Interview with Christophe Leclercq, show director of the production “The Lion Link: Rhythms of the Pride Lands”.
When did you start working on this project?
The decision to launch the production of a brand-new show around The Lion King took place more than two and a half years ago. From there, everything was set up very quickly and I was appointed to stage this new production.
How did you develop the concept of the show?
The first instructions I was given were to do something completely different from productions done in Disney Parks before. From there, I asked myself a lot of questions. I found “fan-arts” that just imagined the characters of The Lion King in human form. It inspired us a lot. In the end, The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands is an unprecedented show based on the history of The Lion King, as if a tribe had decided to put this legend on the stage and in music.
And this story is told through songs?
Absolutely. Due to the multicultural nature of our audience, we preferred not to use dialogues. These are the songs that tell the story. We scrupulously respected the order of the animated film. We also had the chance to add several iconic titles of the musical.
This show is titled The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands. How did you deal with this rhythmic dimension?
Our show is really based on the rhythmic aspect. With our arranger Steve Sidwell, we wanted to put the African traditions in the spotlight, while bringing a touch of modernity through new rhythms and new tempos, but always in the greatest respect. This dimension has not only inspired the music of the show, but also our decor, which consists of djembes on which the characters will evolve. All these interlocking percussion instruments create an incredible stage space on several levels, which offers many possibilities in terms of staging.
How did you use these different areas according to each song?
With Frontierland Theater, we are fortunate enough to have a real theater, with a real “black box”, that is to say, a closed performance space, with all that that allows in terms of immersion and treatment of the light. Thanks to our new equipment, I can focus the light on different areas of the scene and make each number a vignette, as in a storyboard, that I spread throughout the space. I can control every part of the scene that I want the light to focus on. This allows us to keep a lot of surprises.
You really use all the space!
Indeed. There are certainly artists on stage at different heights, but the scenery also evolves during the show: it turns, it swings and you have a few surprises! And then, there is the whole aerial dimension. Many things are going on in the air. It must be said that we installed in the hangers not less than 7 flying devices for acrobats, which means that during the 30 minutes of the show, they touch very little ground!
Can you introduce your creative team?
I had already worked with Bradley Kaye, Principal Art Director for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, on the Jedi Training Academy, and we figured it would be the right person to set the stage for our new show. For costumes, we turned to Mirena Rada, a well-known Disney and Disney comedy artist, including Tokyo Disneyland, who has already collaborated with us on the FanDaze event. For the musical arrangements, we called Steve Sidwell, who had already signed those of the Disney Dream Parade, and for the choreography, Cathy Ematchoua brought us her inimitable style. For the lights, we asked Pierre Leprou to bring a fresh look. As for the sound, we owe it to John Moine de Russi, known as “Papa John”. He proposed a brand-new audio broadcasting system for the Frontierland Theater offering a totally immersive experience.
How did you build your “tribe”, the cast of the show?
As for the singers, the castings started more than a year ago. We auditioned in London and Paris, as we often do. We have cast people who worked on The Lion King in the West End, others on the version of Mogador or on other musicals like Motown. So we have a panel of dazzling and experienced artists, people with craft and a lot of talent. For acrobats, some of them come from big houses like Cirque du Soleil, from The House of Dancing Water show in Macau or from air shows in Paris. The dancers were the last to be auditioned. Some of them had also made Mogador and meet today with other artists they knew years ago on other productions related to the Lion King. In all, our Cast brings together 11 nationalities!
Can you tell us about costume design?
The costumes are very important in our show. They are there to evoke the characters of the film through all sorts of references, especially in terms of color codes of animals. Take Rafiki. It is a mandrill, recognizable by its muzzle very colorful, blue, red, white, and we find the same colors in his costume. In the end, 400 costumes were made for a cast of 70 people.
According to the different stagings of The Lion King around the world, the character that changes the most is probably Rafiki. How did you approach it?
In the animated cartoon, it’s a male monkey, so the person who sings “Circle of Life” is a kind of independent voiceover. For the musical, they relied on the voice of this song to make Rafiki a female character. Leaving to do something different, I thought that our Rafiki could be a singer. In the end, it gives another dimension to the character. He becomes a sort of shaman, who leads the show and ensures the transitions between the numbers.
Timon and Pumbaa are also difficult to represent on the stage. How did you envision them?
To enter into the concept of the show, it was also necessary to humanize them. So I went back into the cartoons and seeing this meerkat and the warthog, I immediately thought of Laurel and Hardy. This is how the costume of the character who plays Timon has tail but in the shape of a meerkat’s tail. He also has big clown shoes that are reminiscing of the legs of meerkats. And when it comes to casting, we have turned to performers who look totally different.
It is also this originality that makes Disneyland Paris shows unique. We still remember The Forest of Enchantment: A Disney musical adventure, which you also staged, with its totally new concept.
It’s always a challenge! But I think it’s also our role to offer the public original concepts and open it to other forms of entertainment. Always based on Disney stories.
In the end, the emotion is still there!
Music is paramount in this show. There is of course the richness of the original material, but also the strength of this new version. There is also this striking decor. And then, the whole “live” side of the show: the songs, the choreographies, the aerial acrobatics. All this human side that touches the heart. It’s my role to put all these artists in harmony to create emotions. Especially since we are inaugurating a new theater, and to do so, I could not dream of a better story than The Lion King, with its power and spirituality. We are the first to live in this place. It’s up to us to make it sound from our voices and give it its soul!