‘The Lion King’s’ 25th anniversary on Broadway: Cue the tears



NEW YORK — As the actor playing Mufasa burst into song onstage, the little girl next to me tapped my forearm. “It’s from the second movie,” she whispered, with the depth of knowledge of an expert who had watched every incarnation of “The Lion King,” live, on video and DVD, over and over and over.

This wasn’t my first time seeing the show, either. But the person next to me was a little girl only in the recesses of my memory. My seatmate in the Minskoff Theatre was in fact my 30-year-old daughter, Lizzie. (30! How the heck did that happen?) We’d come back to “The Lion King” on the occasion of its 25th anniversary on Broadway.

A test of time for a Tony-winning show. A milestone of the heart for us.

I had first brought Lizzie to “The Lion King” on an evening in the fall of 1997, when she was 5 years old, in that blazing moment of awakening when theater was coming alive for her. (And her mother could still dress her, without complaint, in pretty embroidered dresses.) Clutching a bag of gummy bears and other mushy treats made of 1,000 percent sugar, Lizzie watched raptly, her feet tucked into a pair of mary janes. Were they even touching the floor of the New Amsterdam Theatre?

“The Lion King” celebrated its official opening night on Nov. 13, 1997. Since then, director Julie Taymor’s life-size puppets of elephants and rhinoceros, leopards and giraffes have loped onto the Broadway stage for the heart-stopping opener, “The Circle of Life,” on more than 9,750 evenings and afternoons. Seeing it again with Lizzie (the show moved to the Minskoff after “Mary Poppins” took up residence in the New Amsterdam) brought me back to one of my proudest achievements as a critic: I had turned my daughter into a theater lover.

At an Italian restaurant before the recent performance, we tried to recall all the shows I’d taken her to. I think we’re still counting. Lizzie has a quirky aversion to sitting on the aisle — the critic’s perch — so she’s seen every show from the orchestra, one seat in. My job’s special access accrued to Lizzie’s benefit, too. On days over the years when I wasn’t reviewing, we would on occasion get to go backstage, an opportunity I grabbed only if I thought it would bedazzle my daughter. So at a tender age she shook hands with the Beast of “Beauty and the Beast” (thanks, Jeff McCarthy!); fixed her tweener gaze up at Harvey Fierstein, decked out as Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray”; met, as a teen, the cast of “Next to Normal” when I was doing an article about its star, Alice Ripley.

“Next to Normal,” the story of a woman struggling with mental illness, set to a score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, is Lizzie’s all-time favorite — and the cast album I would hear wafting out of her room once upon a time, as she worked on one of her art projects. I measure the advance of our musical-theater adventures in Playbills, the way arborists count the rings of sycamore trees: “Avenue Q,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Jersey Boys,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Wicked,” “Matilda,” “Movin’ Out,” “West Side Story,” “Spring Awakening,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Seussical.” Oh, “Cats,” of course. And triumphs such as “Hamilton” and boondoggles like “King Kong.”

Back when Lizzie was 9, I began playing the score of “Rent” in the car. She adored it, so the following year, I took her to a touring production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning musical at the Warner Theatre in Washington.

“Dad, what’s in the bag?” 10-year-old Lizzie asked as one of the characters produced a packet of white powder. Oy vey, I thought. Sighing, I replied: “It’s drugs.” And now, back to the show!

“I learned a lot from ‘Rent,’ ” Lizzie recalled over our pre-“Lion King” pasta. “ ‘What are drugs?’ ‘What’s AIDS?’ ‘What’s a lesbian?’ ”

Did Lizzie teach me, too? Why, yes, of course. Back in ’97, the same year as “Lion King,” I took her to a revival of “Annie” on Broadway that was so desultory that she refused to return to her seat after intermission. A critic in training! (My wife sat with her in the lobby while I served out the remainder of my sentence in the theater.) Her impatience didn’t condemn the production, but it did help confirm for me what wasn’t working. In other words, a lot.

At the opposite end of the enchantment spectrum, I brought a pair of 6-year-olds — Lizzie and a school chum — to a Broadway revival of “Peter Pan” with Cathy Rigby. Watching them watch, wide-eyed, was a spectacle on its own. “Their contentment was unequivocal — in a theater, 6-year-olds tend to be enthralled or asleep,” I wrote in my review.

As we settled in for our return to “The Lion King,” I thought about how woven into our lives the musical has been — from the high chair from which Lizzie watched the video hundreds of times, to Row K in the Minskoff. (The voices in that animated version! James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick, Ernie Sabella …) Behind us, seeing the live show for the first time, was an 11-year-old French girl, who told us she lived in Jersey City. She was translating the dialogue for other children with her, who were visiting New York from their town in the Alps.

I thought about the astonishing durability of the show, how many others in attendance like them were not even born when Lizzie and I visited a quarter-century ago — even members of the cast. The masks and puppets by Taymor and Michael Curry remain the most beguilingly imaginative in musical-theater history. The actors, among them Brandon A. McCall as Simba, Tshidi Manye as Rafiki, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa and Stephen Carlile as Scar, uphold the musical’s estimable standards. And the score, principally by Elton John and Tim Rice, contains the timelessly jaunty “Hakuna Matata” and silkily romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

And, of course, “The Circle of Life.” A sense of well-being washed over me, as wittily conjured beasts trundled down the aisles, my grown child by my side — the girl who’d fallen in love with animals before she could speak and spent the ensuing decades drawing them, all the way to art school. Had it been 25 years since we first experienced this? Really?

“Thank you for such a wonderful night,” Lizzie texted me afterward, along with a face-with-three-hearts emoji.

Yes, I felt the love tonight.

The Lion King, music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, additional music and lyrics by Lebo M., Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Directed and costume design by Taymor. About 2½ hours. Minskoff Theatre, 200 W. 45th St., New York. lionking.com.

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