It was described as the show that couldn’t close, but on Sunday the curtain will finally come down on the Lion King, by far and away South Africa’s most popular stage production.
This internationally acclaimed musical entered the South African theatre scene in June last year, and its stay has been extended three times.
“We received such an overwhelming response, that each time we were meant to close the show we just couldn’t,” said Philip Godawa, the director of the Lion King South Africa, this week.
Godawa told the Mail & Guardian Online that the show was blessed to have had its original director, Julie Taymor, coming to monitor the production before its opening.
“She came to South Africa before the opening, and that doesn’t normally happen with other Lion Kings in other countries,” he said.
The Lion King was first performed in Minneapolis, United States, on July 31 1997. It then went on to play in 11 countries. In fact, it’s been playing continuously in one country or another since it was first performed.
A R100-million theatre, the Teatro at the Montecasino in Johannesburg, was specially built for the production — and it’s been full every night since the show opened in July.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the show is that it has been seen by many people who ordinarily would not have had the chance to see a world-class production.
About 38 000 children from schools in townships like Soweto and Alexandra were bussed in to Montecasino every Wednesday afternoon for three months through the Lion King School Outreach Programme.
“These children were sponsored by Telkom, together with Absa and the Lebo M foundation, to come and experience the magic of theatre. Unfortunately we could only take children whose schools are situated not more than 100km from the venue, so that meant that they had to be Gauteng schools,” said Nakedi Chiloane of Telkom.
Buyisile Zama (who plays Rafiki) said the Lion King could well have attracted a whole new variety of theatre lovers. “I am happy that the Lion King made its way through [to] audiences that are not traditional theatre lovers, especially black people.”
The 29-year-old woman from KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal, who has seen the world through the Lion King, had never performed for her family until the show came to South Africa. She has been with the Lion King for six years and has played the part of Rafiki on overseas projects on many occasions.
“When I was called for the show I was in the United States preparing to work for the Lion King Touring Company. The South African producers asking me if I wanted to play Rafiki for the Lion King South Africa,” she said, adding that deciding between staying in the US and performing for South Africans was tough.
Godawa said that the Lion King South Africa was atypical from overseas productions.
“Apart from the fact that the cast enjoyed playing their parts even more because the audience could relate, what was more exciting was the fact that the dankies and the eishes actually meant something and got reactions each time they were said,” he said.
The show has sold a record-breaking 550 000 tickets since its opening and was fully booked on almost every night.
‘I cannot get over the show’
“The Lion King has broken every record ever made in South African entertainment; I don’t think that any theatrical show will ever outplay the Lion King for at least another decade,” said producer Peter Toerien.
Toerien said that he has seen the show about forty times, but is still excited by it.
“I cannot get over the show; it is unfortunate that the next time I’ll be seeing, it will be the last, which gives me an overwhelming feeling of sadness. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being amongst the audience and watching it as though I was not part of it,” he said.
When the curtains come down on Sunday night, many of the cast members will have “grown tremendously”, said Toerien.
“I’m telling you that this has been a learning experience for every single one of them, even those who are big household names like Sello [Maake ka Ncube]. The cast has been part of the production for months now and they have grown to be part of the Lion King family,” he said.
Even though the producers could not disclose how much the show has grossed or how much the cast members have made, it is clear that cast members have little financial complaints.
“I had to take a pay cut when I agreed to come and play Rafiki at home because the currency is not the same as the other countries I’ve worked in, but I can assure that my standards of living haven’t dropped at all. It’s just that back there life is a bit more expensive, so you do need more money,” said Zama.
Toerien said the producers “try to be as fair as possible in paying the cast because I would hate for anyone to be underpaid, but obviously a person like Buyi [Zama] is an international Lion King star and even here at home she would be paid like one, so she would probably get ten times more than what a beginner would”.
After the show closes the cast will have four months to themselves before dashing off to tour Asia in July, which will be a first-time experience for newcomers like Simon Gwala (who plays the character Banzai). “I am so excited to be part of this experience and to get the chance to stay with the production for longer,” Gwala said.
The tour will start with shows in Taiwan and then move on to Hong Kong. “We are scheduled to stay there for twelve months, but anything can happen,” said Toerien.
After the Lion King closes, the 1 900-seater Montecasino Teatro will take a breather until March, when it will host a Russian production, Swan Lake on Ice.