Shadow Puppetry in The Lion King
The Lion King has been one of the most popular shows on Broadway since its introduction many years ago. Unlike most plays, the cast consists of more than 300 puppets, taking more than 37,000 hours to construct, including rod puppets, shadow puppets, and full sized puppets. Shadow puppets are an ancient art form found in many countries, but for The Lion King, its background came from Indonesian shadow puppetry. Without this style of puppetry, the production would not have been possible, due to the many large scenes such as in the elephant graveyard and the stampede. Shadow puppetry may be an older form of display, but it still holds and important role in modern theater.
The Lion King is an original play based on the Disney Studios movie that was released in
1994 that was an instant success. The story depicts the life
of Simba, a lion who starts out a cub, and ends as a king. At a young age, Simba’s father was killed and he was framed for it by his evil uncle. He ran away from home and grew into adulthood with his two new friends Timon and Pumbaa. He is later discovered by his childhood friend Nala who brings him back home to challenge his uncle and become king. He is successful and the land prospers under his leadership.
Since the movie was such a huge success, Disney was willing to invest a large amount of money into the Broadway production, almost $29 million. This was a wise investment, with the show earning more than $5 billion since its first production in 1997, which is more than any other musical in history. It has been performed in 21 global productions including Japan, Australia, South Africa, Singapore, and Brazil. It has also won 2 Academy Awards, 3 Golden Globe awards, 3 Grammy Awards, 6 Tony Awards, and 2 BMI’s. Director Julie Taymore also received a Tony Award, the first to go to a woman for directing a musical. It is still performed annually in the United States, putting on 8 shows a week. Taymore had lived in Indonesia for more than two years and loved the culture. She opened a theater company in that country and spent her time creating and showing productions. It was in Indonesia that she learned about the art of shadow puppetry.
Shadow puppetry uses lights projecting against an object to create a shadow on a surface. It is an ancient form of storytelling and is popular in various cultures. In Indonesia, these puppets are called Wayang-Kulit, meaning theater skin. Skin referring to the leather used to make the puppets. This style of theater was introduced with Hinduism in 1st century A.D. to show depictions of Gods. Now a flat puppet with moveable joints and are moved by a rod connected to it, that the hand controls, is commonly used. Children are introduced to this art at a young age and this is even performed at weddings, birth celebrations, religious festivals, and other events. In The Lion King, shadow puppets are used to represent fish, leopards, and even young Simba. The young Simba puppet is operated by five people: two who hold the rods at the waist, two that hold the rods at the legs, and the last lights a bright torch behind to project the shadow for the audience to view. These amazing projections greatly contributed to The Lion King’s success.
The Lion King has been one of Disney’s most successful productions. The touching story can connect with people and the spectacle is amazing to behold. With Taymore’s incredible background, she was able to incorporate different cultures into the Broadway production including the art of shadow puppetry. Shadow puppetry is a common art form found all over the world but is predominant in Indonesia. Without this art form, The Lion King wouldn’t be the amazing production that continues to fascinate new fans each year.