Drawing on Theater Magic

The tricky business of adapting an animated movie into a stage musical

 “The book was better.”

So goes the typical critique of movies based on novels, but one rarely hears “I liked the cartoon better” as audiences stream from theater venues where their favorite Disney film characters sang-and-danced through a musical version of the animated film.

What secret of adaptation makes or breaks a story’s translation from one genre to the next?

Adaptation itself is a challenging art form. Daunting, formidable, some brutal act of transmogrification that must appear easy to do … Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation, about him cracking up while taking a crack at turning Susan Orlean’s lurid, Florida-based book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, remains the unchallenged authority on what writers can go through trying to get it right from page to screen.

Or screen to stage.

For the writer—and in the case of Disney animated movies, the creative team—the logistics of space and time present the first two puzzles. How do I take this 350-page novel that covers three generations and boil it down to a 100-page screenplay? Or, how do we take a 72-minute animated movie and convert it to a two- or two-and-a-half-hour full-blown musical?

Story. That solves the two puzzles of time and space. For a movie, the story generally follows one character’s journey through some type of transformation, accompanied by a B story, or subplot for a minor character. (Vignettes, where the film cuts from one character’s story to another, is a popular way to have several equally-important plot lines going at once.) Most film adaptations of books fail to satisfy because the intricacies of the plots, the legion of minor characters, the flavor of the language and the gripping descriptions of place and person—what ignites our imaginations and is the very nature of the book form’s storytelling power—weighs down a screenplay, which is a streamlined form of storytelling through pictures that move. (Hence the early naming of films as “moving pictures” that became the truncated “movies.”)

In a stage adaptation of an animated film, more songs and dance numbers fluff out the story, changing the 72-minute movie to a two act, two hour musical. Characters reveal more personal details, more depth about themes and plot, with more music for the stage version.

For Disney, The Lion King remains triumphantly successful not only at the box office but also as an act of adaptation itself. Their stage musical arm, Disney Theatrical Productions, headed by Thomas Schumacher, made a bold and ultimately brilliant choice hiring avant-garde puppet theater expert Julie Taymor to conceive of the adaptation in the 90’s.

Theater’s magic lies in the fact that the audience can—coached with good lighting, stimulating costumes and evocative music—suspend its disbelief to the point of what is called “filling in the blanks” on stage. For example, a spiral staircase becomes the entire landscape for Pride Rock, and actors transport the audience members to some place magical in their imaginations though they never leave the theater.

For Taymor and the team putting together the stage version of The Lion King, reliance on the audience’s ability to fill the blanks and suspend disbelief was the gamble that paid off in the end: Taymor purposefully designed the puppets for the actors to wear, so puppet-human-animal appears visible at all times. Taymor’s artistic deviation from the animated movie—her response to how to solve the problem of making animals come to life on stage with human actors—risked alienating the core audience. However, Taymor’s vision worked. Not only did it work, it elevated Disney’s animated story to legitimate theatrical artistry.

In the final analysis, what makes or breaks the translation from one genre to another is having the work in the hands of artists and craftspeople who understand the unique demands of the individual art forms: Can we take all that makes a book a book and find a way to translate it into all that makes a movie a movie? Can we take a 72-minute cartoon and craft it into a work of theatrical art?

Taymor, who immersed herself with indigenous theater cultures and ran a mask-dance company in Indonesia before her directorial success in the U.S., knew the best ways to translate The Lion King’s story symbolically and literally for the stage and for the Broadway musical audience of Disney fans. Choreographer Garth Fagan added his exquisite choreography for the animal-human movements, and the circle of life, at least for this adaption, was complete.

(In an interesting note: Taymor originally pitched the idea of rewriting the entire ending, adding a Trump-like villain named Papa Croc who tricks Simba into fighting gladiator-style in Papa Croc’s Vegas-esque desert oasis. The end. Obviously, Disney execs eighty-sixed that adaptation of their movie.)

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