Disney classic The Lion King is back on stage, but this time through theater storytelling at Disneyland. Since its theatrical release in 1994, the animated film has been adapted for the stage in an award-winning Broadway production and a reimagined live-action film. Until now, the story of a young lion named Simba who flees his homeland following the death of his father, only to return as an adult to take back his homeland from his evil uncle Scar with the help of his friends Timon and Pumbaa has been told one of two ways. But in Disneyland’s newest version of Tale of The Lion King, the story takes a different form.
The cast tells the story through voice, costume, music, and dance. Unlike the typical version of having the cast transform into animated characters or puppets, this new method of storytelling brings the classic to life in a way unlike ever before. Audiences members can see the show Thursdays through Mondays at the Anaheim theme park.
In a production under 30-minutes, audience members are treated to colorful costumes, music, dance, and overall joy of this classic tale. Ahead of the show’s premiere, Shadow and Act was treated to an exclusive sneak peek of the show as part of Disneyland’s #CelebrateSoulfully kickoff of June’s Black Music Month. We had to chance to speak with the show’s Associate Show Director, Paul Bryant, about bringing this magic to the stage for park attendees.
S&A: This story has been told via film and of course, on Broadway. And there may be some who feel as if they've seen it in every way imaginable. What would you tell them in order to convince them to see 'Tale of The Lion King'?
PB: It’s not. And the thing that we’re so proud of is the fact that we are telling the same story but in a different way with this whole storytelling aspect of the story. It’s not like we’re not trying to be the animals within the cast. We’re not trying to necessarily turn into puppets or all of that other fun stuff either. And even in some of our other resorts where we have The Lion King or whatever the titles may be and all those shows, there are aspects of people trying to pretend to be animals. And our main goal was not to even go down that road. Instead, we wanted to be storytellers, where you can sit around the campfire and tell a story and keep everyone engaged. This story is different than any other version of The Lion King, no matter if it’s on Broadway or in Hong Kong, Florida, or Paris – I think they have one as well. But it’s all the same story. But I like the fact that in our cast, they are people, they’re human beings who have been telling this story time and time again. And every time you tell it, it changes a little bit.
You know how you tell a story that somebody told you and then you tell it to someone else? Think the game telephone. And with that, you have to change it just a little bit more to make it a little bit more interesting. And I always say to people, we could tell this story and we could tell it from Scar’s point of view or Nala’s point of view. We could still tell the story of telling The Lion King through all those different venues, but we chose to tell it from Simba’s point of view. And I think that’s the magic, just having people step in and out of the roles of those characters.
With Disney, some of the characters in animated films are often colorless or genderless. And I think that you guys have really done a good job of making it inclusive in terms of casting. So I was stunned to see some of the characters transition into either male or female that we may have thought were the opposite. Can you take us through what went into your casting process for this project?
PB: We didn’t really put any labels on anything. And when we opened casting, we had anyone come in that wanted to audition for any role. The first time around, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have Timon be a woman? Or have a woman caretaker? But when she comes on, she’s a mere cat so it doesn’t matter if she’s a female cat.’ So that was not a factor. We were open to anyone. And this time around, when we auditioned, we had guys come in to audition for the role of Banzai. But because of where the music sits, not too many guys can sing that high and pull it off and make it believable. So we didn’t find it. We came close, but we didn’t find any.
But we really didn’t put too much effort into going, ‘Oh, no, this has to be a male or this has to be a female.’ And then especially in the day times that we’re living in right now, where you have people that are identifying in different ways. And we wanted to make sure that folks coming to the audition knew that we were open to anything because what we were interested in was their talent. What were you going to bring to this character?
How significant is your version of this story being told in this way to the entire Disney production or the contribution of Disney with all of their diversity and inclusion efforts?
PB: The way that I like to look at it is even when we went into this first time that we did it, we had a very diverse cast. As far as the dancers, we had Latinos, Asians, Blacks, everything. And this time around, it was just like we wanted to tell this story our way. Because of where The Lion King is set and the different musical elements and such, the heart of it only made sense to be an all African-American cast. And had we not come up with the talent, we probably wouldn’t have. But it was just the chance that we were going to take. And it’s something that we have not really done here at the resort extensively. And having this opportunity to bring that to our guests, I think was absolutely amazing. And I don’t think people are looking at it, ‘Oh, look, it’s a whole bunch of Black people on stage.’ No, it’s a bunch of storytellers. And because of everybody equates the tale of The Lion King with being on a safari or Africa, that would be appropriate.
So we wanted to do that, but we want to make sure that everybody knew that everyone is included in this. And we want everyone to take away the same story that anyone, any person of color or non-color BIPOC, non-BIPOC – It’s about the story and it’s about our storytelling that we did that to make everyone feel included.