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Humanizing the animals of 'The Lion King'
Broadway tour » Quadruple-threat performers act, sing, dance and wield puppets in this spectacle-sized African-themed show.

By Roxana Orellana

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published August 7, 2010 6:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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When Tony Freeman landed the role of Zazu in the national tour of "The Lion King," he spent hours in front of a mirror. He was partly looking at himself, but it was mostly practicing over and over how to maneuver the expressions of the bird puppet on his hand.

He had to learn how to pull strings and levers that make the hornbill blink and move his mouth, head, neck and wings, all while staying in character.

"You have to drill it until a certain level of the puppetry goes into your body," Freeman said. "And then your brain is freed back up to perform. It's no joke. But it's so fun once you've got it."

Zazu and every other character, human and puppet of Disney's "The Lion King" -- that's more than 230 -- will perform for seven weeks at the Capitol Theatre, beginning Wednesday, Aug. 11.

More than 84,000 tickets have been sold for the Utah performances of the 13-year-old show that's the eighth-longest-running musical in Broadway history. That's the third-highest number of tickets sold for a Salt Lake City show and the second-highest-grossing show so far in Broadway Across America--Utah's history, said Steve Boulay, chief officer of operations.

With 1,800 seats, the Capitol is the smallest theater where the national tour has played. Usually, the show is booked into 2,400-seat theaters, Boulay said.

Except on Broadway: The musical adaptation of Disney's 1994 animated film opened at Disney's 1,700-seat New Amsterdam theater, built in 1903. The show now plays at the Minskoff Theatre, with 1,621 seats.

"The Lion King" won six Tony awards in 1998, including Best Direction of a Musical for Julie Taymor, the first female director to win that award.

Now Freeman, a New York City-based actor, has performed more than 3,000 shows as Zazu, one of the most difficult puppets to master in the show. "When you first start with this show, there is literally too much to think about," Freeman said. "It just takes time to get it into your muscles."

When new actors are hired, it takes them four to six weeks to master the puppetry. That's because actors are cast and taught puppetry, rather than casting puppeteers who are taught to act.

When the puppet crew begins working with actors, rehearsals begin with mirror work, "looking and seeing what they can do with the puppet," said puppet supervisor Willie Wilson, who has been working with the show for 10 years. "We show how them how to do it to make it easier."

Freeman's character is a bird with the human side of a finicky British butler dressed in full costume and makeup. He has calm moments of stuffiness and sophistication, yet when he panics, the puppet flaps around and shrieks like a bird.

Similarly, the character of Mufasa, the lion king, is personified as a strong, dignified African warrior. When Mufasa gets angry, his lion mask comes down to his face and he becomes more animalistic.

Onstage, the actors have to wield their puppets without looking at them, but instead are engaged with the other actors in the scene. "We have to be a quadruple threat," Freeman said. "We have to sing, dance and act while also doing a puppet in this show."

Wilson's goal is to make sure the touring show of "The Lion King" remains as fresh as on Broadway's opening day.

When the show begins its run in each city, Wilson is responsible for making repairs or adjustments to the props. The puppetry includes rod puppets, shadow puppets, pull puppets and full-body puppets.

Once actors begin mastering the puppet or mask, next they learn the choreography, which remains essentially the same as in the original production, said Garth Fagan, who created the movements in 1997. He won a Tony Award, as well as other national and London awards, for his "Lion King" choreography.

He started with the goal of making the puppets come alive, making them convincing as animals. In addition, he wanted to showcase the dancers, who have honed their bodies for their craft, while still featuring the puppets and masks.

"The two things have to be a happy marriage for it to work," Fagan said. "That was a hard thing to convince the dancers that it would be OK." The result was the show's multifaceted choreography, which incorporates modern, hip-hop, ballet, African and Caribbean dance moves.

Unlike Disney's animated movie, the stage adaptation had more freedom to experiment with movements and rhythms to create a richer human experience, he said.

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'Lion King' by the numbers

Building the show's puppets and masks required 17,000 hours, and 300 feet of carbon fiber and 750 pounds of silicone rubber.

There are 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects represented in the show.

There are 12 bird kites in Act II's opening number, "One by One."

Mufasa's mask weighs 11 ounces.

Scar's mask weighs 9 ounces.

The Timon puppet weighs 15 pounds.

The most complicated set piece is Pride Rock, a battery-powered rock that is 18 feet long at its fullest onstage and compresses to 8 feet when it's offstage.

The tallest animals in the show are the 18-foot exotic giraffes.

The tiniest animal is the 5-inch-long trick mouse at the end of Scar's cane.

The longest animal is an elephant, whose costume is 13 feet long, more than 11 feet high and 9 feet wide at the ears. It collapses to 34 inches wide to go down the aisle in the theatres.

There are 18 trucks (that fleet includes 14 53-foot semi-trailers) to transport the production's puppets, costumes and sets pieces from city to city.

The show features 49 wigs.

Source » Puppet supervisor Willie Wilson and Disney

Salt Lake City's 'Circle of Life'

The national tour of Disney's "The Lion King" visits Salt Lake City.

When » Wednesday, Aug. 11, to Sept. 26; various times.

Where » Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets » $40-$145; 801-355-ARTS or http://www.ArtTix.org. For groups of 20 of more, call 801-355-5502.

Salt Lake City's 'Circle of Life'

The national tour of Disney's "The Lion King" visits Salt Lake City.

When » Wednesday, Aug. 11, to Sept. 26; various times.

Where » Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets » $40-$145; 801-355-ARTS or http://www.ArtTix.org. For groups of 20 of more, call 801-355-5502.



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