News Column

Behind the Scenes ; BY James D. Watts Jr. | World Scene Writer, 918-581-8478 |

May 30, 2013



It takes a whole lot of people, a whole lot of computers and a whole lot of electricity to do something simple.

Like making the sun rise. Or making the tall grasses move or wildebeests stampede.

"The thing about 'The Lion King,' " said Kenneth Davis, production stage manager for the touring version of this Disney musical, "is that about half of the show takes place on a completely bare stage, which to the audience looks about as simple as can be.

"But simple takes a lot of work. And a lot of power," Davis said.

It also take a lot of trucks - a total of 17 full-sized semi- trailer rigs are needed to carry all the bits and pieces that make up Disney's "The Lion King" from town to town.

Loading the show into a theater - such as the Tulsa PAC's Chapman Music Hall, which will host the musical for a five-week run beginning June 4 - is such an intricate and time-consuming endeavor that the production has two complete sets, so that one can be installed in the next venue while the show continues to play at its current location.

It's a process that has been going on for 11 years, ever since Julie Taymor's innovative re-imagining of the animated film set out on the road. During its recent stay in Nashville, the touring production of "The Lion King" marked its 4,500 performance.

"Our goal," Davis said, "is to ensure that the people who saw performance No. 4,500 had the exact same theatrical experience as the people who saw performance No. 1."

Creating the look of 'The Lion King'

When Disney decided to create a stage musical out of its 1994 animated film "The Lion King," the company chose to go a different route than the one they followed for the successful "Beauty and the Beast."

The goal for that show was to re-create the look and action of the animated film as much as was humanly possible through costume, makeup and theatrical special effects.

However, the director chosen for "The Lion King," Julie Taymor, was at the time known for her avant-garde stagings of opera and experimental films, which incorporated puppetry and elaborate masks.

"The Lion King" gave Taymor the opportunity to re-create the world of the show in her own image: the masks and costumes; the puppets that range from fluttering little birds to the gigantic elephant, known affectionately among the cast and crew as "Bertha"; adding new scenes and commissioning new songs. The result was a musical as full of spectacle as Broadway audiences had come to expect, but presented in a way that was unique.

"That's the genius of Julie Taymor," Davis said. "You see the magic. Everything is, for all intents and purposes, visible to the audience. You see the masks, and you see the faces of the actors wearing them. You see the mechanics of, for example, how the cheetah walks, or the wires in the flying scenes.

"There's no trickery," he said, "and yet it is still absolutely magical."

Taymor's approach proved to be stunningly effective - and enduringly popular. "The Lion King" opened on Broadway in 1997 and remains one of the Great White Way's most popular shows. It is now the fifth-longest running show in Broadway history and the highest- grossing Broadway show of all time, earning more than $900 million.

Stage technology

The touring production of "The Lion King" replicates the original Broadway production in almost every detail - at least from the audience's point of view. On the other hand, the view from the other side of the curtain is always changing.

"Every theater that we've played is different," Davis said. "A big part of my job is making sure that everyone knows where everything is going to be when they need it."

Davis and some of his colleagues usually spend a few days visiting the next theater, to work out the logistics of how to get all the items in those 17 trucks into the facility.

A big part of the load-in is the construction of a 6-inch-high stage floor onto the theater stage that contains - among other things - the tracks that guide the 8,000-pound, computer-driven Pride Rock set piece into its various locations during the show.

The Pride Rock piece is also designed to accordion closed into a relatively small space.

"That's necessary because otherwise we wouldn't have any room for anyone or anything else back here," Davis said.

Other large pieces, such as gigantic rack of ribs that mark the Elephant Graveyard or some of the full-body animal puppets, hang from the rafters when not in use.

"They come down from the flyspace, out on to the stage, come back off and up they go," Davis said.

Davis works with three assistants: one who calls the show, cueing the actors and technical crews as the show progresses from a booth perched high above the stage; and two who are positioned on either side of the stage, ready to implement what Davis called "our whole series of Plan B's" in case anything happens to go wrong during a performance.

"I'm usually out front during the show, because it's my responsibility that we maintain the vision Julie Taymor has for this show," he said.

"Fortunately, even in the relatively short time this show has been up, the technology has grown by leaps and bounds to make a lot of things easier," Davis said. "Every time the show opens in a new place, the entire creative team gets together and has a chance to update what we do. So in a sense, 'The Lion King' is in a constant state of production."

Washing and dressing

Some aspects of "The Lion King" haven't changed, regardless of where it might be - like the need to do loads and loads of laundry.

"The Lion King" makes use of some 350 costumes, and "anything that touches skin," said wardrobe supervisor Gregory Young, "has to be washed."

But not everything that gets worn in "The Lion King" can be washed, said Young, who started out as a dresser for the Broadway production in 1997. At each location, the production contracts with a local dry cleaner to handle the company's less sturdy outfits.

"When the show opened, a lot of the costumes were made of silk," he said. "It gave the effect that Julie Taymor wanted, but it didn't last long with all the wear and tear of eight shows a week."

Over time, more durable materials were incorporated. The character of the Bird Lady, for example, now wears a costume made out of the same materials as lightweight sails.

Other costumes rely on even more unconventional materials. The conical skirts worn by the cast members during the Grasslands scene are made of rope, and the shaggy fur of the wildebeests consists of hand-knotted strands of leather and raffia.

And again, there is an underlying simplicity to the costumes in "The Lion King."

"Just about everything is either a big bag or built on a corset," Young said. "That helps make the changes a little easier since most of the cast have an average of 11 to 14 changes in the course of the show."

Dressers are hired in each city to work with the wardrobe staff to help cast members in and out of their costumes. Each dresser is responsible for helping three ensemble members with their changes.

'It's like wearing a futon'

Sharron Williams is one of those ensemble members who changes costumes 14 times during a performance of "The Lion King."

"It's not that I wear 14 different costumes," Williams said, laughing. "Some get worn a couple of different times."

As an ensemble member for the past three years, Williams appears as a lioness on the hunt, a stampeding wildebeest, a figure in the grasslands and one of the hordes of hyenas.

Williams pulled her hyena costume part way from its place in her backstage clothes rack. "Feel that?" she said. "It's heavy. It's like wearing a futon."

But of all the characters Williams plays in "The Lion King," she calls only one her "alter ego."

Williams is the cheetah, who slinks onto stage first during the epic "Circle of Life" that opens the show and is featured in a scene in which the cheetah stalks its prey.

The cheetah is one of the more elaborate puppets in the show: Williams' legs are the animal's hind legs, and she manipulates the front legs with long poles. The cat's head is controlled by wires attached to the wig she wears.

"I love being the cheetah - it's such a visually striking character, and it's almost sensual the way it has to move," Williams said.

"But it wasn't easy. It requires a lot of concentration to coordinate everything just so - how you roll your hips, your shoulders, the movements of your head and neck.

"I had been doing this role for six months, eight shows a week, before I even started to feel as if I was getting this," she said, laughing. "Now, I can't imagine being without Chi-Chi."

She patted the head of the cheetah puppet. "That's my name for her," she said. "Everybody comes up with a name for the puppet they use in the show."



Puppets (including rod puppets, shadow puppets and full-sized puppets): 200

Ants on the Ant-Hill Lady costume: 100

Wigs: 45

Wildebeests: 52

Hyenas: 39

Types of animals, birds, fish and insects represented in the show: 25

Gazelles: 15 (Five actors each wear a gazelle puppet on both arms and one affixed to their head.)

Gazelles on the gazelle wheel prop: 6

Lionesses: 14 (Nala, Young Nala and 12 ensemble in the "Lioness hunt")

Bird Kites: 12 (featured in "One By One," the opening number of Act II)

Bird Ladies: 5

Bird Man: 1 (He appears in "Circle of Life" opening number and in the "Circle of Life" reprise in the final scene.)

Simba representations: 6 (Adult Simba, Young Simba, Baby Simba puppet, Young Simba puppet, Simba Shadow puppet, Rafiki's Simba painting)

Zebras: 3

Elephants: 2 (the large "Bertha" and the Baby Elephant who is operated by the child actresses alternating the role of Young Nala)

Antelope: 2 (They are the first animals Rafiki calls out to in Swahili, in the "Ngonyama" call-and-response choral chant. The antelope are portrayed by two South African male ensemble singers.)

Rhinoceros: 1

Cheetah: 1


Six indigenous African languages spoken in the show:



Xhosa (the click language)





"The Lion King" tour has 134 people directly involved with the daily production of the show:

49 cast members, six of whom are South African

19 wardrobe staff

18 musicians

11 carpenters

10 electricians

5 hair and makeup artists

4 props people

4 stage managers

3 puppet craftspeople

3 sound people

2 creative associates

2 company managers

2 merchandise associates

1 child guardian

1 physical therapist


When: June 4 to July 7. Showtimes 7:30 p.m. Tuesday- Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. No performances July 4. No evening performance July 7.

Where: Chapman Music Hall, Tulsa PAC, 101 E. Third St.

Tickets: $30- $135. 918-596- 7111,

James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478

Originally published by JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer.

(c) 2013 Tulsa World. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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