The Lion King is one of the most popular musicals in the world.
In fact, few shows have had quite the same buzz about its forthcoming arrival in the North East.
Mamma Mia! for sure, and I do remember Cats having the same impact many moons ago.
Come September 18, the Disney spectacular will be entertaining audiences at Sunderland Empire all the way through to November 1.
There are few musicals which could warrant such a lengthy run these days, but it is an apt accolade for The Lion King. I saw it a few years ago in London and last month caught it again in Liverpool as part of its UK tour.
Again, I was blown away by it, as was the audience at the matinee performance I caught, who were on their feet, clapping and ‘roaring’ their approval within seconds of the show starting.
Why? Well, if you have not seen the show in the past, I am not going to spoil it for you. Suffice to say make sure you do not arrive late if you have tickets for Sunderland (if you don’t, my advice is you really should buy some!) as you will miss one of the biggest treats of the entire production.
The Lion King is packed with outstanding musical numbers, but it is the puppetry, set design and sheer scale of the show which sets it apart from most. It broke the mould in the puppet world long before War Horse had ever been thought of, and the latter owes a huge debt of gratitude to The Lion King.
It all looks so easy on stage, but it simply wouldn’t work, as with all productions, without the backstage crew and I had the pleasure of a tour behind the scenes to see how it all worked.
On stage, audiences are taken through the story of lion cub Simba, his trials and tribulations and his journey to becoming The Lion King.
But backstage scores of unseen people are responsible for making sure the tale unfolds seamlessly.
In fact, taking The Lion King on the road involves more than 100 people, all with their little – and not so little – bits to do.
Perhaps the most integral member of the production crew is Will Pearce, who is head of masks and puppets.
I catch up with him just half an hour before curtain up, and he is unbelievably calm.
He’s been with show on various productions for several years now, but his enthusiasm is unabated.
“There’s an unbelievable amount of detail goes into these costumes, wigs and masks,” he says. “Even now it is still quite mind-boggling.
“And each actor, singer and dancer has to get used to them, so they become like a part of their own body.
“It’s very interesting to watch the development and to know you have a crucial role in the overall end result.
“It’s fair to say no two days are the same and there is always something new to be doing. It can be quite manic at times, but there’s organisation in the chaos, at least that’s what I tell myself.”
While choreography on stage is paramount, the choreography behind the scenes is equally as important to ensure the smooth running of the show.
But with all things, not everything always goes to plan. “Simba’s backside and back legs fell off on stage in London once,” Will recalls.
“That was a bit scary as he is hardly ever off stage.
“Everyone finds it hilarious now, but believe me, it wasn’t at the time.
“We have breaks and other things go wrong that the audience would not be aware off, but that was definitely a first. But you get through it and have to think on your feet – maybe not the best use of words – and get on with it.”
Having wandered backstage and seen the prep that goes into staging the show, it’s little wonder that The Lion King is set to be the ‘mane’ event in theatre this autumn.
- The Lion King plays The Sunderland Empire from Sept 18 to Nov 1. Call 0844 871 3022 for tickets.