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‘Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ tour, arriving in San Diego in a few weeks, sits atop the musical world

A scene from the North American touring production of "The Lion King," which arrives in San Diego on Aug. 24, 2022.
(Courtesy of Deen van Meer/Disney)

Broadway San Diego is hosting the epic show’s fourth visit to San Diego Civic Theatre later this month

Disney’s “The Lion King” national tour rolls into San Diego this month for its fourth visit to Civic Theatre since 2005, and as in past visits, good tickets are going fast.

Now in its 26th year on Broadway and its 20th year on the road, “Lion King” is one of the most ambitious touring theater shows in musical history. How ambitious? Here’s a look at some numbers and interesting facts about Broadway’s all-time box office “King.”

Based on Disney’s animated coming-of-age 1994 film, the musical adaptation by director-designer Julie Taymor featured more than 200 innovative mask, puppetry and kite designs that required 17,000 hours of design work for the Broadway staging, which opened in 1998.

Rafikik and the gazelles in the North American touring production of "The Lion King."
(Courtesy of Deen van Meer)

The musical’s script and score feature words from five Indigenous African languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Setswana and Swahili. The musical’s opening song, “Circle of Life,” begins with the character of the wise mandrill Rafiki calling out in Zulu: “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama.” This translates as: “Here comes a lion, father, Oh yes it’s a lion.”

The character of Simba, who ages from newborn to adult king during the story, is represented in six ways during the musical, including three puppets, a child and adult actor and as a painting that Rafiki creates on a tree.

Although the actors playing lions in the musical wear lightweight silicone rubber masks on their forehead so their faces aren’t obscured, the puppet for Puumba the warthog weighs 45 pounds. Among the show’s most unique costume elements are the 20 grassland headdresses, which must be rebuilt with 3,000 stalks of grass each year.

The show’s animal menagerie includes 22 wildebeest, 39 hyenas, 15 gazelles, 12 bird kites and three zebras.

The Broadway production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Direction for Taymor, who became the first woman in Tony history to receive the musical directing prize. Today, “Lion King” is the highest-grossing musical in Broadway history and it has beaten out all musicals and films worldwide for total box-office gross, according to Disney Theatrical Productions.

The show famously begins with the animal procession to celebrate the birth of the future lion king, Simba, at Africa’s Pride Rock. To create a center aisle for the parade at the Civic Theatre, dozens of seats must be removed from the center of each row from the orchestra pit to the dress circle seats.

The hyena scene in the North American touring production of "The Lion King."
(Courtesy of Deen van Meer/Disney Theatricals)

The tallest animals in the procession — each operated by a stilt-walking actor-puppeteer fully visible to the audience, are the two 14-foot-tall giraffes. The largest animal is the elephant, which is 13 feet long, 12 feet high and nine feet wide, and requires four actors to operate.

In 2011, “Lion King” became the first Broadway musical to offer a sensory-friendly performance.

Since its launch in 2002, the North American touring production of “Lion King” has traveled 155,000 miles between stops, the equivalent of six trips around the globe, and played more than 9,000 performances.

The North American touring production uses 17 trucks to transport the puppets and set pieces from city to city. Sixteen of those trucks are 53-foot-long semi-trailers. The tour travels with a small army of 134 people, including 49 cast members, 19 wardrobe staffers, 15 carpenters, five makeup artists and 12 musicians.

The tour also travels with two child guardians, since 48 babies have been born to cast members while they were on the road over the past 20 years.

It takes five hours and 10 minutes per show to do all the makeup for the cast.

"The Circle of Life" scene in the North American touring production of "The Lion King."
(Courtesy of Brinkhoff-Mogenburg)

Disney Theatrical has produced 10 Broadway shows, beginning with “Beauty and the Beast” in 1993. They have been seen by 200 million theatergoers worldwide and every three seconds a ticket to a Disney Theatrical production is purchased somewhere on the planet.

Disney musicals have been credited with reviving the moribund Broadway industry in the 1990s by creating a new family audience that expanded theater tourism to New York. Between the launch of “Beauty and the Beast” in 1993 and the shutdown of Broadway due to the pandemic in early 2020, overall Broadway attendance rose 55 percent.

“The Lion King” tour’s local visit opens Aug. 24 and runs through Sept. 11. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $30.50. The Civic Theatre is at 1100 Third Ave., San Diego. Visit broadwaysd.com.

Pam Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com.


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