"The Lion King" has been hyped as a revolutionary Broadway blockbuster, but its musical score is as conventional as "Cats."
For the first two songs, " 'The Lion King' Original Broadway Cast Recording" (Disney Records) sounds unlike anything ever heard on Broadway. Pulsating African chants blend with standard pop rhythms in breathtaking harmony in "The Circle of Life," the opening number. The second song, "Grasslands Chant," is a beautiful chant celebrating the animals' joy at the birth of their lion King Mufasa's son, Simba.
Then the magic stops. A pompous trumpet call sounds, and the equally pompous Zazu, the King's vizier, gives "The Morning Report." The song quickly adapts a lilting music hall rhythm that melts into a pseudo-rhythm and blues beat.
After that, "The Lion King" never quite recovers. The problem stems from the score. The music is a Beauty and the Beast-like combination of songs written by composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote the songs to the movie, and songs written by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer, the creative team responsible for bringing the story to life on stage.
With the exception of "The Circle of Life," the marriage of music from these two teams never works. The beastly Elton John/Tim Rice songs seem to be lifted from Andrew Lloyd Webber, while the beautiful music from the other team creates a new Broadway animal.
This dichotomy can be observed when comparing the John/Rice "The Madness of King Scar" with the chant "One by One" written by Lebo M., a renowned South African composer. "The Madness of King Scar" is five minutes of painful rumination by the evil Scar and his hyena henchmen after Scar's usurpation of the throne.
The song's disgusting jokes about intestinal worms may drive you mad yourself. Yet for every song like "Madness" there are haunting, inspiring songs like Lebo M.'s "One by One," a soaring chant.
Many vocal performances are outstanding and exceed those found in the movie. Tsidii Le Loka exudes sagacity as the wise old monkey Rafiki, who has been made female to emphasize the importance of women in African culture.
Samuel E. Wright is a majestic Mufasa, while Scott Irby-Ranniar glides with prodigious panache through the songs of Young Simba.
Perhaps the most disappointing performance comes from John Vickery as Scar, who seems merely annoying, not evil. His hyena henchmen sound like a poor man's version of the Three Stooges.
With such mixed performances and the uneven score, the Broadway album of "The Lion King" feels incomplete. The recording also lacks what is perhaps the show's strongest asset, the visuals of Julie Taymor's amazing puppet-actor animals. Without them, the king of the jungle seems like just another cat.