Taking a Broadway show on tour is always a massive undertaking, but for Disney’s “The Lion King,” the set pieces and costumes aren’t the only materials that must be transported from city to city. There are also 200 puppets and numerous hand-sculpted masks, operated and worn by 49 actors to create the anthropomorphic animal characters that inhabit the African Serengeti in the visually stunning musical.
Returning to Chicago for the fifth time, the North American tour begins a nine-week engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Nov. 17. It’s a noteworthy year for “The Lion King” — the Broadway production celebrates its 25th anniversary on Nov. 13 and the tour reached its 20-year milestone in April.
In a recent interview, two members of the creative team, Michael Curry and Michael Reilly, discussed all things masks and puppets: the intricate craftsmanship, the training process for actors and the challenges of touring. Curry codesigned the original Broadway production’s masks and puppets with Julie Taymor, who also directed and designed the costumes. As the current puppet supervisor on the North American tour, Reilly is responsible not only for maintaining the puppets but also for teaching performers how to use them.
Recalling the early days of developing the stage production, Curry said Taymor worked to find the right visual aesthetic for the characters before incorporating other design elements. “She had to crack that code early to know how she would tell the story, in a pure, big-picture directorial sense,” he explained.
Determining how to showcase the talent of Broadway performers in a story starring animals and based on an animated film was key. “We knew they had to sing, talk and dance,” said Curry. “But what did they look like, and could they sing, dance and talk in whatever you put on them?”
Taymor was already known for integrating Southeast Asian techniques into her theatrical masks and puppets, but she and Curry immersed themselves in African art for this production, visiting museums and studying traditional masks.
“I would say that Julie was an early pioneer in cultural responsibility because we really felt we wanted to not rip off African art but honor it — somehow make a homage to it in our silhouettes of our characters and costumes,” said Curry. “While we interpreted (the African masks), many of them we really authentically recreated.”
Curry also noted that Taymor’s “world opened up to African music” through the work of Lebo M., a South African artist who cowrote “Rhythm of the Pride Lands,” an album inspired by the original music in the film, with Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer.
“(Julie) featured African music in a way that was — instead of just secondary or the background track — it became a vital part of the (show), because that’s how those masks were presented,” said Curry. “They weren’t made for museums … they were made to be on crazy good performers.”
Regarding the construction of the masks and puppets, Reilly explained that the original designs called for as many organic materials as possible. “We still continue that tradition today, trying to find organic materials, whether that be feathers or hair.” Simba’s mask, for example, has a horsehair mane.
Masks that traditionally would have been made of wood are built with lightweight materials, such as carbon fiber, and painted to look like wood. Mufasa’s mask weighs 11 ounces, and Sarabi’s mask weighs just four ounces. “People will quite literally pick it up before they realize that those masks aren’t wood,” said Reilly.
Special training is required to learn how to move in these masks and to operate the puppets. “We hire singers, we hire dancers, we hire performers — we don’t hire puppeteers, generally speaking,” said Reilly.
Some actors walk on stilts to portray animals, such as the 14-foot giraffes that appear in the opening number, “Circle of Life.” It takes about five weeks to teach performers how to use the stilts and to integrate the music and choreography.
It’s a similar time frame for learning to operate intricate puppets like the bird Zazu. This puppet “has a thousand expressions, and you have to learn it quickly,” said Reilly. “I think the work never stops, which is great, because Zazu keeps giving back to you. Whatever you give to him, he’ll give back to you.”
Curry noted that even seasoned actors and dancers may feel apprehensive about performing with the unfamiliar additions of puppets and masks. “Michael (Reilly) is part psychologist too, because while you’re strapping this mechanism to someone’s body and telling them they’re going to go out in front of 1,500 people — they’re nervous,” Curry said. “Michael and the team have to … assure them to just go out and be natural.”
On tour, especially during the pandemic, understudies regularly take on different roles but the inventory of puppets that travel with the company is limited. “Trying to fit a cheetah onto somebody who’s maybe six inches shorter — it does create a lot of challenges for my job,” said Reilly.
Of course, audiences don’t see the intense work that goes on behind the scenes; they get to sit back and enjoy the beloved show that continues to enchant new generations. “It survives repeat visits really, really well,” said Curry. “Many people told me it’s like their yearly going to Mass — it’s a celebration, it’s a ritual, and you always see things you didn’t see before.”
“I think people like to share it,” he added. “It reminds you of family and the goals of life, in a very poetic way.”
“The pandemic made me realize that every person on earth is connected,” said Reilly. “It may be the first time in my life that I really felt that — like every single person on earth was experiencing the same thing at the same time.”
This is what keeps bringing audiences back to see “The Lion King” on stage, in Reilly’s opinion: “It’s the connectedness of theater and also the circle of life.”
“The Lion King” plays Nov. 17 to Jan. 14, 2023, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; tickets $33-$179 at broadwayinchicago.com.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance writer.
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