Conductor Karl Jurman Has Worked on The Lion King for 26 Years

And if you thought eight years working in a Broadway show was a long time, here's an interview with Karl Jurman, who just retired from the The Lion King after 26 years.

Highlights:

Could you tell this was going to be special in those early workshop days?
No. I remember at one point [director Julie Taymor] was doing the workshop and The Magic Flute at the Met. We were sharing a cab up the West Side Highway after rehearsal one day, and I just looked at her and I said, “Do you think this puppet thing is gonna work?” She goes, “It’s not Cats. Yeah.” OK, she has confidence in it, I have confidence in it. And remember, there was never a South African show outside of Serafina on Broadway, and that show had lasted just a little over a year. As a musician, I was just focused on learning some South African music and seeing how it goes. If it’s a hit, it’s a hit. If it’s not, we keep moving on.

Was South African music in your wheelhouse, or was it new to you?
Totally new. That was the joy of it, bringing that to Broadway. Learning the music. And bringing something new that hadn’t really been in the movie.

What did you learn working on it that you’ll take with you?
Mostly all the African stuff that [vocal director and arranger Lebo M] did in the vocals. As music directors, we were so tied in with the vocal side of things. How they work, their harmonies, how they approach music—the outlook they have on music, the spirit they put into their music. It wasn’t the most complicated music in the world, but we were also mixing it with Mark Mancini’s film scoring and the Broadway-style musical numbers and Julie’s puppets. That’s too exciting to pass up.

It's wild to me that all these years later, it still stands alone. It’s still the top of the charts almost every week.
It turned out to be a masterpiece, but it took a while. I remember we’d been with the show out-of-town in Minneapolis and by the time we got back, the people on the beaches in Long Island knew more about The Lion King than we did, and we were doing it. The word was out. The publicity department, the marketing people are so good at Disney. I do remember from the first preview in Minneapolis the animals coming down the aisle and the whole audience just started talking and looking. It was like nothing they’d ever seen. No one was ready for that effect. We’d played about 32 bars and the place was in an uproar. That was very exciting, but it’s unexpected.

What are you going to miss the most?
The people. What I’ve been trying to do all these years is keep the spirit that we found in Minneapolis alive, the spirit the original creators started. The feeling of community, the importance of bringing South African culture to the United States and then the world. I’ve been trying to get that spirit of community all these years and impart that to all the people that have music directed and taught new people, and it lives on today. It lets it speak to everyone. I’ll miss conducting “Circle of Life” and quickly glancing to the audience and seeing tears in their eyes.

What will you miss the least?
Well, the paperwork. To run the ship, it’s a whole department. The orchestra is 23 people, and they all have subs so it turns out to be 150 people. And then there’s the whole cast and all of their covers. That’s a lot of people to manage and direct, to give them the spirit and show them why it’s important to invest when you play or perform the show.

Prouvaire,
Prouvaire avatar

The first time I saw The Lion King many years ago I had no idea what to expect. I'd seen the movie of course, but knew very little about the stage show. So the parade of animals during "The Circle of Life" at the beginning of the show took me by total surprise. It was one of the most breathtaking, magical things I'd seen in the theatre and I actually started crying. Which was a bit embarrassing, but I discovered over the years (and as this interview indicates) I was far from the only one to have this reaction. This is actually one of the problems with the show in my opinion - The Lion King never gets better than its opening number. Although given "The Circle of Life" is arguably the greatest opening in musical theatre, that's not a bad problem to have.

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