members was intentionally porous, and ideas were likely to come from unexpected places. Defining narrative moments in the stage production, such as the moving moment when the animal kingdom mourns the death Mufasa, emerged out of impromptu brainstorming sessions rather than than the pen of one designated writer.

The result is a show that pushed the musical theater art form into uncharted territory.

Collaborative as the creative process was, much of the credit for the show's use of elements like masks and puppetry -- previously relegated to children's theater and the avant garde -- goes to Taymor. So too does the credit for bending the narrative away from the film's male-dominated story and toward a more equitable distribution of dramatic roles.

"She noticed in the film that it was very much a male-dominated story. The female characters really didn't get a lot of screen time, so she wanted to change that and improve upon that," Allers said, noting that the character of Rafiki is female in the show. "There are some beautiful dances, with the lionesses going out to hunt and things like that. So there's a much greater female presence."

As for the current tour, very little has changed since the last time it appeared on Shea's stage in 2011.

The sets, masks, puppets and costumes, Mecchi and Allers said, have been made much lighter and more efficient to help actors and decrease load-in time and storage space needed for the sets. But aside from that hula number that Allers and Mecchi fought so hard for, audiences are unlikely to note any changes.

And that's by design.

"Many times, producers let shows get a little tattered around the edges because it's expensive to keep the costumes fresh and the sets painted," Mecchi said.

"It's always been a goal, from the top on down, to preserve the feeling and the original intention of the film and of the play," Allers said. "I really appreciate that Irene and I have sort of been kept on as guardians, in a way, to keep it true."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

PREVIEW

"The Lion King"

The show opens with a preview performance on Dec. 13 and officially opens on Dec. 14 in Shea's Performing Arts Center (646 Main St.). It runs through Jan. 7. Tickets are $30 to $130 for the Dec. 13 preview performance and $40 to $150 for the remainder of the run. Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.

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