The Lion King, the highest grossing stage musical in history, is set to roar again in Toronto starting November 2024, when Mirvish Productions – in an unprecedented move – plans to open a second Canadian production of the live Disney show.
At an event on Tuesday at the Princess of Wales Theatre, where lion cub Simba previously cavorted and came of age and will soon return, producer David Mirvish announced that Disney Theatrical Group had given his commercial theatre company the go-ahead to present another open-ended run of the Tony-winning, tourism-driving Julie Taymor-directed spectacle with songs by Elton John and Lebo M.
Mirvish previously produced The Lion King from March 2000 to January 2004 for 1,567 performances – pumping what his company estimates to be $1.4-billion into the economy at the time.
But, having since hosted the touring production for sold-out runs in 2011, 2014 and 2019, the producer, who owns and operates four theatres in Toronto, believes the reliable Disney property has potential for another profitable “sit-down” run in Toronto that will employ local actors and artisans, even in a challenging performing arts environment still rebuilding from COVID-19 shutdowns.
“It’s a show that I think would have run for years more than it did, but, you know, SARS closed it down,” Mirvish told The Globe and Mail ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, referencing the 2003 outbreak in Toronto that led to his company having to refund $5-million in tickets during a precipitous decline in theatrical tourism from the United States.
Mirvish’s argument is entirely plausible: The Lion King, although it first opened on Broadway in 1997, continues to be the highest-grossing musical in New York’s commercial theatre district most weeks and boasts a record cumulative gross of US$1.9-billion. Other productions of the musical, successfully rebooted after shorter COVID-19 pauses, continue to be seen onstage in London, Paris, Hamburg, Tokyo, Madrid and Sao Paulo.
Disney Theatrical Group executive producer Anne Quart says it was a “no-brainer” to open The Lion King again in Toronto when Mirvish approached her company with the idea.
“Three million people saw it the last time, so we had no question,” said Quart, who acted at the Stratford Festival as a child and then got her start on the production side of theatre working on the Mirvish presentation of Miss Saigon that opened the Princess of Wales in the 1990s.
This impending Toronto return of The Lion King is, nevertheless, highly unusual.
Since it began first producing longer, local productions of established Broadway and West End hits with Canadian casts in the 1980s, Mirvish Productions has always put on shows that have not previously been seen by Toronto audience for these high-profile engagements.
Indeed, it’s rarely the case that a commercial show opens for a second sit-down run anywhere in the world in its original creative incarnation.
In the normal circle of life, a hit show will run for as long as ticket demand allows and then, in North American cities, possibly return for shorter spells on tour.
In the larger tourist-oriented commercial theatre districts, such as Broadway and the West End, shows returning to entertain audiences after a long absence will normally do so in a revival with a new creative team reinterpreting the material.
But The Lion King, in its original stage version, is an atypical beast – and nowhere near ready for its rights holders to allow for reinterpretation. Mirvish is confident that, as with the previous Canadian production, the puppet-filled show will grow a new generation of theatregoers in the Greater Toronto Area – including within his own family.
“I have a six-year-old granddaughter and she’ll be 7 by the time we’re doing the show and I’ll be able to sit with her. And when she’s watching the show, I’ll be watching her as much as the show,” he says. “That’s the magic of it – the desire to do it.”
The return of The Lion King will certainly be a boost to the Toronto theatre industry, which has become even more economically precarious amid the new realities of COVID-19 and inflationary pressures. Mirvish says the show will provide hundreds of jobs, including ones for more than 40 actors – a cast size that has increased since 2004 because of the need for extra understudies and swings to cover in case of absences.
Though the lavish Disney musical has higher running costs than recent Mirvish musical productions with smaller casts, such as Six and Come From Away (which is also set to return to Toronto, to the Royal Alexandra, in the fall of 2024), Mirvish says he expects this second production will be able to recoup its investment in about 26 to 30 weeks in the 2,000-seat Princes of Wales. (On Broadway, the show runs in the slightly smaller 1,700-seat Minskoff Theatre.)
The Tuesday announcement – which was set to be attended by mayor Olivia Chow – is timed to an impending audition call; tickets will not be on sale until the new year.
Among the careers launched by the previous Canadian production were a pair of actors who shared the role of Young Simba and went on to stints in the Stratford Festival company as adults: Sébastien Heins, who is also now associate producer of the Outside the March theatre company and was set to host Tuesday’s event, and Araya Mengesha, who is one of the stars of the coming TV show Law and Order Toronto: Criminal Intent.
“This is a show that inspired a generation of people to want to do theatre,” Mirvish says. “I want to see the auditions and make use of all this talent that’s coming up – and see who we find in a new cast.”