The hit musical Lion King, which has been running in London’s West End since October 1999, has broken its own box office record, taking more than £34m during 2010 – £2m more than the previous year – and ending the year with its best ever week of ticket sales. Big musicals are so far defying the economic gloom, and theatre in general is proving surprisingly resilient.
The Lion King, a coming-of-age story about the cub Simba, has become far more successful than the film that inspired it. More than 820,000 people saw the London show in 2010, and more than nine million have watched it in the city since it began its run. With over 5,000 performances, it became the seventh longest running show in Broadway history. It has now been seen by an estimated 54 million people in 15 countries and translated into five languages.
Worldwide, it has generated £2.7bn at the box office, and probably as much again in undisclosed revenue from soundtrack recordings, video games, T-shirts, and other merchandise. “I don’t see it coming to an end,” said David Schrader, executive vice-president and managing director of Disney’s theatre productions.
The Lion King has proved a fairy godmother to the Theatres Trust, which campaigns to preserve all theatres in the UK, and which owns the freehold of its home, the Lyceum theatre in central London. Mhora Samuel, director of the trust, said: “We don’t get a commercial rent, that goes to the leaseholders, but we do get a small return from ticket sales, which has been wonderful for us.” She has seen it three times: “It’s one of the few big shows in the West End that suits every member of a family, even very small children. The success of The Lion King shows that the West End could probably do with more shows for that audience.” Schrader said: “It really doesn’t seem possible that it is more than 10 years. I have a lot more grey hairs, but the show still has a freshness and an authenticity that is winning over new audiences. “We’re now at the stage where people who started their careers in our show are spreading out and populating many other productions, which is pretty exciting for us.”
A team of more than 100 people is behind all the different productions, including talent scouts for the young South African performers who have appeared in every production. It has won numerous awards for its sets and costumes, and mixing actors and puppets has given the show a completely different look from the film. The show’s director, Julie Taymor, an unusual choice at the time for a commercial musical, studied Oriental and Javanese puppetry, and after graduating founded her own theatre company in Bali. She was also head of design, and in London the attention to detail extended to painting the entire Lyceum theatre, which was formerly derelict, in shades of ochre to complement the sets. The Lion King on Broadway won Taymor two Tony awards, for design and direction, making her the first woman to win the award for directing a musical.