Secrets Behind 'The Lion King' Musical's Enormous Success

At first, almost no one thought the beloved Disney movie would work as a musical

Nov. 20, 2012— -- The Broadway show "The Lion King" begins with a haunting Zulu call and the menagerie of puppets that follows has enthralled millions. The show has earned more than $5 billion, more money than any musical in history.

In fact, "The Lion King" has been more profitable than all six "Star Wars" films combined. But at first, almost no one thought it would work.

"I, quite famously, said, 'That's the worst idea I've ever heard,'" said the show's would-be producer, Thomas Schumacher. "The movie is fundamentally cinematic, and there's nothing theatrical about it."

Schumacher is now the head of Disney Theatrical Productions, a division of ABC News' parent company, and invited "Nightline" to pull back the curtain and discover the secrets behind the show's phenomenal success.

During the backstage tour, Schumacher reminisced about early arguments with his boss, then-CEO Michael Eisner, over taking the animated film to Broadway.

"I said, 'You've got to be crazy,' and he said, 'Just get a great idea, just get a great idea,' and I got a great idea: Julie Taymor," he said.

At the time, Taymor was a little-known theater savant. She had directed edgy, pioneering productions and operas, but never mainstream Broadway. She became the show's director.

"Everyone told her she was crazy to work with Disney," Schumacher said. "Everyone told us we were crazy to work with someone like Julie. The Broadway community just assumed this was going to be a massive disaster."

But Eisner said the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. They would go on to reinvent the 1994 Disney animated feature for the stage. Taymor used every trick in the book, from 17th century stagecraft to African costume design and Asian puppetry. The result was a groundbreaking fusion of high art and lowbrow good fun.

Taymor has scoured the globe for new talent. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, "Nightline" got a rare glimpse inside a casting session for the latest "Lion King" production -- it's the 16th country after the United States to stage a production.

Tiago Barbosa, a 27-year-old plucked from the slums of Rio, brought down the house during his audition with Simba's most emotional number. Taymor cast him on the spot.

Rest assured, Taymor is no stranger to magical moments. In 1998, she became the first women to ever win a Tony for Best Director. "Lion King" took home five more that night.

Taymor went on to direct films like "Frieda" and other plays, but perhaps her most famous -- or infamous -- project is the equally ambitious, wildly expensive musical, "Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark," an almost nine-year undertaking.

The musical was notoriously riddled with problems: Stage accidents, revolving producers and some scathing early reviews. Taymor was skewered in the press and removed from the production before the show officially opened. She has been reluctant to talk on camera about the experience until now.

"You can't blame it on me or any single person, because you don't create a musical with one person or two," she said.

In a "Nightline" interview last year, Taymor's famous partners, U2's Bono and Slash, accused her of being too close to the production to make necessary changes, but Taymor said she doesn't agree.

"It is very hard to create experimental -- break ground, try to do something that's never been done when people are going to constantly second-guess it," she said.

"Spiderman" has become a huge hit on Broadway, after significant retooling.

"But the show that is there is the show that I created over eight years, minus some of the depth," Taymor said. "There's something about Spidey flying over the audience."

Big risk, big reward: It's the lesson she learned while directing "Lion King" 15 years ago. As the original show creators took their curtain calls after the 15th anniversary performance on Nov. 18, they said they know that all this pageantry and stagecraft would be meaningless were it not for a simple story, well told.

"It's not an American story, it's not a European story, it's not an Asian story. It's our story," Schumacher said. "It's the story of humanity, told with lions, a meerkat, and a flatulent warthog."

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