Julie Taymor Turns The Lion King into Eye-Popping Art with Heart
Soon after joining the Boston Children’s Theatre at about age 10, Julie Taymor landed the lead in the company's production of Cinderella. "That's wonderful," said Taymor's mother, Betty. Her daughter wasn't so sure. "I would have much rather been one of the stepsisters," said the young actress. "Cinderella's so boring, but the stepsisters are so interesting."
Taymor, now 45, has been making interesting, even daring, theatrical choices ever since. Her latest—to accept an out-of-left-field offer from Disney to direct and design the Broadway production of The Lion King—has had audiences and critics roaring with delight ever since the musical's November premiere. "A theatrical achievement unrivaled in its beauty, brains, ingenuity," gushed Variety of Taymor's inventive mix of music, staging and half-animal, half-human masked actors. Somehow the director had found a way to make the play succeed as both art and commerce, creating what The New York Times called "the most memorable, moving and original theatrical extravaganza in years."
In part, Taymor credits the show's success to "not filling in all the brush strokes, letting the audience use their imagination. That's so healthy for kids in particular, who are spoon-fed literalism every moment of the day on television and film." The fact that the audience—many of them parents with children—is already familiar with the story adds to the production's emotional impact, Taymor believes, as does the fact that the players sometimes appear offstage, in the audience. "It becomes almost a form of ritual theater," says Taymor, "sitting with family or friends and enjoying the act of the event as much as the story that's being told, the process, the feeling of the people around you."
Taymor often speaks of art in such terms, of communications made that defy easy explanation. The owner of a lengthy, zigzagging resume that includes directing credits for theater (Off-Broadway Shakespeare in New York City), opera (in Italy and Japan), and TV (Fool's Fire, an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe work, aired on PBS in 1992), as well as a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1991, Taymor also spent four years in Indonesia studying puppetry and performing original plays. "In Indonesia the shadow puppets are intricately carved and painted, yet the audience only sees the shadow," says Taymor. "But the act of making the piece of sculpture comes through anyway. I firmly believe that."
Taymor has just as firmly pursued her muse since, perhaps, before she had ever heard the word. Growing up in Newton, Mass., the youngest of three children born to Melvin, a gynecologist, and Betty, a political activist, Taymor began performing backyard theater for her family at 7. Next came study at the Boston Children's Theatre; at 15, as part of an education program, she traveled in India and Sri Lanka and became intrigued with Asian theater. She spent part of her senior year in high school studying mime in Paris but only after figuring out all the logistics—with whom she would stay, how she could still graduate with her high school class—herself. Impressed by their daughter's planning and motivation, "we did exactly what Disney did," says Betty, "we respected and trusted her and let her do what she wanted to do."
She later studied folklore and mythology at Oberlin College in Ohio and, after graduating in 1974, earned a fellowship that allowed her to study theater in Eastern Europe, Japan and Indonesia. "I'm very comfortable working in another culture," says Taymor. "That's a position that I find revealing, moving and inspiring."
Back in New York City, her home since 1980, Taymor shares a loft with her boyfriend and frequent collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal, 43. "He's like me in the sense that he can work in the popular world and still be true to his artistry," says Taymor of Goldenthal, who composes for theater and movies (his scores for Interview with a Vampire and Michael Collins were nominated for Academy awards). "To work and live with him is the best. It's the ultimate." The pair have lined up enough projects—among them a film version of their acclaimed play Juan Darien—to keep them busy well into the next millennium. Taymor says her career is likely to remain eclectic and focused. "What I aspire to is to touch people on a very simple level," she says, "to move them and to move their hearts."