It wasn’t the first time I had seen the show either. But the person next to me was only a little girl in the recesses of my memory. My seatmate at the Minskoff Theater was actually my 30-year-old daughter, Lizzie. (30! How the hell did this happen?) We would return to “The Lion King” on the occasion of its 25th anniversary on Broadway.
A test of time for a Tony winning show. A step from the heart for us.
I had first brought Lizzie to the “Lion King” one evening in the fall of 1997, when she was 5 years old, in that flamboyant moment of awakening when the theater came to life for her. (And her mother could still dress her, uncomplainingly, in pretty embroidered dresses.) Holding a bag of gummy bears and other pasty treats made from 1,000% sugar, Lizzie looked on in delight, her feet tucked in in a pair of mary janes. Did they even touch the floor of the New Amsterdam Theater?
“The Lion King” celebrated its official opening night on November 13, 1997. Since then, director Julie Taymor’s life-size puppets of elephants and rhinos, leopards and giraffes have popped onto the Broadway stage to the jaw-dropping opener, “The Circle of Life,” on more than 9,750 evenings and afternoons. See it again with Lizzie (show moved to Minskoff after “Mary Poppins” took up residence in New Amsterdam ) brought me back to one of my proudest accomplishments as a critic: I had made my daughter a lover of the theater.
At an Italian restaurant before the recent performance, we tried to remember all the shows I had taken her to. I think we still matter. Lizzie has a weird aversion to sitting in the aisle – the critic’s perch – so she’s seen every orchestra performance, one seat. The special access to my work has also benefited Lizzie. Over the years, on days when I didn’t review, we sometimes had the opportunity to go behind the scenes, an opportunity I only took if I thought it would dazzle my daughter. So, at a tender age, she shook hands with the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast” (thanks, Jeff McCarthy!); fixed his interpolated gaze on Harvey Fierstein, decked out like Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray”; met, as a teenager, the cast of “Next to Normal” while I was doing an article on its star, Alice Ripley.
“Next to Normal,” the story of a woman struggling with mental illness, to a score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, is Lizzie’s all-time favorite – and the cast album I I would hear coming out of her bedroom once upon a time, while she was working on one of her art projects. I measure the progress of our musical theater adventures in Playbills, the way arborists count the rings of sycamores: “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 like “Hamilton” and blunders like “King Kong.”
When Lizzie was 9, I started playing the “Rent” sheet music in the car. She loved it, so the next year I took her to a touring production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning musical at the Warner Theater in Washington.
“Dad, what’s in the bag?” asked Lizzie, 10, as one of the figures 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 of our pre-‘Lion King’ pasta. “’What is the drug?’ ‘What is AIDS?’ ‘What is a lesbian?’ ”
Did Lizzie teach me too? Why, yes, of course. In 1997, the same year as “The Lion King,” I took her to a Broadway revival of “Annie” that was so rambling she refused to go back to her seat after intermission. A critic in training! (My wife sat with her in the lobby while I served the rest of my sentence in the theater.) Her impatience didn’t doom the production, but it did help me confirm what was wrong. In other words, a lot.
On the opposite end of the enchantment spectrum, I brought a pair of 6-year-olds – Lizzie and a school buddy – to a Broadway revival of “Peter Pan” with Cathy Rigby. Watching them stare, eyes wide, was a sight in itself. “Their contentment was unequivocal – in a theater, 6-year-olds tend to be captivated or sleepy,” I wrote in my review.
As we settled in for our return to “The Lion King,” I thought about how the musical was woven into our lives — from the high chair from which Lizzie watched the video hundreds of times, at Row K in Minskoff. (The voices in this animated version! James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick, Ernie Sabella…) Behind us, seeing the show live for the first time, was an 11-year-old French girl, who told us she lived in Jersey City. She was translating dialogue for other children with her, who were visiting New York from their town in the Alps.
I thought about the amazing durability of the show, how many other people there like them who weren’t even born when Lizzie and I visited a quarter of a century ago – even cast members. Taymor and Michael Curry’s masks and puppets remain the most imaginative in the history of the musical. The actors, including Brandon A. McCall as Simba, Tshidi Manye as Rafiki, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa and Stephen Carlile as Scar, uphold the estimable standards of the musical. And the score, mostly by Elton John and Tim Rice, contains the timeless “Hakuna Matata” and the silky, romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
And, of course, “The circle of life”. A sense of well-being washed over me, as spiritually conjured beasts roamed the aisles, my adult child by my side – the daughter who had fallen in love with animals before she could speak and spent the next decades drawing them, all the paths to art school. Was it 25 years since we had experienced this for the first time? Oh good?
“Thank you for a wonderful night,” Lizzie texted me, along with a face emoji with three hearts.
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 costumed by Taymor. About 2h30. Minskoff Theater, 200 W. 45th St., New York. lionking.com.