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The Lion King, Abu Dhabi: A Disney tale never gets old, even when re-told decades later

Hakuna Matata (no worries); the artists may be playing animals on stage, but they’re telling a story everyone can identify with (and how!)

A timeless tale complemented by jaw-dropping musical performances and award-winning costumes, The Lion King: The Musical is coming to Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi. 2022 marks 25 years of the show, which is also often referred to as ‘a celebration of life’. The combination of the story, the legendary musical score, and the intricate costuming and production are just a few of the elements that have enabled this performance to transcend through generations. “The show is debuting for the first time not only in Abu Dhabi but in all of the Middle East – a historic moment for the musical. It’s been a long time coming and we’re excited for the audience to experience the magic, as we know Abu Dhabi is an established hub for entertainment, arts and cultural sectors,” said Nicolas Renna, managing director, Proactiv, the international event organisers, bringing the show (two hours and thirty minutes, with an intermission) here, which will run from November 16 until December 10. Needless to say, the show has been the recipient of more than 70 major international theatre awards. We speak to the performers to understand how to tell a classic, yet keep it fresh, for generations, over decades.

The stories told in the entire Disney gamut have a timeless, relatable feel to them. They’ve been written and fleshed out by highly skilled and experienced writers using folklore and ancient tales that pre-exist modern society by centuries; which naturally makes audiences feel that they somehow know the story, even if it’s their first time seeing it.

Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, a performing artist, playing the legendary Mufasa

You can never have enough of Disney

“I think that Disney tales are classic life lessons. Everyone can connect to the story and relate it to their own life. At its core, The Lion King is a human story. It deals with real-life human emotions – love, hate, jealousy, friendship, loss and fear; et al. We have all felt those things. You can watch the story as a child and adult, and take something completely different away from it, because of where you are in your journey. The story holds such a strong emotional connection. Yes, we are on stage playing animals, but we are telling a story everyone can identify with,” said Antony Lawrence, performing artist, who plays the iconic villain Scar in the show. Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, a performing artist, who plays the legendary role of Mufasa (King of the Pride Lands), quoted the classic song, Circle of Life, “Like the Mandrill-Griot RAFIKI sings ‘… there is more to see than can ever be seen; more to do than can ever be done.’ And the same is true for us actors, who have the incredible responsibility of telling this story — we are constantly discovering more hidden meanings within this rich story, and it makes it exciting for us to go on stage and share these new meanings with the audiences.” Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, under the direction of Thomas Schumacher; The Broadway score features Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs from The Lion King animated film; additional musical material by South African Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; and more.

People relate to The Lion King differently, based on their age. That is what is so beautiful about the story. It’s fun to play the story to a wide range of people every night, knowing that each will take something different away from it. Some people will learn the power of friendship. Some people will grieve the loss of a loved one. Some people will battle with jealousy they feel towards others.

Antony Lawrence, a performing artist, playing the iconic villain Scar

Behind the scenes, how do artists stay mentally and physically fit?

Overall, between cast and crew over 120 people are working behind the show. Mthokozisi, who performed on the West End before joining the International Tour, advised that whilst performing it is important to exercise consistently and rest, fully, while also eating healthy, staying hydrated and getting enough sunlight and fresh air. “Performing eight shows a week is no small task, but I love it. I keep my body in shape by eating and resting well. I regularly go to the gym to keep my fitness up. However, being on stage is the most mentally satisfying activity. The stage is my home. At each performance, I get to transport an audience to a different world, and for those few hours, the outside world disappears,” said Antony. The show has many layers and Taymor has created a style of performance merging the lines between animal and human, “You can dig deeper and deeper into the hidden meanings of the performance and keep finding new things,” said Antony, who has played the role since 2018 and still find new things to explore.

Here's what to expect!

  • To recreate the animal-like movements, more than 200 puppets – rod puppets, shadow puppets, and full-sized puppets – are used throughout the performance, with it taking a combined 37,000 hours to build them all.

  • More than 25 animals, birds, fish, and insects are represented throughout the show. These include 39 hyenas and a whopping 52 wildebeests! Also expect to catch glimpses of elephants, cheetahs, zebras, and antelopes.

  • Whilst the international show has been translated into eight languages including Japanese and Spanish, the script itself includes six indigenous African languages that remain untranslated.

  • The Lion King is the recipient of more than 70 significant awards, including six at the 1998 Tony Awards. In winning Best Direction of a Musical, Julie Taymor became the first female to receive the honour.

  • The most complicated set piece is the Pride Rock, which appears five times during each performance. The battery-powered set piece expands out to 45cm wide at its fullest position onstage and compresses to 20cm when it is not in use.


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