Last week, I visited The Lion King for only the second time; the first was opening night in November 1997, when Ragtime was still two months away, but I later saw the original Ragtime twice and have seen it numerous times since via tours and regional productions. I'm officially outraged that The Lion King took the prize.
In case you've never seen The Lion King or need to be reminded of the storyline, it seemingly takes its inspiration from three sources. It's similar to a Bible story in that a son (the lion cub Simba) disobeys his father (the lion king Mufasa) by going into forbidden territory. As often noted, the show bears a resemblance to Hamlet in that a prince's uncle (Scar) is responsible for the king's death, usurps the throne, and then must face the son when he finally understands what happened. Finally, the musical borrows from The Wizard of Oz, for when the wicked ruler (Scar) is killed, the soldiers who once served him aren't at all sorry.
There is one line in the show that's smart and strong: After Simba takes a foolhardy risk, he's chastised by Mufasa, and when the kid defends himself by saying that his father wants him to be brave, Mufasa sternly answers, "I'm only brave when I have to be." But this can't make up for the fact that so much of the other dialogue in the musical is inane. There are punny jokes about a "cub" sandwich. When Pumbaa the warthog says, "Maybe he'll be on our side," Timon the meerkat sneers, "That's the stupidest thing I ever..." before interrupting himself with, "Hey, maybe he'll be on our side," as if this was his idea. Then there's the remark "He looks blue," which is taken literally by the listener, who says in all innocence, "I'd say brown and gold." At one point, the word "motto" is dropped into the action and someone asks "What's a motto?" before someone else quips, "Nothing; what's a motto with you?" Then there's the character who laughs wildly at something he said, and when no one else responds, he suddenly stops as if he never found anything funny in the first place. And wouldn't you know that the line, "What do you want me to do, dress in drag and do the Charleston" is followed by the character dressing in drag and doing the Charleston?
Aren't they ashamed? During the development of this show, didn't anybody say, "Look, it really isn't right that we sink to this level?" That style of humor may seem at home in a cartoon, but when a show is transmogrified with stunning sets, lighting and -- most of all -- imaginative costumes, it deserves a better book. I've never seen a performance of Ragtime where people haven't cried, thanks in large part to the work of book writer Terrence McNally, but I didn't see tears at either performance of The Lion King. It contains drama and tragedy, too, but the writing just isn't nearly as moving.
That's true of the score, too. Most scores written by committee don't cut it, and there are seven writers listed for The Lion King. Granted, Elton John and Tim Rice did most of it and they get larger billing than the other five, but why couldn't they have written everything? Having two collaborators keeping an eye on what a show needs is better than having a bunch of writers doing things piecemeal. Maybe that's why so many of the show's lyrics are prosaic, such as: "Nobody loves me, there's the rub, not even the cub." Can this begin to compare with Lynn Ahrens's simple but effective lyrics for "Back to Before," or the beautiful optimism in "Wheels of a Dream," or the power in the other Ragtime songs? Think of the variations that Stephen Flaherty found in ragtime music, from the title song to "Crime of the Century" to "New Music," and place them up against "Hakuna Matata."
Had The Lion King taken all three of the design Tonys, I wouldn't complain, though I do have two observations on Julie Taymor's innovative costumes that envelop human beings: 1) They're often three-dimensional, but the characters are two dimensional; 2) They aren't very sophisticated when the characters must talk. Timon and Pumbaa have tons of dialogue but their mouths only flap open and shut all night long. The famous Disney movies of yore had animation that didn't settle for open-and-shut mouths but, rather, went for detailed movement that's not to be found here.
And speaking of the Disney of yore: I wonder what Walt, the founder of the company, would have thought of this show. Would he be pleased that it contains a dozen jokes about flatulence? (In the late '70s, George Carlin did a routine wherein he complained that there were no fart jokes on TV. Be careful what you wish for, George!) And what of Scar saying, "I need to be bucked up," only to have Timon answer, "You've already bucked up royally." That joke depends on one's knowledge of the word "fuck" and I'm sure that Walt Disney wouldn't have wanted little kids to turn to their parents and say, "I don't get it," forcing the parents to either explain or finesse.
By the way, my perceptions of The Lion King aren't based on the current Broadway production, but on the sit-down version that has been playing in Boston's newly restored (at $38 million) Opera House since July. I'm a little sorry that this glorious house, conceived by architect Thomas Lamb, was reborn with The Lion King. But I'm not sorry I attended because I got to see the splendor of this grand "new" theater, which is hosting its first live production since December 1990, when Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera Company stopped using the place. The 1928 theater was originally a vaudeville house planned as a memorial to B.F. Keith, a vaudeville pioneer, built by his business partner, Edward Albee (whose adopted grandson writes plays). But, a year after the theater's debut, vaudeville was dying, as everyone who has seen Gypsy knows; so the Keith became a movie theater.
No, make that a movie palace, considering how glorious it was -- and now is again. What's wonderful is that the theater hasn't been renovated but restored, meaning that there was a concerted effort to make it look the way it did the day it opened. Old photographs and newspaper articles told that the wall fabrics were burgundy, the carpeting was gold and brown, and much of what ornamented the walls was gold-leafed or bronzed down to the last flower bud. There aren't many theaters that offer a marble fireplace or two, but the Opera House is one of them. Among the styles are Venetian, Baroque, and French Rococo, not to mention Renaissance -- which is a nice metaphor for what's happened here. Add to these the glorious marble columns (each topped with a Cheshire-grinning cherub), a sweeping staircase that splits in two directions, recessed ceilings that display two murals (one over the proscenium arch, one at the theater's apex), and a dozen handsome chandeliers. This is going to be a natural spot for the theater's next show, The Phantom of the Opera.
It was originally a 2,900-seat house, but 300 of those seats were later removed and 200 more were excised once the restoration began in late 2002. Still, 2,400 seats is a pretty big house. My second row seat in the dress circle seemed a few feet higher than your average mezzanine seat and, looking back at the far reaches of the balcony, I suspected that people up there felt as if they were watching trained fleas. But this is the way things are on the road in the 21st century: Theaters with fewer than 2,000 seats are having a rough time of it. At least the Boston Opera House doesn't have a second balcony -- even though it currently has a second-rate show, one that should have finished second (at best) in the Tony balloting.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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