The Lion King’s rise to the top of the pride

By Kieran O’Shea

The Lion King is the undisputed global king of music theatre. It has been seen by over 70 million people since it opened in 1997, traveled the globe with productions that run for months, if not years, each one coming close to, or selling out and grossing US$6.4 billion. The show has already earned more than the six Star Wars films combined and more than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But what makes The Lion King, the story of a young cub destined to be King, such a success story since the original Creative Director Julie Taymor brought it to life on stage with her imaginative use of players, masks and puppetry? How has it maintained its appeal to different generations across the years?

Musical Director for the current Australian production of The Lion King, Richard Montgomery (a music alum of both the VCA and MCM), has a few answers.

“It really has a heart and soul,” explains Richard, “from the musician’s perspective, it has such an incredible depth and groove.”


Mufasa, Grasslands. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney
Mufasa, Grasslands. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney.

After studying at the VCA, Richard cut his performance teeth as a musician in jazz and Latin bands before entering the world of music theatre as first a performer and then, after a chance opportunity, a conductor. He believes the strong musical heartbeat of the show is one of the things propelling it to eager new audiences.

Giraffes and cheetah. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney
Giraffes and cheetah. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney.

“The musical heart of the show is really the music of Lebo M, the South African musician whose voice is heard in the opening calls of the Disney film as the voice of Rafiki,” says Richard.

“When Julie Taymor was given the task of creating the stage show, she brought Lebo in to add new songs, in addition to those he had worked on for the film.” His influence was felt immediately – it led to both interesting and challenging vocal arrangements, and orchestrations that differ to other musical theatre scores and meant that organisation of the musical pit had to be equally as unconventional.

“As well as a drummer we have three percussionists, two of which are in the house, the woodwind player plays around 14 to 15 ethnic flutes, so it generates a very rich sound palette used in the show.”

“Some of the chairs on the show, particularly the percussion and keyboard, are sometimes playing off chord charts,” he adds, “Not everything is notated note for note and there is some room for the personalities of the players to come through.”

To keep it all sounding fresh, minor tweaks and refinements are made to the production. Julie Taymor revisited the show five years ago making changes and, compared to the last Australian production, one song has been cut and sections of others have been removed. But new musical elements are just as important as the necessary editing process, with each production taking into account the music and culture of the country they happen to be residing in.

“The show is essentially the same wherever it is presented but different things are done to reflect the places where the show is performed and the strengths of the local culture. The Brazilian production has a samba section that they really go to town on because that’s their thing.”

Richard argues that this keeps it engaging for not only the audience, but for the players and performers too. “It kind of lives and breathes,” explains Richard, “so you don’t feel like you’re just reproducing this mould where there is no room for anything else. It feels like it’s something that can adapt and change over time which helps keep it fresh.”

Buyi Zama as Rafiki Circle of life. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney
Buyi Zama as Rafiki Circle of life. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney.

Richard studied towards a Bachelor of Music (Improvisation) Honours at the VCA in 1988/89 and then went on to complete a Master of Music Studies at the MCM in 2010, undertaking some conducting units with John Hopkins. It was a time that shaped his early career and allowed him to form a lasting relationships with different musicians, many of whom he still works with.

“I meet a lot of great people. In fact, Alex Pertout [Head of Jazz and Improvisation at the VCA] was one of my lecturers and he is actually playing in The Lion King orchestra.”

“Many of the students I met, I worked with for many years after I left college. It was great to be exposed to other players who I probably wouldn’t have met had I not gone to the VCA.”

Playing in Alex Pertout’s Latin band in the early 90s provided valuable insight into the high standard that students have to reach for in order to carve out a career in music. “You realise what the actual standard is compared with the student standard you start with. You understand the standards you have to aspire to if you want to be successful.”

Rob Collins and Josh Quong Tart as Mufasa and Scar. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney
Rob Collins and Josh Quong Tart as Mufasa and Scar. Photo: Deen van Meer, copyright Disney.

Richard has been fortunate enough to work on The Lion King on and off for 12 years, and in different locations around the world, but isn’t quite ready to call it a day.

“I think I’d find it hard to imagine another show that I’d be interested in doing for as long as I’ve done this particular one … It is such a musically rewarding and challenging show to conduct.”

And just as the show has stayed in the hearts of its audience members long after the curtain has drawn, it seems that The Lion King is a hard job to shake.

“It’s one of those shows they say you never really leave if you do a good job. It’s likely to have quite a significant life beyond this [the Australian production] and so I would like to think that in some way I’ll always be involved with it.”

(Main image: Richard Montgomery in The Lion King orchestra pit.)

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.