Why the Lion King is still a 'must see' London musical

Actors dressed as lions dancing on stage in a London production of the Lion King.

The Lion King is the sixth-longest running in West End history. - Credit: Deen van Meer

The theatre world is roaring back into life so SAM COOPER went to see if the Lion King remains top of the food chain 

Twenty-five species of animal, four 18-foot giraffes, 52 wildebeests, 39 hyenas, 3,000 stalks of grass and a 45-pound warthog. There is a lot that goes into the production of Disney’s Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre in London’s Covent Garden. 

The show has been teleporting its audience to the colourful and vibrant plains of Africa for 22 years, making it the sixth-longest running show on the West End, but it has not lost any of its magic since Simba was first lifted from the summit of Pride Rock in October 1999. 

Actors dressed as animals leaping high in a London production of the Lion King.

The choreography is a key part of the show with characters’ emotions being represented by the way they move. - Credit: Johan Persson

There is a reason it has enjoyed such longevity. If theatre is meant to be an immersive experience, there are few other shows that can rival the Lion King for its crown. While the performances of the actors are all excellent, in particular the loveable Timon and Pumbaa who are a welcome comic relief when the musical is at its darkest, it is in the set and costume design that the show excels.  

Gazelles, lions and hyenas dance their way through the stalls while two percussionists positioned up high in boxes flanking either side of the stage provide the distinctive drumming that immerses the audience from the moment they take their seats. Every inch of the stage is used to its full potential and it is a rare moment to see not at least a dozen actors performing at one time.  

While the actors performed below, high above the scenery changed from grasslands to desert to stars. A particularly impressive highlight came during the second act when puppeteers assembled a giant portrayal of Mufasa against the backdrop of a night sky. 

Each performer is donned in a costume rich with colour and intricate in design. A glance at the programme reveals the intense planning that went into each character with Mufasa’s headdress styled to sit like a crown while his evil brother Scar’s makes him appear off-kilter and dangerous. 

Actors performing with puppets as animals in a London production of the Lion King.

Puppets feature heavily in the show who help to bring the performance to life. - Credit: Catherine Ashmore

This combined with songs as familiar as the story itself written by Elton John and Tim Rice is a recipe for success. Adults and children alike will be singing along as they realise there can be no worries for the rest of their days.  

If looking for a place to stay, you would be hard pressed to find a better choice than the One Aldwych Hotel. Residing across the street from the theatre, its location in Covent Garden makes it perfect for getting out and about and seeing the city before showtime. If sightseeing is not your thing, there is plenty at the hotel that will keep you occupied such as the Library, a guests’ only bar and lounge that can double up as a workspace. 

Exterior of the One Aldwych Hotel in London.

The One Aldwych Hotel is across the street from the theatre and features a full health club with pool and sauna. - Credit: One Aldwych Hotel

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Before you are transported to the dustbowl of the Sahara, you can take a dip in the hotel’s pool which is part of the health and fitness suite that also encompasses a gym, sauna and steam room. After your swim, you can head to the hotel’s restaurant Indigo for a pre-show dinner including Devon-sourced fish and chips to make it feel like a home from home.  

The room itself was a relaxing refuge in the middle of the bustling city. A deluxe room includes a king-size bed, sofa and waterfall shower as well as complimentary chocolate, biscuits and stocked mini bar.  

The friendly and welcoming staff are on hand to facilitate your every request but perhaps the most impressive part of your stay will be what you can see out of your bedroom window. The panoramic view of the capital stretches from Tower Bridge down to the South Bank and early worms will be able to enjoy the sun rise over the Shard as the city wakes. 

The Lion King is a staple of the West End scene and with theatres circling back into life, those who decide to become a member of the pride for the evening will see this king is not going anywhere soon. 

A show that is out of this world 

The Lion King is so popular, it took ten Star Wars films just to match its gross revenue of $9 billion. Since its first performance on Broadway in November 1997, it has gone on to be performed in front of 100 million people in 26 different productions.  

It has travelled to 100 cities, 20 countries and six continents and has won more than 70 theatre awards including the 1998 Tony award for Best Musical. This will have eased the mind of Sir Elton John who when he first heard about the idea could only envision animals as sports team mascots with furry costumes and gigantic heads.  

Leader of the pack  

No one has been more crucial to the Lion King’s success than Julie Taymor. Not only did she direct the show, she helped design the costumes, masks, puppets and even contributed some of the lyrics but she represented a risky choice for Disney animation producer Thomas Schumacher. 

He said: “[Disney CEO Michael] Eisner kept saying ‘All you need is one big idea.’ Finally I realised that I didn't have to have a big idea, I just needed to hire a director who had one.” The gamble paid off and Taymor became the first woman in history to win a Tony for Best Direction of a Musical.