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‘The Lion King’ at 25: How the Iconic Broadway Show Makes Each Production Different Around the World

The Lion King
Matthew Murphy

In the 25 years since “The Lion King” opened on Broadway, the show has traveled all over the world and played to more than 110 million people. But there’s one thing that often doesn’t translate between countries: the jokes.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

“What often does not cross over is humor,” said “Lion King” director Julie Taymor, who has overseen the show across 28 productions around the globe (with nine currently playing on three continents). That’s particularly true of the comic relief characters that are meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa. “That Borscht Belt humor, and how we cast it in New York — you have to find the local humor instead. When we were in Shanghai, for the hyenas and for Timon and Pumbaa, we had to find out, okay, where are they from? What is their accent?”

She added, “In Tokyo, I remember the comedians for the rough and tumble parts, they were from Osaka. There was a lot of humor there.”

Speaking on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast, Taymor also explained how other elements of the show can play differently based on the international context. She singled out a production in South Africa in which Timon was played by a Black South African actor from a township in Capetown, and Pumbaa was played by a white Afrikaner.

“That became part of the story, because they were best friends and they were outcasts,” Taymor said. “Which means they lived in the jungle and had missed Apartheid. So there was a sub-sociological bent in that production.”

Also on the new episode of Stagecraft, Taymor looked back at the production’s early days to recall the challenges of staging the show and the lessons she learned along the way.

The biggest takeaway for her? “Don’t underestimate your audience,” she said. “Don’t think because you’re doing something that’s going to have a 4-year-old in the audience that you have to dumb it down. … People think that if you’re doing artistic work, it’s not commercial. No. Quite the opposite. Originality is what the audiences are hungry for.”

Taymor also revealed details about the two film projects she’s developing, along with a stage production she’s hoping to get off the ground. “I think it’s Broadway, simply because I think everything can be Broadway,” she said.

To hear the full conversations, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.