Lion King’s Queen
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PAUL SOLMAN: The hottest ticket on Broadway these days may be the “Lion King,” the giant Disney corporation’s latest foray into live theater. The show is up for 11 Tony Awards this weekend, and its director, a product of non-profit alternative theater, is also a sensation and up for three of the Tonies herself. In fact, JulieTaymor is so hot she’s even got her own American Express Ad.
JULIE TAYMOR: She has a rare imagination.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now in her mid 40′s, Taymor began wowing audiences early on-staging plays as a kid, a teenager, a student at Oberlin College, where she also studied mythology and religion. She found in them, she says, the true roots of theater. But she only experienced those roots firsthand and planted hers as an artist on a traveling fellowship after graduation, as she told us in a recent interview in New York.
JULIE TAYMOR, Director, The Lion King: So when I was about twenty-one or twenty-two, I went to Indonesia and what I saw there was so extraordinary to me-first of all, theater was operating in its original form, as ritual, as connected to people’s everyday lives. T
here’s no word for artist in Bali. It’s just what you do. What we would call putting on a play, dancing, playing music, that’s not your profession, that’s part of your act as a human being. You might be a tailor or a farmer or a teacher.
PAUL SOLMAN: But Thursday night you do-
JULIE TAYMOR: That’s right. With your community, you go on and you do the initiation ceremony for this child, or you do the birthday celebration of that, or the marriage, or the celebration of this village or that village.
PAUL SOLMAN: Intending to stay a few months, Taymor spent four years in Indonesia founding her own theater company. Back in the states by 1979, she began using Eastern techniques in Western productions. She directed Opera Star Jessie Norman in Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex.”
She did Edgar Allan Poe for PBS. She put on Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” off Broadway. And at Lincoln Center she adapted a Latin American story of a jaguar turned into a boy, “Juan Darien.” It was work like this that earned Taymor a Macarthur Genius grant and the attention of, among others, the Disney Company’s Tom Schumacher.
JULIE TAYMOR: I have worked in mythic imagery and epic drama for many, many years. That’s what Disney does. Now, the fact is we have very different esthetics. So what Tom was intrigued was the notion of my esthetics.
PAUL SOLMAN: He’s from Disney.
JULIE TAYMOR: Tom is from Disney. And he said, do you know “The Lion King,” and I said, well, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it; sent me a tape; and after working in the theater for 20 years, to me the idea of dealing with Disney was not so awesome. In fact, I think the idea of having two forces that are very different, like two rocks, come together, and friction and scratch up against each other, can create fire.
PAUL SOLMAN: For those of you who gave up cartoons after Pinnochio, we should tell you that Walt Disney’s “Lion King” is the most successful animated feature of all time and the top selling film on video, period. Taymor started with the cartoon story and its pop tunes but emphasized the African sound, peopled the stage with puppets and with all sorts of surprising theatrical devices.
JULIE TAYMOR: In the not for profit world I honed a lot of ideas and techniques, but every time I do a show, I start over again, so I don’t just decide to use a technique. I find the technique that’s appropriate to what I have to say and what I have to do.
So this idea of the mask on top of the human is a double event where you see the human in the mask-in a way I did that in “Oedipus Rex,” with Jessie Norman, because I had a cyclatic mast, without facial expression, on her head. So I had done that technique, that technique once before, but in this case Scar-they have a lot of facial expressions, so I was very worried about how am I going to have both work.
PAUL SOLMAN: As in the animated film, Mofassa is the Lion King. Scar is Mofassa’s evil brother, scheming for the throne.
JULIE TAYMOR: The movie had such great characters. The facial expressions were human, so I really had to make sure that I kept that humanity. As a sculptor, I have to get to the essence of the character in one fell stroke, so this represents Scar, and it’s almost like a headdress in the classical and traditional form of tribal theater.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now that’s where the mask is here, but if you bend down, then the mask becomes essentially the face.
JULIE TAYMOR: Well, it also goes from what would be the human being, the vertical to an animal, so they anthropomorphosize-is that the right word-do you know what I mean-by-
PAUL SOLMAN: Yes. Making human-
JULIE TAYMOR: Making human-the humanized version of the animal is the vertical. It’s a very complicated technology that makes this thing go up and out and back and up. But I don’t want the audience to be aware of that.
PAUL SOLMAN: No. I didn’t think of it. I thought it was just when you bend down.
JULIE TAYMOR: That’s what it should be, but that wouldn’t work.
PAUL SOLMAN: But “The Lion King’s” most memorable techniques are so low-tech they’re primitive. First, there are people up in the boxes who are starting to sing and then down the aisles and from, of course, out on stage are coming all these animals, which are people contraptions and-
JULIE TAYMOR: You always-you’re aware of the people.
PAUL SOLMAN: Yes.
JULIE TAYMOR: Always. That was very important to me.
PAUL SOLMAN: And it is one of the most remarkable moments I’ve ever experienced, and I actually started to cry, and I don’t think-
JULIE TAYMOR: You and a lot of people told me that.
PAUL SOLMAN: I don’t know why.
JULIE TAYMOR: Why did you cry?
PAUL SOLMAN: I don’t know. I was not crying out of sadness. I was crying-
JULIE TAYMOR: No, no, of course not.
PAUL SOLMAN: –out of a sense of relief, because theater was delivering to me what theater never does.
JULIE TAYMOR: That’s right, which it also again-it makes you complicit-you were aware-you were not being talked down to, patronized, and oh, now we’re going to hide the people in the giraffes.
We were saying no, these are stilts, they’re sticks, these are people whose hands are tied. You see the face, and I’m not-I’m not trying to be so literal about it. It’s really the original form of animating an object. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s like what is the first form of theater? It’s shadows on Plato’s cave, on the wall, okay, so, yes, there’s the shadow and we think it’s-you know-a rabbit, but isn’t it wonderful to know that it’s just two hands that are creating it? Isn’t that the power of it? Isn’t that the beauty?
So I think people cry because first of all it is surrounding you, which is something that film and TV again do not do. They’re two-dimensional mediums. So you get this incredible sense of the space. And a theater becomes a sacred space. Another one that I love is the grass coming up, and all of a sudden these are platters on top of the heads of the ensemble, and they start to move, and you’ll go-I see.
PAUL SOLMAN: “The Lion King” has ruled Broadway as its cartoon counterpart did Hollywood. The show is sold out until 1999, its memorabilia featured prominently in the Disney Store on 42nd Street, centerpiece of the new cleaned-up Times Square.
PAUL SOLMAN: What about the issue of the Disneyfication of culture and the commercialism that surrounds the exterior of this event? Do old friends of yours say, hey, Julie, you’re selling out here?
JULIE TAYMOR: People don’t say I sell out, because they see the production. What’s sold out about the production? If I sold out, that would mean that I had submerged my own vision into somebody else’s, and I don’t think that’s what you’re seeing on the stage.
I’m not saying I love every single itsy, bitsy piece of “The Lion King,” every song I’m passionate about, but I did, as an artist, that was what I tried to do-and I say, what is it about this material that I can hook onto, that I can be passionate about? That’s why selling out is never an issue.
PAUL SOLMAN: Do you like the fact that you’re playing to a mass audience?
JULIE TAYMOR: Yes. Hugely. That’s a big attraction. The huge attraction to “The Lion King” was the fact that it would be a great playground as an artist, so I could-if I wanted to play with technology and develop things like this mask or, you know, really be able to have handmade costumes where it’s all painted in the beat, I could let my imagination play free, and I would-if they loved the idea, they’d support it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Because Disney has enough money.
JULIE TAYMOR: Because they have the money and because this is the first-I’ve always done not for profit, which is the only reason I’m here and able to do what I do-and I stress that more than once. We must support the NEA and the not-for-profit institutions, because where else does an artist-where are you given the ability to learn your craft, develop it, to make mistakes without consequences?
Commercial theater is not able to do-they’re terrified. This is what’s tremendous about Disney, is that even though they had this commercial property, they were willing to experiment and to support the new development and experimentation.
PAUL SOLMAN: So we all were-supported you as taxpayers or whatever in your research and development stage of your career?
JULIE TAYMOR: That’s right. Absolutely. I mean, absolutely, and now hopefully you can see that what I would hope the producers, Broadway, the commercial producers would see by Disney’s example is that you must still support experimentation even when you’re in a commercial arena. I think in terms of the way that you thought when you did poor theater-and it’s not because they were trying to save money-it was because they liked that vision, that artistic vision.
PAUL SOLMAN: Julie Taymor, thanks for being with us.
JULIE TAYMOR: You’re very welcome. Just happy to be here.