The Lion King: Celebrating 15 Years

The Lion King, Disney’s award-winning musical, is now in its 16th year in London and, as of September 2014, has achieved the most successful box office total of any work in any media in entertainment history. 

The stage adaption of Disney’s 1994 animated film opened on Broadway November 1997. Following this encouraging start, the show made it’s debut in London on October 19th 1999, and has been running ever since in the West End’s Lyceum Theatre; a venue previously popular for rock concerts and television broadcasts in the 1960s and 70s.

The production features an expansion of the film score with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice with additional material from Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer. Director Julie Taymor led the stage adaptation of the show and made Broadway history by becoming the first woman to win the Tony Award for ’Best Director of a Musical’.

During February 2012, Disney Theatrical Group announced that The Lion King would embark on its first UK tour launching from Bristol Hippodrome in October of the same year and finishing in 2015. In addition to the record-breaking productions in London and New York, The Lion King can currently been seen in Hamburg, Madrid, Tokyo, Brisbane, Basel and on ours of North American and Japan. Lion King is only the second show in history to generate five productions worldwide running 10 or more years. 

The London musicians

From the beginning of the London run, Tracy Holloway and John Higginbotham have held the trombone chairs in the orchestra; Tracy playing tenor, and John, bass doubling tuba. They kindly agreed to share some of their vast experience with me.

Jane Salmon: How was the show developed during the Broadway to London transfer? 

Tracy Holloway: As this was the second production, the formula was in place by the time we got to our first rehearsal. However, the Broadway orchestra has 3 horns and 2 trombones, we have 1 horn and 2 trombones. There was re-scoring to be done by David Metzger, this was done in such a way that it is a trombone part and not 3rd trumpet, 2nd horn and a trombone part altogether – this can be a lip buster, which has been the case on previous shows I’ve done.

JS: How has the show changed? Do you still use the music? 

TH: Since the start there have been mainly number cuts and with different supervisors changes in articulation and phrasing etc. which is always a mind blower when you know the pad from memory. Neither of us have used the music in 14 years – some of the deps even know it from memory! It’s good concentration for the mind to add these changes. 

JS: What’s it been like to work with each other for the last 15 years?

John Higginbotham: It’s actually been longer than that. We both did the musical Martin Guerre for two years from 1996-98, had 18 months off then got Lion King. We have a very good working relationship; if one of us comes in and needs to quietly get on and do the show, the other knows to leave well alone. At other times we may chat from beginning to end!

TH: Yes, as John said we’ve been working together since 1996 with a small gap where we both did other things but I still ended up depping for John on one of his projects at the National Theatre. What makes it work is that John is a beautiful, solid, great player and we fit well as a section and like he said we can talk for England or not at all and this is no problem.

JH: Also, it mustn’t be forgotten that we only do a percentage of shows together. We both have a long list of deps, and find ourselves playing the show with lots of different people.

TH: I am fortunate to work outside the Lion King a lot, which brings all of our amazing deps into the fold, helping the Lion King to keep up the amazing standard and positive atmosphere. I think we would both like to take this opportunity to thank our amazing deps that have kept us sane for all these years. It’s always hard depping on a show as you can be in a lot then not for a while and then be expected to play as the chair holder. The deps are all amazing players who usually have just one sit-in and a copy of the pad for preparation. They do a lot of homework, and they do it so well. They are the unsung heroes of the West End and ensembles in general.

JS: What’s it like in the pit?

JH: Very good atmosphere in the pit, which is unusual for a west end show running for this length of time. I put this down to the flexibility in taking time off, and not being answerable to a contractor (other than Disney) on the day-to-day business of the pit. 

JS: How were you originally fixed?

TH: It’s a great atmosphere in the pit and we all get on, I think this is because of how we were contracted in the first place, key players were asked who they wanted to work with, in my case John got put forward for the gig to our then Musical Director Colin Welford who asked John who he would like to work with which was happily me. Disney is our contractor so there is a great friendship base and banter in the band and because we have freedom to do other work the standard is kept high.

JS: What else do you do? How has it been in this seat?

JH: I’ve been in the BBC Big Band for 20 years and had my fair share of other freelance work. This seat though has been brilliant for financial security. My children have grown up with the Lion King!

TH: My playing life has been so varied for the last 25 years including the Don Lusher Big Band, Orchestras, Opera and Royal National Theatre where I have worked on War Horse and many other productions including Peter Gabriel’s ‘New Blood’ as well as works at The Globe, and film sessions. Just to name a few. You get the idea of how varied my life is, I’ve enjoy the life of a freelance musician but the security of the Lion King is second to none and Disney Theatrical are great to work for! It is great in a show, if you have the mind set as it can be also used as great practice to be consistent in performance, the show is a great workout in all styles of music and it works the range for us both.

JS: Can any comparisons be drawn between a work in the West End and work in an orchestral seat?

JH: Two things that spring to mind are that we work fewer hours for more money, and we are always in the same place. 

TH: As with any job there is repetition but the plus side for a show is you are in one place as an opera orchestra is, this is great for the family for both of us, we have both done our fair share of touring and had fabulous times but it’s lovely to be at home and have breaks without the trombone. I love my job but I also love my life and for the last 25 years I have been fortunate but the last 15 years on the Lion King has been great fun with a great bunch of pals.

Many thanks to those who have contributed towards this celebratory piece. 

First published in The Trombonist, Summer 2015.