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Practice makes perfect with the stage version of Disney's "The Lion King"

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Practice makes perfect with the stage version of Disney's "The Lion King"

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Can it really be almost twelve years since Julie Taymor’s acclaimed stage adaptation of “The Lion King” first bowed on Broadway?

Given that the London production just celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Lyceum Theatre, I guess the answer to that question would have to be “Yes.”

All sorts of stars turned out this past Sunday to walk the red carpet (Which – for this extra special occasion – had been dyed Lion King Yellow). And among the performers who were on hand that night was the Tony Award Winner who had originally voiced Mufasa for the the 1994 animated version of "The Lion King,”  James Earl Jones.

Lion King Las Vegas
(L to R) Phylicia Rashad, “Lion King” choreographer Garth Fagan, Debbie Allen,

James Earl Jones and Shaun Escoffrey (as Mufasa), back stage at London’s
Lyceum Theatre for the 10th Anniversary celebration of "The Lion King."
Photo by Helen Maybanks. Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

 

Now you’d think – since this show has already been seen by over 50 million people around the world – that the folks in charge of Disney Theatrical would be kicking back right about now. Basking in the glow of “The Lion King” ‘s success. But that’s where you’d be wrong.

So even as Julie Taymor was standing onstage in the West End, being warmly applauded by an audience that included 250 former members of the London production of "The Lion King," Disney Theatrical was getting ready to expand the Circle of Life by creating yet another company of this stage musical.

“So where’s this one going to be presented?,” you ask. In Singapore. To be specific, at the Marina Bay Sands Resort & Casino. Where this Tony Award-winning production will make its Southeast Asian debut in September of 2010.

Lion King Las Vegas
Julie Taymor appears on stage for the final curtain call at the 10th anniversary
performance of the London production of Disney's "The Lion King."
Photo
by Helen Maybanks. Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, Disney Theatrical isn’t planning on stinting with the Marina Bay Sands’ version of “The Lion King.” This production will be identical to the seven other companies that have been entertaining audiences in Hamburg, Las Vegas, London, New York, Paris, Tokyo as well as the show’s on-going US tour.

Speaking of Las Vegas … A few months back, I got to visit backstage at “The Lion King” just a half hour or so before the curtain rose for that night’s performance at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. Which was quite an eye-opening experience.

Now if you’ve only seen this sort of setting as it’s been portrayed in multiple motion pictures, you’d expect the backstage area of a musical to be in constant chaos. With performers running to and fro as they struggled to get into costumes, stage managers barking out orders, etc.

Lion King Las Vegas
Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

But behind-the-scenes at the Las Vegas company of “The Lion King,” things were ridiculously calm. Serene even. As the “Half hour call. This is your half hour call announcement” came over the backstage loudspeakers, a dancer laid out a yoga mat and began her nightly stretching exercise. Totally ignoring that several ton Elephant’s Graveyard set that hung directly overhead in the flies. Dangling over this dancer’s head like some boney Sword of Damocles.

Meanwhile just behind the curtain -- as the audience was being loaded into the theater – one of the “Lion King” ‘s assistant choreographer quietly rehearsed with one of the show’s understudies. Helping her learn the steps for the second act’s “Prideland” number.

As you might expect, given the number of puppets that are used in this musical, there were piles of them everywhere. To stage left, the Zazu puppet sat on a shelf right next to his understudy.

Zazu from The Lion Kin in Las Vegas
Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

“And why would a puppet need an understudy?,” you ask. Not for the reasons that you might think. You see, after nearly 12 years now of futzing with the design of the “Lion King” ‘s Zazu puppet, the one that’s used in this show now is surprisingly sturdy. Not prone to breakage anymore.

But that said, because the human performer who plays Zazu in this stage musical has so much blue make-up on his face, this puppet eventually winds up smeared with the stuff. Which is why “The Lion King” needs a back-up bird. So that this show will always a clean Zazu ready while the primary puppet has to make a trip to the birdbath.

Nearby on a wardrobe rack, the front & back half of a zebra costume waits for the performer who’ll wear this outfit in the show’s opening number, “The Circle of Life.”

Lion King Las Vegas
Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

A wardrobe mistress walks through the backstage area, carrying a dress that’s supposed to look like enormous blades of grass. It’s so large that members of the stage crew actually have to step out of this woman’s way as she heads to that area directly behind “The Lion King” ‘s main backdrop.

Back here … Well, there’s this 50-foot-long wall of costumes. Gazelles are hung up next to hyenas, which are then hung up right next to dozens of lioness outfits. Enormous colorful giraffe-like creatures were carefully placed off to the side, so that they then wouldn't trip up any performers. Who – over the course of the show – have to repeatedly race back to this space to make lightning-quick changes.

Mind you, not all of the "Lion King" 's costumes are kept back here. Do you remember those huge grass-covered headpieces that the performers wear early on in this show? You know, during that moment in this musical when Mufasa & young Simba are out exploring the savanna?

Lion King Las Vegas
Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

These headpieces are so huge that Disney Theatrical actually had to have an aluminum storage rack custom-built for them. It sits stage left, loaded with these yard-wide patches of foot-high artificial grass.

“So how do the performers keep these unwieldy hats on their heads?,” you query. It’s simple, really. Have you ever seen one of those safety helmets that construction workers wear? You know, the ones that you can lock into place by twisting a knob towards the back of this helmet? Well, that’s the exact same sort of locking mechanism that these headpieces have.

While I was standing backstage, the wardrobe mistress and her team began pulling these grass-covered headpieces out of their storage rack and then carrying them down to the theater’s basement level. Here, these headpieces were carefully paired with the appropriate costume items and then left in place right under the stage. So that the performers who were in “The Circle of Life” number as well as in the show’s second scene wouldn’t then have to rush around, looking for all of the pieces that they'd need for their next costume change.

Lion King Las Vegas
Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

That -- in a nutshell -- is what was so interesting about being backstage at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. Even though this was still basically a brand-new production (The Las Vegas company of "The Lion King" officially opened back on May 15th), because the cast & stage crew here could take advantage of the knowledge & the expertise that had been gained through those thousands of performance of "The Lion King" that had been presented around the world ... Backstage wasn't this crazed, stressed-out environment. Things moved at a very smooth, deliberate pace. Almost like clockwork.

So whaddaya know? Practice actually does make perfect.

Of course, this isn't to say that -- over the past 12 years -- that some changes, some innovations have been incorporated into the staging of this acclaimed musical. Take -- for example -- those highly stylized wildebeasts & gazelles that the cast sometimes has to haul out on stage. When "The Lion King" first opened in November of 1999, those props were awkward to carry and -- sometimes -- quite heavy.

After fielding numerous complaints from the performers, Disney Theatrical eventually recast many of these Julie Taymor-designed pieces in resin. Which then made these props a lot easier to carry. The only problem was that these ergonomically correct, lightweight plastic wildebeasts & gazelles were now quite fragile.

Lion King Las Vegas
Image courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

But the upside is ... If a cast member accidentally drops one of these props, not to worry. The backstage crew has a number of spare wildebeasts & gazelles on hand. And these pieces can be pressed into service while the original prop is repaired with a healthy application of Bondo.

As curtain time approached, I made my way back to the front of the house. But before I left the backstage area, I watched as the audio guys put together all of the mike packs for that evening's performance. (One of the techs there asked me to mention that Disney Theatrical -- just like every other divisions of The Walt Disney Company -- is trying to go green. Which is why they now only use rechargeable lithium batteries in all of the "Lion King" 's mike packs.)

So while there's a lot of roaring & running around going on onstage while "The Lion King" is being presented ... Backstage, the emphasis is on keeping things clam. Making sure that things go smoothly night after night. That the performers & crew are kept safe while -- at the same time -- the audience at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino gets the exact same show as the folks in London & New York & Paris & Hamburg & Tokyo & (coming in 2010) Singapore.

Your thoughts?

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  • Jim, I've a got a question about one of your comments "...the audience at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino gets the exact same show as the folks in London & New York..."

    Vegas shows are notorious for being abridged; i.e. a two hour plus intermission show on Broadway becomes a 90 minute show in Vegas. Just chop a couple of songs and a bit of diagalog and who will notice--they're tourists! It's one of the reasons I prefer to travel to NYC rather than Vegas even through the flight is longer and the hotels much more expensive.

    So it the Lion King in Vegas really the same show as in NYC or is it a chopped and shortened version?

  • EpcotFan,

    It's almost the full-length "Lion King" as this show originally played on Broadway. The only piece that's been cut is Scar's second act number, "The Madness of King Scar." Which (let's be honest here) wasn't a particularly memorable song.

    All of the information that was covered in this number (i.e. That the Pridelands has run out of food. In order to continue his line, Scar must sire a son. Which is why Mufasa's brother decides to make Nala his queen. She rejects Scar's offer by racking her claws across his face) is now done via dialogue.

    As to when this change was actually made to the "Lion King" (More importantly, has this same cut / change been made to the Broadway version of the show and/or all of the international companies) ... To be honest, I don't know. Let me send a note along to the folks at Disney Theatrical (Who I'm trying to working with right now to do a story about that new number that just got added to "Mary Poppins," "Playing the Game." Which is a replacement for that show's somewhat controversial "Temper, Temper") and see if they can then fill me in.

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