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Special Feature: Disney’s The Lion King is ready to rule Mandalay Bay and the Strip jungle

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Andre Jackson in Disney’s The Lion King.
Joan Marcus

Ten years ago, then MGM executive Bill Hornbuckle wanted to bring The Lion King to Las Vegas. Now that he’s president of Mandalay Bay, that dream is finally coming true!

“We’d had Elvis. We’d had Sinatra. But we never had a Disney production,” he said.

The spectacular Broadway musical that has won more than 70 major worldwide awards will open at Mandalay Bay on May 2. When Mamma Mia! closes after five years at Mandalay Bay on Jan. 4, the theater will be completely rebuilt over 4 months to accommodate the new musical, which celebrated its 11th Broadway anniversary Nov. 13.

Lion King does Vegas

It will be the full Broadway production that will run 2 hours and 20 minutes nightly. Forty-five million people in 11 countries have seen The Lion King, which has been translated into 32 languages including Zulu, Hebrew and Swedish.

Caesars Palace headliner Sir Elton John wrote its music and Tim Rice handled the lyrics, as they did on their previous Disney hit musical Aida. Elton’s original “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was left out of the musical until he saw the final run-through on video! He absolutely insisted it be put back in -- and of course it went on to become a huge hit.

The Lion King preview at Mandalay Bay

Disney’s theatrical productions was formed in 1994, and its first show, Beauty & the Beast, ran 13 years, playing 110 cities around the world and becoming the sixth-longest running show in Broadway history. In 1997, Disney opened The Lion King, which received six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and a 1998 Grammy Award for best musical score.

Ironically, Lion King the musical almost never happened. Producer Thomas Schumacher, who worked on the animated blockbuster The Lion King as its first producer 18 years ago, never thought it could be turned into a live stage show.

“The movie was a much bigger hit than anybody expected, and we didn’t think you could turn a National Geographic-type background from film to the stage,” he said. For six months, he fought against then studio chief Michael Eisner, who wanted the movie turned into theater. Eventually, he realized that Eisner wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, so he began the task.

Then Schumacher explained why it took so long after its Broadway success to land in Las Vegas: “Other people have reinvented their shows for Las Vegas, but for me and our director Julie Taymor, it was important to be able to wait until we would do the full version. Talks always stalled because of attempts to shorten and reinvent the show.

Tours move in, they move out. You couldn’t do every trick from the Broadway Lion King on the road or out of town. But here in Vegas when the grass begins to sing, you’re actually going to see the grass in the ground, and as the grass grows out of the ground, the full ensemble rises up out of the floor.”

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The lioness's dance in Disney's The Lion King.

Fun facts about The Lion King

*More than 200 puppets, including full-sized ones, are used in the show. The Timon puppet weighs 15 pounds!

*Some 25 species of animals, birds, fish and insects are represented in the show, including 39 hyenas, 52 wildebeests and more than 100 ants on the Ant Hill Lady!

*It took 17,000 work hours to build the puppets and mass.

*Mufasa’s mask weighs 11 ounces, and Scar’s mask weighs 9 ounces.

*There are 12 bird kites used in the opening number of the second act.

*The exotic giraffes stand 18 feet tall, and the tiniest trick mouse is just 5 inches.

*The longest animal is the 13-feet-long,11-feet-high and 9-feet-wide elephant that shrinks down to 34 inches wide to go down the theater aisle.

*More than 300 feet of carbon fiber and 750 pounds of silicone rubber were used to make the masks.

*There are 49 wigs in the show.

*The grasslands headdresses use 3,000 stalks of grass each year.

*There are 53 cast members and 21 musicians in the show. Backstage, there are 17 wardrobe people, 5 hair and makeup artists, 13 carpenters, 10 electricians and 3 puppet craftsmen.

*Nearly 700 lighting instruments create the show’s lighting plot.

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Phindile Mkhize in Disney's The Lion King.

INTERVIEW: LION KING PRODUCER THOMAS SCHUMACHER

Robin Leach: What the heck is Disney doing in Sin City?

Thomas Schumacher: Well, it does seem curious the idea of Disney in Vegas. Disney is an entertainment company. We have entertainment all over the world. Theme parks, studios, whether it is a Touchstone film or Miramax. We were engaged for a long time in sports teams, we are on Broadway, and so if you consider how large Las Vegas is, Disney should be here. We are investors in Jersey Boys here -- and, ironically, in Mamma Mia!, which we are now replacing.

RL: The Lion King is already a genius production. Do you feel you have to make it new and different for Vegas?

TS: As we have mounted Lion King, we have mounted it as the pure production it originally was. There are tweaks and changes in Tokyo where we still are. We gave Timon, who has a Brooklyn accent, an Osaka accent. These are minor details that connect with the public. When we went to South Africa, we did different things. The fundamental staging that Julie Taymor created that we see every night on Broadway is what we will be doing here. We have remained true to it, and I think that is what has made it successful for these 11 years.

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Kissy Simmons (Nala), Tshidi Manye (Rafiki) and Dashaun Young (Simba) in Disney's The Lion King.

RL: In a sense, it is already a Vegas spectacular even before it gets here.

TS: When you think about what Las Vegas means to people, huge journey, cast out, finding the way home, finding the community. Julie Taymor conceived at one time a section of the show, which was a metaphor about Las Vegas. When Simba leaves the Pride land and ventures out with Timon and Pumba, they went to a Vegas-like universe. She pitched this idea to me and talked about this forever, it was a fantastic idea, but I said no. We thought we could take that piece of the show and turn it into something else. The version that you see begins and ends where the movie does.

RL: Will you add or tweak anything for it coming here to Vegas?

TS: Each time we do the show, we make subtle changes, but if I did the Mom test, would my Mom notice a change, no. Do we notice them, yes? There is fine-tuning. We will do that here. This is not a tour. It is a Day 1 through rehearsal process.

RL: So this will be as important as Broadway is for an opening night.

TS: This is a new production of The Lion King. The scenes are being created now. The level of stagecraft effect that you see is the Broadway version. Most places see the tour version of The Lion King. It is a gorgeous version, but you can’t rip every theater apart; we are going to rip this theater apart. I think it begins the minute Mamma Mia! carries its last beach towel out of the building.

RL: Were you Cirque before Cirque?

TS: I have known founder Guy Laliberte for so long. I presented Guy with an award in Little Tokyo in L.A. Memorial Day weekend in 1987. The Quebec Delegation, whom I had met when I did the Olympics in 1984, introduced me to him. In the spring of 1986 I flew in, they were performing at a shopping mall. Guy picked me up in his beat-up station wagon. He didn’t have the private jet them. I stayed all weekend. By Sunday, we made a deal for him to do a L.A. festival with top ticket price $17.50. The rest, as they say, is history! Guy has been many times to The Lion King. He didn’t come opening night, but he has been many times. I have seen all of his stuff. There are four pages in his book about coming to L.A. and the initial experience with me. But Guy very cruelly says, “If I had only invested in Cirque, I would have had it made.”

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The tree of life in Disney's The Lion King.

RL: They were thinking of doing another new Cirque show here at Mandalay Bay, but by bringing The Lion King here, you have aced out your friend.

TS: Last night, I went to see Ka. I have seen everything that Guy has done. When you walk around this town, it seems that Cirque owns Las Vegas. We just want one little theater to put on our humble little show.

RL: You said earlier that you almost had The Lion King launched in Vegas back in 2001. Why did that go wrong?

TS: Our director, Julie Taymor, and I traveled around Vegas. There were a number of suitors from Las Vegas. The timing was never right. We didn’t want to do a smaller show, nor did we want to do an expanded version. We wanted to do the pure Broadway version. This is now the right moment in time. Timing is elusive. When we open productions around the world, then we can’t be here. The Lion King doesn’t follow any rational pattern, so we didn’t look to that as a model. We wanted it to be right for us.

RL: The lion is the king of the jungle; Las Vegas in a sense is a jungle. Will your lion remain king here?

TS: The one thing you learn when you are associated with successful things: I have been very lucky. If you are smart, humility is a real source. Every place we have taken The Lion King, we worry about the show and the cast. I don’t know how Las Vegas works. I am not swinging my big lion tail around town. We will mount the show and learn something about Las Vegas. I like to listen to people who are smarter than me. We will find out.

RL: Didn’t the director hit it on the head when Julie said it simply is a well-told story?

TS: A well-told story is the most important thing. The Lion King doesn’t have a complicated plot; it is simple and well told. In reality, it is about us. Everyone has made a mistake and regrets, as has Simba. When I think back to 1990 when I worked on the movie, I think what has made it work all over again is that it is simple and truthful. The stage is great, the cast is great, but it comes down to a simple truth. I think that is what Julie has always worked on. Julie is a genius. Without her, it would not be here. She has such a passion and a vision for the show. She put everything she had ever thought of into this show.

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Kissy Simmons (Nala) and Dashaun Young (Simba) in Disney's The Lion King.

RL: It sounds as if you have a love affair with it. You have stayed with it over 18 years.

TS: I have had such a great journey with The Lion King, but it always comes down to the people -- the people who made The Lion King. Then Elton and Tim. We did the movie version of The Lion King, the stage version of The Lion King, and we also did Aida together. We spent a lot of time together. There is something great about Elton John. Everyone knows Elton can be hilarious and the things that the public knows … but those of us that have been on the inner creative circle, he never wants anything other than the product to be right. He is never capricious; he is a man of extraordinary artistic integrity. He puts up a front and creates a character, but with us, he has always been a songwriter. I have a strong belief in cultural Darwinism. Whatever is right survives. People can attack it, chew it up, but good ideas survive.

RL: It’s an ensemble cast of regular working actors without name recognition. Any thought about adding headliners just for Vegas?

TS: I get asked about celebrity casting. We have put people in the show that have then become stars. Heather Hedley, the original Nala, went on to do Aida, won a Tony Award, then a fantastic recording career. She was one of Clive Davis’ big stars. We have always gone to people who were just great. We have had so many people call us and ask to be in the Vegas show. This is a desirable city to come to, but the show doesn’t fit with star casting. Think about the character of Scar. It is a very difficult role to play: You have to wear a large mask and one hour of makeup before the show. It is very grueling. There are not a lot of stars that could do that. If you put a star in that, would you recognize them anyway? We have five South African nationals in the show, and once we deal with unions and visas we will assemble the best possible cast.

INTERVIEW: MANDALAY BAY VICE PRESIDENT SCOTT VOEHLER

Robin Leach: How long did the search take and how long to decide on The Lion King?

Scott Voehler: The search for the right show took a long time. A lot of different opportunities came through. Once The Lion King came back to the forefront, it didn’t take long to make it final.

RL: Mandalay Bay President Bill Hornbuckle tells the story of being at MGM Grand in 2000 and trying to bring it to Vegas even then. So there must be a particular joy even though it is nine years after the fact.

SV: I actually go back before Bill’s quest. I was at the Luxor before the Blue Man Group arrived, and we were discussing bringing in The Lion King. It goes to show how people really wanted to see this production come to the city, and for us to get it here at Mandalay is exciting. It is the right fit. You take the success of Mamma Mia! in the last six years, and we enjoyed that as a great precursor to The Lion King. And for us to have it here at Mandalay is really a coup for us.

RL: It is clean, wholesome, family theater and once again everyone can sing the songs.

SV: Yes, just like Mamma Mia! everyone can sing the songs. That is one of the threads that has made Broadway musicals here at Mandalay Bay successful. It makes you feel great, you know the music; you know the story line even if you haven’t seen the actual play. I think that is what is going to draw people. Even though we are an adult destination, this show appeals to all audiences. I was interested to find out that across all of the tours and productions around the world, only 15 percent of tickets are sold to people with children.

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Tshidi Manye as Rafiki in Disney's The Lion King.

RL: These are very trying economic times for the country and Vegas relies on the country to send us tourists. Do you worry about opening a brand new show in the midst of this downturn?

SV: I guess we don’t look at it as a brand new show. It is a proven show. The last 10 years, it is in the Top 5 selling shows on all of Broadway. It has a great brand, one that is recognized worldwide, and I think that takes the risk out of opening a show like this. Clearly when we decided to take the show, things were not as they are today. The economy changed very rapidly. We know that won’t be forever, so we think this is the right show. People come to Vegas to see first-class entertainment, and that is what we want to deliver to people. So we would have made the same decision. This show fits well with what we are as a brand, and it is an exotic luxury that has all of these experiences -- and it owns its sensible niche price standpoint. I think the value proposition for a show as successful as The Lion King to have a ticket that starts at $53 and tops out at $113 is terrific. There will be limited VIP seating, along with a gift and the special program for $168. That is the highest price point for the show.

RL: Some people have said everything has to be unique and different in Vegas to be successful. You can’t see Ka or O anywhere else in the entire world, only in Vegas. So what does this Lion King production have?

SV: Clearly you have to look at the shows that are unique and distinct and aren’t anywhere else, but I think what this does bring is this is only the second sit cast being done in the U.S. It has been a touring show for 10 years and has been exposed to a lot of people. There are a lot of people who come to Vegas whose town the show has never come to; they have never been to New York to experience it. In their minds, it is new. By reputation, there is an appeal. This becomes more than a lot of other types of show an appointment show. You can come here specifically to see that show. I think that is what will drive it. We think that has been part of the success of Mamma Mia!. That has been around for quite some time. It has played in a lot of different cities. A very smart advertising person once said, “The magic is still in the product.” I think that is what we feel. The product is there.

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The cast of Disney's The Lion King.

RL: Why has The Lion King been so successful?

SV: Music. Costumes. A wonderful story, and it certainly was able to leverage off the success of the animated film.

RL: If you say Mamma Mia! is uplifting, what will you feel with this?

SV: Inspired, I think. You will get the same uplifting feeling, and you will leave inspired for greatness.

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