The Lion King recently celebrated 25 years on Broadway, and South African composer Lebo M has been along for the entire ride
Do you remember the moment, among all the buzz of the involvement with Disney, the collaboration with Hans Zimmer and all the rest, that you realised that The Lion King would completely change your life?
Lebo M It took many years to get into the work with the movie. By the time the Broadway show came along, I was ready for the storm that arrived. We had to do some crazy stuff to figure out how to make it all work. We were Los Angeles studio guys thrown into this new area we didn’t know about on the back of this unexpectedly huge film. [Fellow composer] Mark Mancina and I were tasked with doing some research, and we booked tickets to watch six shows. But we left halfway through the first one because we saw that we would have to start from scratch! We also realised we’d need a real rock star musical director, and we eventually found Joseph Church. director, and we eventually found Joseph Church. And then we – [director] Julie Taymore and I – had to go and fight with the New York unions, because we needed South Africans to get the stage musical right, and the union rules at the time made that nearly impossible. Those negotiations took a year and a half, but we convinced them.
Your music is part of the popular canon beyond the film and theatre versions of The Lion King. There are a thousand memes, for instance, of fathers holding up their babies and trying to sing the opening chant from The Circle Of Life. What’s that type of ubiquity like for you?
I didn’t have a sense of the impact the music had made until we started doing tours. You generally write in studios. And on Broadway, your focus is on preparing the cast for the show. I wasn’t aloof to the success of the film and the musical, but the impact became clear when I started performing.
As a South African working in Los Angeles, it can be tough to break through. How did you get involved in The Lion King originally?
My first movie soundtrack, for The Power Of One, was also with Hans Zimmer. The movie didn’t do too well, but the soundtrack created a new way of bringing an African feel into film music. When Hans was tapped to work on The Lion King, his office and my former agent tracked me down. I was working at Hilton Rosenthal’s studio in LA, where my friend Solly Letwaba, who was Johnny Clegg’s bassist, had introduced me. And Hilton said to Hans, “Hey, try this guy!”
The Lion King is the highest-grossing Broadway musical in history, and the film was a massive success as well. Is one format more or less meaningful to you and why?
I think the Broadway show has more impact because of the direct interaction with the audiences around the world – that’s pretty special.
The show has long provided career-launching opportunities for South African and other African performers. How big a deal is that for you – using your success to create space for others to succeed?
We’ve always aimed for consistency in feeding our talent into the production around the world. I’ve just learnt about my record as the black composer with the longest run on Broadway. That’s humbling, but I’m more touched by the lives that have been changed by the work itself. By the time I started producing Lion King shows in Africa, we had a company to handle the casting, run by Duma Ndlovu. I don’t really need to be there anymore – I approve via email now. It’s been more than ten years since I handed over the physical casting process. We put a good system in place, so now I trust that. I still travel around the world to see the shows, and I think we get it right almost all the time.
Your record as the black composer with the longest-running show – that’s an incredible legacy. What are your hopes for those following your example, now that the landscape’s been changed?
Ha! I’m too stubborn to go. I’m going to stay alive until I’m 120! I guess I just hope that South Africans realise that our authentic expression of who we are and what we can create has value. We must stop trying to emulate what someone else is doing. I hope they remember that.