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Behind the Scenes of ‘The Lion King’ on Broadway

Category Broadway

|by AnneLise Sorensen |

From “double event” masks to astounding 18-foot giraffes, an amazing array of people and props make 'The Lion King' roar night after night

Leave it to Disney to spare no detail when it adapted its blockbuster animated film into the hit Broadway show The Lion King.

The Lion King – the fifth longest-running musical on Broadway – may be fairly considered the king of Broadway. Based on the 1994 Disney movie of the same name, the show – which has been seen by more than 65 million people in 15 countries across five continents – has been showered with more than 70 global awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical, for Best Scenic Design and, perhaps most memorably, to Julie Taymor for Best Direction of a Musical, making her the first woman to receive that honor.

It’s a spectacle and a phenomenon, and the result of the collaborative efforts of an amazing team of creatives. Every action on stage is inextricably linked to hundreds of pairs of hands offstage. And it takes 3,000 stalks of grass, 750 pounds of silicone rubber, 45 wigs, plus myriad masks, puppets, hundreds of lights and more to create this Broadway magic.

Like Simba, our curiosity led us to explore a far less dangerous “shadowy place” (also known as backstage), inside the workings of this epic production. Here’s what we discovered.

Scar in ‘The Lion King’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Scar in ‘The Lion King’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Behind the Masks
For many of the show’s characters, the weight of the world isn’t on their shoulders – but balanced on their heads. Mufasa’s mask weighs 11 ounces, Scar’s is seven ounces and Sarabi’s comes in at four ounces. Considering the size and rich detail of the masks, that’s extraordinarily light. The secret to this? Silicone rubber – to form the mask imprint – and a carbon graphite overlay, which is the same durable material used to build airplanes. Also, keep your eyes peeled: Scar and Mufasa each wear two different masks – one is a stationary headdress while the other mask moves. Perhaps most affecting is that the masks don’t obscure the faces – but complement them. It was Taymor who brilliantly decided on this approach – which she calls the “double event” – because it allows the audience to view the characters as simultaneously animal and human.

All Creatures Great and Small
The tallest animals in The Lion King are the 18-foot giraffes from “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” How do they come to life? Actors climb 6-foot ladders to fit inside the puppets and then mount stilts to elegantly saunter across the stage. The largest and longest animal is the elephant, which measures 13 feet long and 9 feet wide. The elephant requires four actors – who work together with the precision of synchronized Olympic swimmers – to lumber down the theater aisle and then heave onto the stage.

Let There Be Light
As Mufasa magnificently intones to the young Simba as they gaze out over the African heartland: “Look, Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom.” But the curious cub isn’t satisfied. “And what about the shadowy place?” he asks. His father responds, “That’s beyond our borders. You must never go there, Simba.” But, of course, Simba does go there. And, the show’s Lighting Designer, Donald Holder, also goes there. The talented Holder and his team used nearly 700 lighting instruments to facilitate the show, which employs light to great effect, from the glowing morning sunrise to the dark corners where the hyenas prowl. Also beautifully lit is Pride Rock, which rises from below the stage and, like a merry-go-round, can twirl in a circular direction.

Meerkat the Puppet Master
Say the word “meerkat” to most people – and chances are they’ll think of Timon in The Lion King. Yes, the wisecracking Timon is easily the world’s most famous meerkat. On the stage, Timon is also one of the finest examples of puppetry in The Lion King, which was partly inspired by Japanese Bunraku, where the puppeteer is visible. The show also features unique Indonesian shadow puppetry. The har-dee-har-har duo of Timon and his sidekick, the warthog Pumbaa, not only requires comic timing – but also muscles: The meerkat puppet weighs 15 pounds, while the Pumbaa costume – which is worn like a backpack – is the heaviest costume in the show, at 45 pounds.

Out of Africa
The Lion King’s opening number sets the tone for the rest of the show: The colorful healer Rafiki sings out in the primarily East African language of Swahili to two antelopes, portrayed by South African male ensemble singers. It’s this rich mélange of languages and song that provides the dynamic backdrop to the show. The South African composer Lebo M. arranged and performed the music, and six indigenous African languages are spoken throughout the musical: Swahili, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Congolese and Xhosa, also called the “click language.” Equally impressive: The Lion King has been translated into seven languages across the globe: Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Mandarin and Spanish. Hakuna Matata, indeed.

It Takes A Village
The cast members number around 50, but nearly 100 people are involved in the daily production of the show. Among them: 24 musicians, 19 wardrobe staff, 13 carpenters, 10 electricians, four props experts, three makeup artists, two hairdressers – plus a child guardian and a physical therapist. Some of the actors also perform double and even triple duty: The adorable baby elephant is operated by the child actresses alternating in the role of young Nala. And, in an ironic twist, every ensemble member performs as both a grassland head and a hyena, the show’s powerful symbols of birth and death. The Circle of Life really does come full circle.

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