/ 21 June 2007

South Africans flock to Lion King

The Lion King, the award-winning Disney musical set in the African bush, is marking its 10th anniversary with a first run on the continent that inspired its storyline.

The rites of passage tale of Simba the lion, already seen by 35-million people since its Broadway debut in 1997, has been playing to packed houses since it opened in Johannesburg on June 6 — for the first time with an all South African cast.

”I am so excited. My people and family are going to see me on stage finally,” said Buyisile Zama, a 29-year-old who has played the role of the wise old baboon Rafiki on stages from Sydney to Shanghai.

”People loved the show everywhere but here they can understand everything — each and every word. It is our culture,” said the Durban native during rehearsals at the city’s new state-of-the-art 1 900-seat Teatro de Montecasino.

Prohibitive costs had long hampered efforts to bring the show to South Africa, but it was finally made possible with large sponsorship deals and the willingness of old hands to get involved.

One is South African-born composer Lebo M, who wrote the theme music to the 1994 Oscar-winning movie from which the play was adapted and who runs a charity to train singers in his homeland.

”It has been my dream for 10 years to bring the show to South Africa,” said the composer from Soweto.

”We are not here to just do a show like in London or Paris” but to showcase local talent, he said, adding he hoped the Lion King will act as ”a stepping stone in our theatre business. We must build on its success to create new productions”.

Though about half of the score was written by Elton John and Tim Rice, the production also marks a special homecoming for the celebrated, haunting ballad, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, whose South African composer Solomon Linda died destitute in 1962 without ever earning royalties.

For the first time, the song will be staged with help from a choir — one of many touches along with traditional masks, costumes made with local beadwork and fabrics and 5,4m giraffes that tower over the audience.

”The difference is that in other productions we have four or five South Africans, but here the entire cast is South African,” said the show’s creative director Aubrey Linch, who said it was magical, ”as an African-American, born in Michigan”, to bring the show here after playing to audiences around the world.

”We adapted each character to the South African reality. It had to be authentic,” she said.

Reviews have been largely positive and the Variety trade magazine said on its website this week advance sales were so good the season has been extended from mid August to early October.

With tickets ranging from R150 to R450, the price will be out of range for many South Africans but Telkom has bought 40 000 tickets to dole out to students and residents in the townships around Johannesburg.

For Zama, performing in South Africa carries its own pressure, notably coping with the different dialects featured in the songs.

”The challenge here is that I don’t know the 11 languages of this country, so I am nervous about pronouncing the words properly.

The people know the culture, so we must be sure that everything is spot on.”

The play — winner of six Tony awards on Broadway where it is still running — is arguably one of the most lavish to be staged on the continent, and the star-studded premiere included such big names as chat show queen Oprah Winfrey, accompanied by students from a school she funds near Johannesburg.

The family of Solomon Linda has also been invited, and his children plan to take up the offer at some stage during the run after striking a financial deal with Disney only last year for an undisclosed sum.

”They are very, very happy about the show to be acted in South Africa and they are ecstatic about the fact that recognition had been given to their father, at last,” said their lawyer Hanro Fiedrich. ‒ Sapa-AFP