Performance review: The Lion King in Concert, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra empowered a Disney classic with the majesty and power it deserves.
A screen displays the words The Lion King, in fornt of the screen is an orchestra

Celebrating 30 years of one of Disney’s most successful animated films, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played two shows accompanying the 1994 original on screen. Pitched to Disney studio as “Bambi in Africa”, The Lion King came at a time when its animated films were rebuilding after a string of weaker animations produced in the 1980s. In 1995, Pixar’s Toy Story would rewrite the Disney animation handbook, resulting in the films becoming more comedic and with fewer musical numbers, so The Lion King represents the last of its breed with a soundtrack worthy of a symphonic roar.

Disney’s original pick for the score was Alan Menken, who had delivered The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, but he was committed to Pocahontas. The studio then went further afield, landing on a team of three: piano popster Elton John, Tim Rice (best known for working with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, and with Beauty and the Beast along with Menken also on his CV) and a newer German composer, Hans Zimmer. While Zimmer had done Rain Man, The Power of One and Driving Miss Daisy, his inclusion seemed an odd fit with Rice and John, who both had experience on musicals.

But Zimmer gave the soundtrack a new depth, collaborating with Lebo M to enliven its most celebrated moments, including the opening rendition of ‘Circle of Life’, which Lebo M sang based on a Zulu chant. This collaborative effort became Disney’s bestselling soundtrack of all time and, while it is known for big songs like ‘Hakuna Matata’, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ and, of course, ‘Circle of Life’, Zimmer’s score is the unsung hero. Though the performances – such as from Broadway star Nathan Lane as wheeler-dealer meerkat Timon or the velvety voice of Jeremy Irons as Scar on ‘Be Prepared’ – are just as strong 30 years on.

When the MSO accompanied this classic, it was Zimmer’s work that shone. Charismatic conductor Nicholas Buc was the admirer pushing Zimmer into the spotlight. In 2023, he showcased Zimmer’s career to date (including later films like Interstellar and Inception) and he now brought his love of the composer to this performance.

The stampede boomed through the audience with a timpani rumble while the hyenas rose with a menacing blast of brass. This was old-school Disney, harkening back to Fantasia, so an orchestra arrayed before the screen gave everything more power.

Read: Opera review: The Magic Flute, Sydney Opera House

But there were subtle notes too. The jazziness playfulness of ‘Hakuna Matata’ came through with a live clarinet and the sweeping strings made ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ extra sweet. This is music written for an orchestra and the MSO delivered it with full volume. At times the quieter dialogue was overpowered by the orchestra, which may be down to the vastness of the Plenary room and the foregrounding of the music.

Read: Theatre review: The Children, Adelaide Festival Centre

In some ways it feels right that the music should be bigger than the film, as following The Lion King there wouldn’t be songs this iconic from Disney for almost 20 years – until Frozen‘s ‘Let It Go’ melted hearts in 2013. Well before digital downloads, The Lion King soundtrack went quadruple platinum (280,000 sales) in Australia, winning Academy Awards for both best soundtrack and song. With the full power of MSO resonating through the room, you can feel why.

The Lion King in Concert
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
The Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre
Conductor: Nicholas Buc

The Lion King in Concert was performed 3 February 2024.

George Dunford was Director of Content at ArtsHub, Screenhub and GamesHub (2019-2022). He has also written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. Long ago he co-founded Cardigan Press, a collective that published four volumes of short fiction. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre. He was a mentor in the CEO Digital Mentorship program working with Back to Back and Desart. You can follow him on X: @Hack_packer