It’s a testament to the enduring popularity of The Lion King that “Hakuna matata” has become part of our lexicon. Though essentially translated as “Don’t worry, be happy,” the phrase has a much deeper resonance in The Lion King: It’s about living in the present, and leaving the past behind. For Simba, it’s about evolving from cub to King. 

The Lion King Broadway musical, based on the 1994 Disney movie and currently showing at the handsome Minskoff Theatre, can claim all sorts of superlatives: After 15 years, It’s the fifth-longest-running show on Broadway. As of 2012, it became the highest-grossing Broadway show of all time. Since its Broadway premiere in 1997, the musical has been seen by more than 65 million people worldwide. And, the director Julie Taymor – whose brilliant costumes are so famous that they’re now part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian museum – became the first woman to win a Tony Award for directing a musical. (It won five other Tonys, along with 70 other awards, include the 1999 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.) Also superlative? The talented music and lyrics team: Elton John and Time Rice. The duo, who created the music for the film, have adapted all the film’s big hits for the stage, from “Circle of Life” to the Academy Award-winning song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

The story is simple but timeless: The lion cub Simba, who is born in the African heartland, is destined to become king. But evil interferes: The devious uncle Scar slays Simba’s father, King Mufasa, and blames it on the young cub. Simba, deeply sad and ashamed, goes into self-exile. As Simba wanders the jungle, he grows into a lion, and eventually returns to reclaim the throne. A jealous brother who kills the king and banishes the young prince? Yes, it’s Hamlet of the animal kingdom.

As for The Lion King’s vibrant cast: The characters are classic, but never descend into stereotype. The red-hornbill Zazu is the advisor to Mufasa, ardently loyal but lovably befuddled – the court jester with a conscience. Mufasa’s brother Scar is deliciously evil with his arch tone (and eyebrows). Also gracing the stage: The classy Sarabi, Simba’s mother; Nala, Simba’s fiery, principled childhood friend who later becomes his queen; and the meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa who, for all their wisecracks are also wise, teaching Simba that love can flourish anywhere, as the trio of outcasts becomes a family.

And then there’s Rafiki: A traditional healer, who plays the part of the omniscient narrator, she presides over a turning point in the show. When Simba looks at his reflection in a pool of water, Rafiki says “He lives in you,” referring to Simba’s father. This inspires the young Simba to bravely follow in his father’s footsteps – or, rather, paw-steps – and to take back the kingdom from Scar’s devious clutches. Interestingly, in the Disney film, Rafiki is a man, but in the musical, Julie Taymor decided to change the gender, because she felt the show lacked a powerful woman character.

Perhaps most remarkable is the way in which the African landscape comes to life – via the human figure. All the natural elements – like new buds of grass – are performed by actors, who blossom from the ground and then sway back and forth as the winds cross the African plains. The actors also expressively use their bodies – writhing, pouncing, leaping – to perform the astonishing array of animals: Zebras prance, antelopes arch their backs and giraffes teeter like stiff-legged ballet dancers. Most affectingly – and this is at the core of Julie Taymor’s brilliant costume design – is that the actors don’t wear masks to obscure their faces, but rather to complement them. Mufasa, Sarabi and the lionesses, for example, prowl the stage with their masks regally atop their heads, so that the animal form is merely an extension of the human one. And this, at heart, is what the Circle of Life is all about – that we’re all interconnected.

Run time
Two hours and 30 minutes (one intermission)

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