The Lion King

It’s hard to know when you’ve just experienced an artistic performance that is a classic for all times. Are time and perspective absolutely necessary to bestow superlatives of timelessness?

Did the peasants in the pit of the Globe Theatre have any inkling that the tale of star-crossed lovers they just saw would be hailed for hundreds of years as an example of the best artistic feats man could create? Did someone in the audience know better as the rest of them booed Stravinksy? I mean, Van Gogh died in obscurity. And many of the most celebrated artistic sensations of many an era have faded from human memory. So, how can I say whether something I just saw will be remembered for all time?

And what’s more, can Big Corporate Money produce anything approaching the pinnacle of artistic perfection? Can the crass power of ample funding and the brute force of cutting-edge technology produce sublime subtleties of human expression?

I have to admit I was skeptical about a road production of a Big Broadway Musical produced by Disney. But instead of coming away from The Lion King with a smile and humming one of the tunes, I came away from this performance pondering the above Big Questions of human artistic endeavor.

This was not so much a musical as a ballet with words. Not so much a performance as a work of art. I found myself tuning out the music and the story (which I have seen in animated form with my children so many times I cannot count) and just watching the beautiful spectacle.

The genius of The Lion King was in its simplicity. The problem with big budget entertainment is that it is usually so ham-fisted and obvious it just hits you over the head. This performance was subtle, minimalistic, but intricate. Instead of having a big technical crew creating big effects from offstage, they moved the technical crew onstage and blended them into the performance. There was no usual “man behind the screen”. Instead he came out onto the stage and stole the show.

Disney spent its money well and created an artistic experience that defied categorization. Choreography was puppetry, the scenery was the chorus, lighting was a character, costumes were set design — all normal theater categories were turned upside down.

And so I came out of The Lion King Saturday in a happy muddle, not knowing what exactly I just saw and wondering if I had the proper perspective to place in it the hierarchy of human artistic experience. I guess it seems unlikely that The Lion King is a latter day La Traviata or MacBeth, but so much of the genius of The Lion King was unlikely. And so pleasantly unexpected.

Oh, and the music was pretty good too.

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