Tshidi Manye was backstage at The Lion King, striving for her life against all odds when she was approached for a hug. “Not now!” she reacted swiftly. “Please hand it over to me after the show!”
Manye was set to return to the stage for the first post-lockdown performance, which took place last Tuesday, after almost twenty years in the role of Rafiki, followed by a difficult 18-month long break. She realized she couldn’t allow herself to be tempted by more emotion. She’d been on the verge of tears since entering the Minskoff Theatre’s dressing rooms and seeing a busy backstage she hadn’t seen since March 2020.
“You’d think my entire floor was a florist’s shop,” she remembers. “I mean, there were flowers, flowers, flowers all over the place. And my throat simply closed in on us. And I was thinking, “How am I going to do this?”
Watching The Lion King musical today is like going back in time — not only to March 2020 but also to the late 1990s. The clothing cuts, cheerful colour palette, and rich symphonic music contrast with the usual features of newer, sleeker musicals. And something about the show’s cheesily genuine multiculturalism—the incorporation of Kabuki theatrical methods, the blending of Zulu and English phrases—suggests a post-racial investment that has since curdled.
Even the show’s history harkens back to a bygone period on Broadway when the squeaky-clean Times Square substituted the grittier one. (When Disney’s then-president visited New York to see the dilapidated theatre that would become the Minskoff, he was reportedly approached by two prostitutes. Rudy Giuliani promised they would be gone before opening night, along with the peep shows and pornographic theatres stationed nearby.) For those who, like me, were reared on The Lion King, hearing the music can give you the brief impression that you have teleported to the Clinton era.
The idea of live theater is that no two performances are perfectly similar, yet there is a paradox in a production like this that continues for years, virtually unaltered. This ceremony includes a promise of stagnation, a promise that the performance will not change and, as a result, time will not progress. Come watch The Lion King (you can purchase Lion King tour tickets at our website), and you may be taken back in time to a period of more innocence, more elastic skin, and less grief.