If you’ve seen Broadway’s take on The Lion King (or you clicked on the video above), you might be familiar with a song called “Shadowland.” It appears in the second act, when the Pride Lands have turned into a desolate wasteland and Nala leaves home to look for anything that can help her pride survive.
But while this moment doesn’t appear in the animated movie, have you ever noticed that it’s played in the background? Like, almost a dozen times? I’ve heard the chorus line played a few times before, but it wasn’t until I bought the full movie soundtrack that I noticed just how often we hear the verse and chorus lines laced into the background music.
Granted, this isn’t the first time Disney has done this in their movies. You’ll hear the title song played off and on in Beauty and the Beast, moments of “A Whole New World” played throughout the third act in Aladdin, and the “Hellfire” theme played over and over in Hunchback of Notre Dame. But no one ever sings “Shadowland” in The Lion King. So why include it in the background music at all?
Well, to answer this question, let’s look at the moments where we hear it. It first comes up when Mufasa is showing Simba the Pride Lands. For three seconds, we hear part of the verse when Mufasa runs into the elephant graveyard to defend Simba and Nala. Then the verse and chorus are played twice afterwards, once when Mufasa scolds Simba for his carelessness and again when they’re stargazing. Then we hear the chorus line after the stampede, when Simba realizes that his father didn’t survive the ordeal. Then we hear it when Timon, Pumbaa, and an adult Simba talk about what stars are. We get another glimpse or two when Simba and Nala reunite after years of her thinking she was dead. You hear it again when Mufasa’s ghost appears and says “Remember who you are.” And we hear it again as Simba and his three friends stand on a cliff, preparing to take on Scar. It’s played off and on during the confrontation. And then we hear it one last time after Scar dies, right before Simba takes his place as king of the Pride Lands.
What do all these moments have in common? They all deal with the weight of leadership.
Think about it. We hear it when Mufasa is teaching Simba the responsibilities of being king. We hear it again when the hyenas are cornered, and they realize Mufasa can tear them limb from limb. We hear it again when Mufasa scolds Simba. We hear it again right afterwards, when we get a hint that the king might not live to see the happily ever after. We hear it again when the king is dead. We hear it again, years later, when Simba is briefly confronted with the memory of his father’s death. We hear it again when Nala realizes that Simba could take on Scar and become king. We hear it again when Mufasa tells Simba that it’s time for him to accept the role he was born to play in the circle of life. We hear it again as Simba steels himself for the upcoming battle. We hear it off and on during the confrontation between hero and villain. And we hear it one last time before Simba is named king.
This seems a little odd—especially considering the lyrics of the song. The song by itself has less to do with leadership and more to do with saying farewell. Then again, Nala is the one who sings it, and in both versions of the story she becomes queen. And what is a queen except the female equivalent of a king? Maybe the writers intended to expand her story to show how she took up the mantle of leadership when Scar turned everything upside down. Or maybe the composer had some other intent altogether.
Admittedly, this theory still has a few holes in it that are worth debating. And the people at Disney might’ve had completely different reasons for including the melody as a background tune instead of a musical number. But then again, this is what Disney is best known for—little Easter eggs and conspiracy theories that add importance to the story. Would we enjoy Lilo and Stitch as much if they explained outright that the title meant “lost and pulled together”? Would we love Beauty and the Beast as much if the characters pointed out the significance of Belle wearing blue? So as far as the song “Shadowland” is concerned, what do you think?