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Creators of 'The Lion King' reveal how Sir Elton John and songs like 'Circle of Life' came together as the iconic musical roars into Richmond

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It may be 25 years since the award-winning musical production of “The Lion King” roared onto the Broadway stage, but two of the creators of the 1994 megahit animated film that first captured the hearts of countless fans still look back on the story of Simba, the lion cub, as one of the greatest creative journeys of their long careers.

“It’s what the Pixar guys call ‘lightning in a bottle,” says Irene Mecchi, co-writer of “The Lion King” screenplay. “There was just some elixir, and it was sort of like, ‘Oh, my God’; we didn’t know what we were doing, but we just kept doing it.”

“We all worked so closely together,” says Roger Allers, co-director of the animated film. “The whole scripting and storyboarding was like a dialogue where we just kept going back and forth, and informing each other, and it evolved.”

Broadway in Richmond’s “The Lion King” returns to Richmond’s Altria Theater for a 15-performance run beginning Wednesday.

Speaking together by phone from their respective homes in the hills above Los Angeles, Allers and Mecchi still recall the moments of inspiration —and serendipity — that found their way into the finished film and later infused their writing partnership once they were tapped to pen the “book” for the 1997 stage musical.

“Roger is probably sick of me saying this, but everyone was relatively green, including Sir Elton John,” Mecchi says, recalling that the world-renowned musician began working on the film’s signature song “Circle of Life” by periodically sending bits and pieces of piano renderings to the “Lion King” team on cassette tapes.

Inspired by such popular musical groups of the day as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and King Sunny Ade and His African Beats, Allers remembers coming up with the ‘Circle of Life” song concept while listening to African music on both tape and local radio during long commutes across Los Angeles in his VW van.

“I came up with the idea of ‘Oh, you know, we really need a song like this, something really rhythmic, and it should be a song that Mufasa sings to Simba, and he should be explaining how all of nature is related and interconnected,’” Allers says.

Long after Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice had finished composing the words and music for the song, a soundtrack team led by film composer Hans Zimmer added the African choral elements, booming undertones and signature chant.

But what would Sir Elton think?

“We had Elton come to the studio from London to see the ‘Circle of Life’ sequence, which we had put together,” says Allers. “We were so nervous in that theater, but after that thing was screened, he was so excited that he was jumping up and down.”

Allers and Mecchi also laugh at the memory of how “The Lion King’s” other signature song, “Hakuna Matata,” came to be.

Early in the film’s development, Allers and several other key “Lion King” animators traveled to Kenya to gain a better visual sense of the African landscape and the variety of native animals.

“We picked up some Swahili from our guides while we were there, and one of the phrases we picked up was ‘hakuna matata,’” Allers says of the now-famous phrase that translates roughly to “there are no troubles.”

Mecchi recalls that back in Hollywood, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney’s studio chief at the time, told the assembled artists he thought the film needed a song where Simba, convinced he was responsible for Mufasa’s death in a wildebeest stampede, would be coached into the “no worries” mindset by Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog.

“And that’s when I said, ‘Well, there’s an African phrase for that!” Allers says. “And Tim Rice was sitting at the table and said, ‘Hakuna matata? Hakuna matata? Can you make a song out of this?’ And yes, they sure did.”

“And this phrase, because of the movie, has gone all around the world,” Allers says.

“It’s still with us,” adds Mecchi. “And parents hate us because of it — it’s become an earworm!”

The highest-grossing animated film of all time, “The Lion King” went on to win two Academy Awards for its music, one for best original score for composer Hans Zimmer and another for best original song for another of Sir Elton’s contributions, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

Soon Allers and Mecchi were recruited to help Broadway director Julie Taymor take the original film’s deft mix of larky humor and somber themes of guilt, shame and destiny and adapt it to the stage.

“On the animated feature, there wasn’t any acrimony — no ‘how dare you change my genius! — and Roger and I carried that through to the stage adaptation,” Mecchi says.

“Certainly there is some pruning because some things play differently on the screen than they would on a stage,” says Allers, who admires the non-animated — and non-digital — atmospherics that come with the blocking, costumes and theatrical design of the “The Lion King’s” live-action version.

“The stage play feels more like old theater because it’s low-tech, not high-tech,” he says. “It’s the masks, and the wildebeests rolling in on rollers, and things like that. It’s very physical and tactile.”

Mecchi credits Taymor with encouraging the writing team to expand the female sensibilities in the musical version of “The Lion King.”

The character of Rafiki the mandrill, who offers a certain soothsayer-style counsel to Simba, has been changed from male to female, for example, and the role and character of Simba’s lioness friend Nala have been deepened and broadened.

But no matter how they may differ, both stage and screen versions of “The Lion King” continue to touch the deepest parts of the human soul, say Allers and Mecchi, as we watch Simba find enough strength — and inner peace — to throw off crippling shame and return to Pride Rock to take his father’s place.

“We were talking about themes that are universal,” says Allers of the artistic journey that found its own special destiny on the hand-rendered, multi-hued expanse of the animated African savannah.

“We don’t grow out of these issues, you know, of wanting to feel connected with your people,” he says, “and the theme of trying to understand your relationship to the world and in your life, and the larger relationship of how everything is connected, and the acceptance of the cyclical nature of things, where bad will replace good at some point, and then good will replace bad.”

“And it’s one of the few stories where the protagonist gets to resolve a relationship with a dead parent,” adds Mecchi, pointing to the scene where the cosmic apparition of Mufasa gives gentle encouragement and guidance to Simba. “That’s something very few people, if they’ve ever had difficulty with a parent, have ever had the opportunity to do.”

“This character had a North Star,” she says, “which is missing in many people’s lives in our contemporary world.”

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