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Tune Thursday : Looking back at the development of Broadway's "Lion King"

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Tune Thursday : Looking back at the development of Broadway's "Lion King"

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For most people on this planet, the stage version of Disney's "The Lion King" first came on their radar when this Julie Taymor production initially opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Given the spectacular reviews this show received (Not to mention its amazing word-of-mouth) musical fans knew immediately that something special had just arrived on Broadway.

But Derek Smith (Who's now playing the role of Scar in this Tony Award-winning show) ... He knew almost two years before the rest of the world that Taymor was out to turn Disney's animated "Lion King" into a truly extraordinary evening of theater.


Julie Taymor sculpts the headpiece that Nala uses in  the stage version of Disney's
"The Lion King," which is now being presented at the Minskoff Theatre.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

"Back when I was in 'The Green Bird,' " Derek remembered. "Julie used to invite me up to her workshop where she was then working in secret on 'The Lion King.' She'd sculpted all these prototypes for the show's masks. And I'd put them on and then move about the workroom. So that Julie would then get some sense as to whether the mask worked or not. Whether it actually achieved the effect that she was going after."

Every time Taymor invited Smith to come visit her workshop, there was some new element of the show she needed help with. Be it Scar's big second act number -- "The Madness of King Scar" -- or just to see if the mechanism that Julie had created to help move the masks was practical for performers to use, Derek helped out where & when he could.

 
Model illustrating what the final phase of "The Lion King" 's stampede sequence would look like.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

"I still remember how excited Julie when she finally figured out how to stage the movie's stampede sequence," Derek continued. "She showed me the miniature model of that set, how the rollers would turn and gradually reveal all of those wildebeests thundering down into that canyon."

So you'd think -- what with being involved on the earliest possible stages of development on Disney's "The Lion King" -- that Smith would have been downright eager to join the cast of this sure-to-be-spectacular show. But that's where you'd be wrong.


Derek Smith in Disney's "The Lion King."
Photo by Joan Marcus. Copyright 2000
Disney. All Rights Reserved

To be honest, Derek was kind of intimidated by this production. Mostly because " ... 'Lion King' was a musical and I don't do musicals."

But over time, as 'Lion King' continued on its run and the show's production team kept having to bring in strong new performers who were familiar with Julie Taymor's style to replace the show's original cast ... Smith's name kept coming up.


Julie and her "Lion King" production team check out a model of Pride Rock
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And (believe it or not) Derek didn't get around to seeing the stage version of "The Lion King" until after he'd actually been hired to do the show.

"I remember taking my daughter with me to the New Amsterdam." Smith said. "And I was amazed as well as intimidated by what I saw. This was going to be the first time I'd ever been a replacement. I'd never stepped into a moving production before. I found the whole idea rather daunting."

But Smith hit the ground running. Working first with a stage manager and a rehearsal pianist, Derek learned the blocking of the show. Next came a quick put-in rehearsal with the cast. And after that ...

"You basically learn as you go out there in front of the paying customers," Smith continued. "The first time that I was out on stage in front of all those lights, I kept thinking 'How long did I sign on to do this?' "


Michael Curry demonstrates one of the earlier incarnations of the Scar costume
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

But over time, Derek gradually became used to the demands of this show. From Scar's extremely elaborate costume (It takes three people each night to strap Smith into that outfit) to fitting in with the rest of the company. Each night, it got a little easier.

And now ... Smith just loves the challenge that Scar presents. You see, Mufasa's brother is the one character who appears in the entire show. More importantly, it's Scar's actions that really drive the plot. And what actor wouldn't love a role like?

Mind you, what's kind of ironic about all this ... A dozen years or so ago, Derek remembers being up in Julie's workroom. When Taymor was really struggling to find a way to make Scar's mask work.


Julie Taymor puts the finishing touches on Scar's mask
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

"She had me try on all these different versions of Scar's head," Smith laughed. "But all I could think about was the size of the contract that Disney Theatrical had had Julie sign. While I was in her workshop once, she showed me a copy of the thing. I remember it being as thick as a phone book. Never did I dream that -- 10 years later -- that I'd actually be in the show that Julie was trying to create then."

Speaking of which ... The reign of the Broadway version of Disney's "The Lion King" continues at the Minskoff Theatre. If you like to buy some tickets and/or want additional information about this Tony Award-winning musical, then I suggest you visit the Disney Theatrical website.

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