Circle of Life: 'The Lion King' tour returns to Denver birthplace

LION KING 60010Nia Holloway as Nala in Disney’s ‘The Lion King.’ ©Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s the Circle of Life: The Denver-born national touring production of Disney’s The Lion King is coming home – as a teenager.

More than 220,000 attended the tour’s inaugural 10-week run at The Buell Theatre 13 years ago, and independent studies estimated the visit provided a $58 million jolt to the area economy.

The Lion King Julie Taymor quoteLong before The Lion King’s 18 semi-trailers roared into downtown Denver in the weeks leading up to that historic opening night on April 26, 2002, “you could feel it everywhere you went,” said flutist Kay Ragsdale, one of four members of The Lion King tour who have been with it every step of the way.

More than 25,000 tickets moved the day they went on sale to the public in November 2001, and every available seat was gone less than four days later. By the time the show finally opened, the city was at a fever pitch.

“We had some jackets at the time that only had this little tiny lion’s head insignia, but everyone in the town knew what it was,” Ragsdale said. “It felt like everyone was participating in this event with us. Our opening night was an opening night for the entire city of Denver, and it could not have been more exciting.”

Dance Captain Izell Blunt will never forget the day the cast was invited to sit in the otherwise empty Buell Theatre and watch as the technical crew previewed the show’s iconic sunrise for them.

“This was the first time we had seen it,” said Blunt. “The sun is coming up. Pride Rock is coming out. The music is playing. Literally, we got chills just watching this phenomenon that we were about to be a part of.”

With a worldwide gross of more than $7 billion, The Lion King last year became the most successful franchise in entertainment history. That’s just the stage musical — figures do not include either proceeds from the animated film or merchandising.

And to think, says creator Julie Taymor, The Lion King is a $7 billion fluke, considering that she was charged with turning a beloved animated children’s film into a revolutionary, magical piece of proudly experimental theatre that blends South African chants with ballet, performance art, human puppetry, masks, forced perspectives and shadow imagery.

“I profoundly believe that people want something richer and deeper, and will aspire to it,” Taymor said. “It’s a wonderful thing that so many people have seen The Lion King because it has informed many who have never seen theatre as to what theatre can possibly be.”

The Lion King has now played before more than 80 million audience members in 22 productions around the world. The New York production turns 18 in November and Saturday (Oct. 31), the Lion will surpass Cats as the third-longest running musical in Broadway history on October 31. The Lion King is routinely still the No. 1 show on Broadway in any given week. And it is showing no signs of slowing down.

The Tree of Life from ‘The Lion King’ National Tour.  ©Disney.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.

“It’s difficult not to become emotional at the realization of the show’s impact,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions. “The goal back in the formative years was simply to tell the story purely and theatrically so that audiences could feel it in their heart.”

Lion King quoteInstead, it changed theatre in every conceivable way, from creative standards to technical demands to audience expectations moving forward. And perhaps its greatest impact on the creative community has been the ongoing explosion of employment opportunities it has provided for hundreds of actors of color.

“I think really The Lion King ushered in a completely new era of theatre,” said Ragsdale.

Schumacher and Technical Director David Benken (who graduated from Colorado State University) credit famed theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh with setting a new standard for traveling shows that was fully embraced by Taymor.

“The idea was that if you are going to do a tour, you are going to give people on the road the same show that you gave them on Broadway,” said Benken. “That was fairly radical for its time. Back then, before Disney Theatrical Productions, there were some seriously reduced versions of shows going out on the road.”

Benken began adapting the Broadway show for the road two full years before it opened in Denver. And his great challenge was not solving how to fit what was then a record $15 million Broadway juggernaut into The Buell Theatre. “Denver has a pretty good theatre from a technical standpoint,” he said. His job was to solve how to fit the show into much smaller theatres all across America.

“The biggest change that had to be made was to Pride Rock,” he said. “In New York, Pride Rock rises up out of the deck. That wasn’t practical for the road because basements don’t exist in theatres that are deep enough to accommodate it.” So after several months and several attempts, they hit on the solution: Pride Rock, an 18-foot set piece, slithers onto the stage and slowly rises as Simba and his father climb to its top. “So it still gives you the iconic moment,” Benken said, “and it actually enhanced Julie’s vision that everything should come back to this idea of the Circle of Life. I think the solution we came up with in Denver worked out quite well, and it is used all over the world now.”

Only after Benken got the show up and running in Denver did he get a real sense of what he and his team had accomplished here.

“Once we got the show open,” he said, “you could definitely feel that this was something special for Denver, and something special for us.”

Portions of this article came from interviews and research John Moore has conducted over the years since “The Lion King” national tour debuted in Denver in 2002.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Disney’s The Lion King

  • Nov 4-29 at the Buell Theatre
  • Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • TTY: 303-893-9582
  • Groups of 15 or more: 303-446-4829
  • Also: Purchase in person at The Denver Center Ticket Office, located at the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex lobby. Buy and print online at DenverCenter.Org.
  • Accessibility performance: 2 p.m. Nov. 28
  • Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – – is the only authorized online ticket provider for Disney’s ‘The Lion King.’

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