Translating The Lion King in More Ways Than One

Tomorrow marks the achievement of another milestone in The Lion King legacy. After almost twenty years running on Broadway and grossing over $1 billion from the Broadway production alone, the show is about to premiere in its ninth language as it kicks off its first Chinese tour. But the language isn’t the only new thing about this production.

Lion King

The Mandarin-speaking production of The Lion King opens in the purpose-built theatre at Shanghai Disney Resort tomorrow night with a cast of 40 local performers from Shanghai and across China joined by 10 South African cast. But it won’t be an exact carbon copy of the productions that are playing elsewhere around the world. For the first time ever, the Tony Award-winning director and designer Julie Taymor has added in a new character.

When talking to Variety, Taymor let slip that she has incorporated a mischievous monkey into the cast in order to make the hit musical more relevant to audiences in China.

It is an interesting move for an industry which is rather fixated on freezing productions after they have played Broadway or West End. But it is certainly something that will need to be considered as more musicals look to fill local theatres amongst this enormously untapped audience.

Chinese populations haven’t really been exposed to Western culture, the culture which inspires a lot of these shows and the culture in which they are expected to be viewed. But can you really have that expectation for a society which knows very little about the context? No. You need to modify your product to contain some relevance for these audiences.

For China, animal imagery plays an important role in society – and it is the Year of the Monkey after all. So incorporating some of this local context into the show will help the same message shine in a markedly different context.  

While some may call this pandering, I call it creating a hit. You can’t expect your audience to do research into your show, it’s up to you as the creative to ensure that it is relevant enough to the audience that they walk out with the work’s message steadfastly in their head!

Well done Julie Taymor. This is a great move by The Lion King and hopefully sets a precedent for some local adaptations of more shows in the future!