Michael Eisner had an idea.
And it wasn’t very popular at first.
The visionary Disney leader, who served as CEO of the house built by Mickey Mouse from 1984 to 2005, was interested in turning the 1994 animated film ‘The Lion King’ into a musical.
So he pitched the idea to the film’s creative team.
“He asked everyone’s opinion first – ‘How do you feel about putting this on stage? ‘” recalls Roger Allers, who co-directed the hit film with Rob Minkoff. “And all of us around the table said, ‘We think that’s a horrible idea. “”
It turns out that some members of the creative team had already discussed the possibility of a musical, but, says Allers, “All we could imagine was, like, people in big costumes of fuzzy animals and we thought, ‘This will be ridiculous. This won’t have any impact.
But despite all the negative feedback Eisner received, the CEO still decided to greenlight the project.
“He asked everyone’s opinion and then he said, ‘Well, we’ll do it.’ laughs Allers.
Of course, Eisner turned out to be right. Still. The musical “The Lion King” would prove to be one of the most successful stage productions of all time.
Twenty-five years after it opened on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theater on November 13, 1997, “The Lion King” is still going strong in 2022.
It’s been seen by some 100 million fans around the world, with legions of new fans still falling in love with its many charms – including the evocative, not-so-fuzzy costumes and distinctive headpieces – every year.
Expect even more conversions — as well as thousands of repeat customers — when “Disney’s the Lion King” returns to the Bay Area for a three-week engagement.
The Tony Award-winning musical — currently celebrating its 20th anniversary as a touring production — runs Aug. 3-21 at the Center for the Performing Arts in San Jose.
The show is such an international juggernaut these days – with multi-year residencies in New York, London, Paris and other cities as well as several different world-touring productions – that it’s amazing to hear how it was originally difficult to take “The Lion King” from the movies to the theater stage.
Yet the innovative staging and costume design needed to bring the animal characters to life — especially in the legendary opening scene of “Circle of Life” — was still being worked on at the time the musical premiered. makes its pre-Broadway debut in July. 1997 at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis.
“The show never succeeded as the first act without something going wrong,” recalls Irene Mecchi of that first series. “Especially the big elephant – there’s an individual in each of the legs and it always got stuck on the little stairs going up to the stage as it paraded down the aisle.
“Or one of the giraffes would fall. And if they fell, it was kind of like a nature movie – they kind of had to get the actor out of the scene.
Mecchi, a Bay Area native who splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles these days, co-wrote the musical’s book with Allers.
The two also worked together on the original version of the film, which also had its fair share of challenges.
“When I joined in 1992, I was hired to do what was called ‘production polish,'” says Mecchi, a UC Berkley graduate who ended up getting screenplay credit with Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton on film. “So I showed up to work on the first day and said, ‘Where’s the script to polish? And producer Don Hahn says, “Well, there’s no script.”
Instead, the producers had only a few basic plot points in a storyline that had apparently morphed a lot over the years.
“It’s been through a lot of changes,” says Allers, who also has strong connections to the Bay Area and once owned a home in Mill Valley. “I even think at one point it was howling monkeys. These things sometimes take long trips.
Still, flexibility – and patience – would pay off as the creative team definitely clicked and the now legendary story of Simba, Nala, Mufasa, Zazu, Scar, Shenzi and other residents of the Pride Lands came to life. .
“When you’re talking about people improvising, the rule is ‘yes, and…’ as opposed to ‘no,'” Mecchi says. “There were no bad ideas, because any bad idea can be exploited to make it a good idea.”
After going through that roller coaster ride while making the film, Mecchi and Allers were able to help take the idea from Eisner – who, remember, was originally qualified by the creative team from “terrible” – and turn it into something really good. .
And audiences would certainly applaud their efforts when the musical debuted in Minneapolis. Despite the occasional fall of giraffes or endangered elephants, “The Lion King” was a success from the start.
“You could feel the energy in the room,” Allers says. “The theater roof practically exploded. We’ve all come from that practically floating first public preview.
‘DISNEY’S THE LION KING’
Music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, presented by Broadway San Jose
When: August 3-21
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd.
Health and security: Vaccination and masks not mandatory but strongly recommended, children under 5 are not allowed in the theater
Duration: 2 hours, 30 minutes, 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 to $148 (subject to change); broadwaysanjose.com