“The Lion King Makes People Laugh from Paris to New York”

Twenty-five years after its Broadway premiere, The Lion King is still just as popular. In fact, it is the world’s highest-grossing musical, and its French adaptation has just been renewed for another season at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. We owe this classic to American stage and film director Julie Taymor. She invited France-Amérique to her home in Garrison, north of New York City, to talk about her biggest successes – including The Lion King, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, The Magic Flute, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, M. Butterfly, Across the Universe, and Frida – and her beginnings in 1960s Paris.
Julie Taymor. © Frank Veronsky/Disney

France-Amérique : In 1997, you adapted Walt Disney’s The Lion King for Broadway, complete with a cast of Black actors singing in several African languages. You were well ahead of Hamilton…

Julie Taymor: Yes, well ahead, because we worked with Black actors and singers on a show that wasn’t about racism. At the time, plays and musicals in the United States only employed Black people if racism was the performance’s main theme. I insisted on having Black actors, not just because they were African, but because they were excellent. A lot of the music was also from South Africa, and so we needed South African singers who could sing in the five languages used throughout the show. I have always been interested in productions that combine cultures. As part of its Asian tour, which has been ongoing for four years, The Lion King features 23 nationalities!

In M. Butterfly (1988), a French diplomat falls in love with a Chinese singer who is secretly a man. In Frida (2002), audiences learn that Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was bisexual. And in The Glorias (2020), your most recent movie, viewers witness the rise of pioneering American feminist Gloria Steinem. Were you also ahead of the woke movement?

Ahead at the time, perhaps, but that is no longer the case. I don’t think Hollywood would allow me to direct Frida today because I’m not Mexican. I would be accused of cultural appropriation. Wokeness, which I agree with on principle, has done a certain amount of damage in the world of theater.

Can you tell us about your beginnings and your relationship with France?

I started acting on stage at the age of six, and when I turned 16, I founded a theater company in Boston called Riot. That was when I realized that I needed professional training. I was drawn to mime and I went to Paris in 1969, when Marceau the mime artist was the biggest name in the business. However, I found him to be too conventional, and so I enrolled at Jacques Lecoq’s more creative Ecole Internationale de Théâtre. He taught us how to tell a story by moving our bodies, and how to take on the identity of an object. As part of our studies, we learned how to become wind, fire, and rain. While there, I also discovered the art of masks, which feature prominently in The Lion King and in several of my operas – especially Oedipus Rex. When I think about it, the year I spent in Paris determined all my artistic work, which is essentially visual. Jacques Lecoq also convinced me that shows, plays, movies, and operas had to be organized around what he called an ideotype, a symbol that summarizes the entire work.

Could you give us an example?

The Lion King is set around a circle, which is found in every scene. The Magic Flute is based around a triangle, A Midsummer Night’s Dream around a bed, and The Glorias around a bus, because Gloria Steinem’s whole life was lived in movement, from one city to the next, and from one encounter to another…

© Hervé Pinel

You also discovered French cinema in Paris in 1969. Could you tell us more?

I did, especially François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, starring the fabulous Jeanne Moreau. Since then, I have admired certain actors and actresses, such as Simone Signoret, Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Alain Delon, who is a highly complex actor. But to be frank, I am not a fan of French cinema. I find the French movies made since the New Wave too chatty and not visual enough. That’s not cinema; it’s just filmed conversations – and always about love stories, often young women wooed by older men. The worst is Jean-Luc Godard, whose work is completely intellectual. That’s not art, in my opinion. I might be biased because I don’t speak French and so I can’t follow these filmed conversations. It’s also true that it is difficult to see French movies when you live in New York City. The rare arthouse cinemas that used to show them have all but disappeared. In general, Americans are unfamiliar with foreign films – and this situation is only getting worse.

Do you reject French movies as a whole?

No, there are exceptions, particularly the films that portray the lives of immigrants in Paris – a topic that is not generally featured in movies. Hate by Mathieu Kassovitz and A Prophet by Jacques Audiard are two examples.

Was it difficult to leave your family and move to Paris at the age of 16?

Yes, because I was American, and so everyone blamed me personally for the Vietnam War. It was so difficult to explain to the French that I was also against the conflict.

Since then, things have changed and Paris has brought you a lot of success!

That’s true. The French version of The Lion King has been very successful, and has been extended for another season at the Théâtre Mogador. This is thanks to our exceptional company. Just like for every other project, I also attend rehearsals and adapt the stage direction to local tastes. Things are quite simple in France, as audiences have the same sense of humor as Americans. However, the Koreans, or the Arabs in Abu Dhabi, don’t understand our jokes, and so I had to adapt or remove them. I also have a problem with monkeys. In the United States, “monkey” can be a derogatory term for African-Americans, and so there are no monkeys on stage in Western performances. However, in Shanghai, I added monkeys because in China they are popular, beloved animals that bring good luck!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have created a major project inspired by the Korean myth of the white tiger. It’s a film about protecting nature, but it is so ambitious that it terrifies the studios in Hollywood. The time is not right for innovation and risk-taking. What’s more, I’m just a White woman. However, I don’t want to be the director of The Lion King for the rest of my life! That being said, I was recently on Broadway watching a new company perform the show, and the audience laughed at exactly the same moments as 25 years ago!

Interview published in the April 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.