How did it come to pass that the Walt Disney Corporation — a bottom-line business not known for taking big artistic risks — hired one of the most uncompromising spirits of America's avant-garde theater to move its lucrative animated franchise The Lion King from the silver screen to the Great White Way? Ten years after its critically acclaimed Broadway debut, the successful partnership between Disney and theater artist Julie Taymor continues to confound. In numerous interviews even the artist has expressed lingering dismay over the unlikely union.
Though widely known for her creative use of puppets, Taymor's name is hardly synonymous with children's theater or family entertainment. As a student of mythology and folklore, she traveled the globe to observe religious rituals and storytelling techniques. She spent her late teens studying and working with Joseph Chaikin's Open Theater, and her fiercely experimental work includes a revisionist opera based on Beowulf and a bloody, visually daring film adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Nobody familiar with Taymor's pre-Lion King work could have predicted a collaboration with Disney. And yet, who else could have moved all the animals of the African savannah into New York's New Amsterdam Theatre?
Over the past several decades, Broadway musicals have become increasingly reliant on technology. Taymor's puppets, however, are operated by actors, not by gears. Like so many experimental directors, she mines the world's great theatrical traditions in search of genuine transformative magic. And they don't call Disney "the Magic Kingdom" for nothing.
"The Lion King," at The Orpheum from August 23rd through September 16th. Tickets are $22.75-$85.25 (525-3000).