JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — With an explosion of drumbeats, "The Lion King" has returned to its cultural roots, and its story of assassination, coup and famine, the destruction of a nation and hopes for its rebirth is finding a special resonance in Africa.
This first production with an all-South African cast has some new costumes, choreography and songs. It promises to make as big an impression on the continent's performing arts scene as the theatrical adaptation of Disney's animated film did when it opened on Broadway 10 years ago.
"To be in South Africa for this production has been the realization of a dream 10 years in the making," director Julie Taymor said. "As 'The Lion King' expanded beyond Broadway, I knew it had to keep its roots firmly in South Africa and ... I am proud to say that now we have brought the show home."
The new African home for "The Lion King" is the specially built Teatro at Montecasino, which has a capacity of about 1,800 ("There wasn't anything large enough in Africa," Taymor said) at a hotel, casino and shopping complex in Johannesburg. It cost nearly $14.5 million. The show officially opens June 6 with tickets costing about half the Broadway and London prices of $50 to $120.
It's a professional homecoming for Lebo M, the South African Grammy-winning composer and arranger who celebrates his debut as a commercial producer with this show. In a partnership with South African theater impresario Pieter Toerien, more than $10 million has been invested, Lebo said.
Lebo, who is black, said his partnership with Toerien, who is white, is symbolic of the new South Africa, even as the "Lion King" story reminds him of the old white-ruled country. Lebo was among the tens of thousands who were forced into exile before Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress were democratically elected in 1994.
Taymor and Lebo spoke during rehearsals at the Pretoria State Theater, where, for the first time in years, they were rehearsing together.
The director said she was nearly moved to tears, while Lebo said he was "crying inside" when he spoke to children in the cast about the meaning of the musical.
"In a split second it hit me, these children could not even have been in the theater [under apartheid] because they're black, and yet here we are in a very powerful historical second, bringing the 'King' back home and delivering it to a center of what was meant to be an exclusively white bastion."
Relics of white rule
Indeed, the theater reflects that history of white culture, its walls lined with portraits of classical performers, all of them white.
Now, its high ceilings, which once echoed with opera duets, resonate with peremptory drumbeats and the four-part a cappella harmonies traditional to South Africa's Zulu tribe.
The sprung parquet floor and wooden barre used to practice ballet reverberate to stomps of the gumboot dancing developed by mineworkers and the shoo-shoo whisper of "tip toe" dancing adopted by black migrant workers wanting to keep their activities from white managers.
"In the middle of the hallway, I heard the scream and people just started dancing automatically," Taymor said. That kind of energy led to two hours of improvisation and a new dance. "I was working with the singers, but 'Oh my goodness! That's a singer, but look at how this singer can move! How can we use that?' And we found another dance."
Taymor said the experience was "a seminal event" in her life.
For Lebo, his music also was influenced by the gospel rhythms and harmonies he learned in African-American churches while he was in exile. He now lives with his wife and son in Los Angeles and South Africa.
For the child actors, Lebo drew a parallel between Simba, the exiled lion prince, returning home and Mandela being freed after 27 years in jail and taking over the country. Lebo said he wanted the children to understand how Mandela was "inspired by the struggle of humanity and the people of South Africa."
There were too many parallels for one young actress, who burst into tears during the scene where Nala the lioness finds Simba in exile and tells him famine and drought are raging at home, that his wicked Uncle Scar has devastated the Pride Lands and that he must return to save the country.
"This is what's happening in my country right now," she cried to Taymor. "The violence, the crime, the fact that women and children are getting abused and raped and nobody is doing anything about it."
South Africa's 47.5 million people have been freed from white minority rule, but the vast majority remain impoverished. Crime rates are among the highest in the world -- especially for rape.
The young actress' anger reflects the disillusionment of many in a country with a booming economy that unequally benefits a white minority and a small number of blacks.
All about magic
But "The Lion King," with songs by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice, is all about magic -- mind-blowing puppets, amazing costumes and fantastic masks.
At an early rehearsal when some of the masks were brought out, a bit of that magic began to emerge with the maniacal hyena laugh of a young black boy, the gallumping entrance of a hefty white man playing the warthog and the balletic leaps of an actor attached to puppets that become a herd of gazelles.
Besides Johannesburg, "The Lion King" is also being performed in New York, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul and will soon open in Paris. It has won more than 70 major awards worldwide, including the best musical Tony Award in 1998 and five other Tonys, and has been seen by more than 34 million people.
At this rehearsal, Lebo, looking to the past as well as the future, sees himself in a skinny kid in a group playing young lions: "A week ago, he probably didn't know where his next meal was coming from."
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