My family and I went to see The Lion King on Broadway,
I didn’t love it.
I know… I’m such a jerk. It’s an utterly beloved show. The audience roared in applause as the curtain closed to end the show.
But no. I didn’t love it.
Here’s my problem with The Lion King musical:
It’s Hamlet. It’s clearly modeled after Hamlet and in many ways honors many of Shakespeare’s plot points. All of this is fine. Interesting, even. But in this version of Shakespeare’s classic, the character of Hamlet, played by Simba, is rewarded at the end of the story by becoming king. He’s rewarded even though he, like Hamlet, takes almost no action on his own behalf throughout the story. Like Hamlet, he dithers his time away, choosing a worry-free life over accountability, confrontation, obligation, and love. His victory is completely and utterly unearned.
Shakespeare rightfully ends his version of Hamlet with the deaths of Hamlet, his mother, Ophelia (the woman he loves), and many others.
Shakespeare understands that uncertainty and inaction can only lead to disaster. If you dither, you die.
In The Lion King, a previously irrelevant, all-knowing baboon arrives on the scene to literally hit Simba on the head with a stick and remind him that he’s supposed to be king. Then the baboon conjures the ghost of Simba’s murdered father to remind him, too.
That’s it. A knock on the head and the appearance of a ghost, and the story is essentially over. Simba must now kill Scar to end the show, except even this isn’t done by Simba. Instead, Scar betrays Simba one final time, takes a swing at him, and falls off a cliff.
Hyenas eat Scar instead, thus ensuring that Simba will do almost nothing at all of meaning for this entire musical.
Simba faces no test. He’s not forced to face a fork in the road. He does not agonize between between Hakuna Matata (a problem-free life absent any acknowledgement of the past) and the responsibility that comes with his royal birthright. No philosophical epiphany. No self discovered moment of realization. Simba’s hero’s journey is quite literally a nagging baboon and a ghostly reminder from the grave.
Protagonists are supposed to take action on their own behalf. They are supposed to be making decisions that determine their fate. They’re supposed to be faced with impossible choices. Simba does none of this.
This is my primary complaint with The Lion King. It’s a glaring, onerous, obvious problem in need of fixing.
But there’s more.
Shakespeare also opens Hamlet with Hamlet’s father already dead, which tightens the story considerably and adds a glorious surprise when we learn that his uncle killed his father. By including Simba’s father’s death in the musical, it divides the show into two very distinct parts:
Before Pumbaa and Timon (not funny) and after Pumbaa and Timon (broadly funny).
Prior to Mufasa’s death, the show is rarely funny. After his death, we meet a warthog and a meerkat who are nothing but funny.
In addition to all of this, Zazu, the king’s counselor, who is probably the best character in the show, is almost entirely absent from the second act because of this before Pumbaaa and Timon and after Pumba and Timon structure.
Once you have a funny warthog and meerkat, there is no room for the funny bird.
None of this is good. It creates two tonally different acts and makes it feel like two different stories. Audiences don’t want two stories sewn together in the middle. They want the story to feel like a whole, with the characters we meet early on playing a role throughout. Not disappearing for enormous lengths of time.
Also, Scar attempts to have sex with Nala, who is the same age as Simba, meaning she’s old enough to be Scar’s daughter. This is creepy and weird but most importantly, utterly unnecessary. His attempted rape (and that is exactly what it is) sends Nala into the wilderness, where she finds Simba, but her home is dying. Food and water are scarce. There are plenty of other reasons for her to be wandering into the jungle without the threat of creepy, forced sex being one of them.
The music was wonderful (though at least three songs were entirely disconnected from the plot) and the costuming and special effects were spectacular. The performances were brilliant, and the theater is beautiful.
But the story is a mess. A deeply, dysfunctional mess. Utterly and easily correctable, but at the moment, a mess.
The Lion King is the third longest running show in Broadway history. A quarter century and counting. It’s been seen and loved by hundreds of millions of people. I’m laying waste to something that people – my own family included – adore.
I know this. I also know I’m absolutely correct about my criticism. The story is a mess. It can and should be fixed.
It’s tough to be at the tip of the spear, saying something that most will oppose. I know this.
Simba, however, does not. He’s most assuredly at the back of the spear, waiting for a baboon to knock him on the head and save the day.