Broadway's The Lion King said goodbye to music director and conductor Karl Jurman January 15. Jurman is retiring, ending a 26-year career with the long-running Disney musical that began with its very earliest workshops. Watch Jurman lead his final “Circle of Life” in the exclusive video above, capturing his last performance.
Though he's no longer in the show's pit every night, Jurman tells Playbill that, “No one ever really leaves The Lion King, spiritually.”
Jurman's career looks small when you look at it on Playbill Vault—but his list of credits doesn't truly encompass the totality of his time on the boards. He served on the music teams and played in the orchestras for The Will Rogers Follies and the short-lived musical sequel The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. After the latter shuttered following just 16 performances, Jurman suddenly found himself serving as a substitute pit musician on Beauty and the Beast, which was also Disney's first major foray onto Broadway.
Before much longer, that turned into working as the original associate conductor of The Lion King. Jurman eventually took over as music director and conductor from original music director Joseph Church, and that's where he stayed until earlier this week. Jurman is one of only a select few from the musical's original team to hang on with the show all these years.
We caught up with Jurman to talk about his time with the show just a few days before he gave his final performance. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide this was the time to retire?
Karl Jurman: It was just time. I’ve done everything you could possible do, and my wife’s been waiting for me to come home. I’m trying to retire when I’m young enough to still enjoy life with her and do regular retirement things. I’ve been saying, “It’s time for some new notes.” I need some new notes now.
Tell me more about those “regular retirement things.” What’s your post-Lion King plan?
My wife and I have four albums to make. I’ve got some cabaret gigs already lined up, and a gig with her and an act in Vegas later in the fall.
That’s really not what retirement would look like to most people.
I’m a musician, remember. Musicians never retire. I’m just leaving The Lion King.
Do you think you’re gonna have that urge to start “Circle of Life” every night at 8?
Absolutely. There’s going to be an adjustment period. And you have to stay fluid. The first year, no one knows what’s really going to happen. I’ve got the gigs, but I’m at the age where it’s time to clean the house out, let go of some things.
Well after 26 years, I think you’ve earned it.
It’s a big responsibility. I’m lucky I can leave The Lion King, even though I would never really want to leave The Lion King. And no one ever really leaves The Lion King, spiritually.
How did The Lion King come into your life originally?
I was on Beauty and the Beast playing Keyboard 1 when Michael Kosarin had to run around the world and open new companies. And then I wound up being Kosarin’s associate supervisor, so I hopped around the world a little bit in Australia and England. Between that and Broadway, that turned out to be like three quarters of a job. And then [producer] Don Franz told me to go into the workshops for The Lion King. And I did, and I worked on all the workshops, and it progressed from there. So really I came from Beauty and the Beast over to The Lion King.
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 advice did you leave for your successor?
Submerse yourself in South African culture and try to understand as much as you can about how South Africans view their music. This is why I’m glad my successor is my number one, Cherie Rosen. She’s wonderful, and she understands why it’s important to understand the culture and the language, how they view things in their own community. Lebo was trying to bring South Africa to the world—how life-changing that turned out to be.
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.
But I assume you feel confident you’re leaving it in good hands?
Yes. I’m just working for a smooth transition, and Cherie is a natural leader and understands the show. I hope I’ve been a good example for her and that she knows what she has to do. She understands the depth of it.
And of course there are still people in the pit that have been there since the beginning, like you, who are staying.
Seven musicians are still there, and they of course know the spirit of The Lion King.