Keepers of 'Lion King'
|||A few tips to help you enjoy the show to the fullest|
By Jackie Demaline
Gannett News Service
By Jackie Demaline
Zazu will come to Honolulu intact. But as the whimsical sidekick to lion king Mufasa wends his way through Cincinnati, the bird puppet — big beak, big eyes, prissy attitude, long, bendy neck — has come undone.
Which is why Zazu, now inanimate, is stretched out on a table in the puppet hospital — actually a backstage corner at Procter & Gamble Hall — during a spring stop for Disney's touring company of "The Lion King."
The "hospital," filled with puppets, masks and headdresses, and surrounded by 6-foot moving containers of supplies (enough to fill two semi-trailers), is set up close to the onstage action, because with more than 200 puppet characters, accidents do happen.
"The Lion King," which has been touring the nation this year, has a staff of three assigned full time to maintenance of a show that has a cast of full-size puppets (bunraku), rod puppets, shadow puppets of 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects. The intricate puppets are not like any you might know.
Spare hyena parts are lined up, and breathtaking grasslands headdresses are ready to be freshened up — they use 3,000 stalks of grass per year.
If you've ever wondered how ensemble members balance those mammoth boards, they're attached by a modified mount from a welder's mask. Walt Disney Imagineering figured it out, says puppet doc David Woody (the puppet supervisor).
The "helmet" can be tightened to fit a performer's head, the headdress has a short pole that slots in and voila! The Pridelands come to life onstage.
There's lots to see behind the stage magic of "The Lion King."
But back to the operation at hand. Woody opens a drawer and pulls out a replacement part — a standard-issue Slinky, which attaches at the body and the head.
Woody is hoping the repair can be made simply by rolling back the fabric, putting in a splint and having the puppet back on stage at the evening's performance. A rebuild would take hours — covering the Slinky in power net and hand-cutting parachute fabric then painting and applying "feathers" individually.
Up close, Mufasa's fur is bleached peacock feathers, stitched together in long strands, "kind of like tie-dye," Woody suggests.
The masks weigh only ounces and, for principal performers, they're custom built. Masks are made of Kevlar, "the same material that's used for airplanes and race cars," Woody explains.
He also keeps plenty of carbon fiber on hand for repairs, which starts out looking like a metallic mesh. Soak it in epoxy and it transforms.
Woody's cabinets include a range of epoxies, dozens of paints ("lots of earth tones, raw sienna, primarily.")
Villain Scar has entire peacock quills, which are specifically positioned so that the quill that curves right on the peacock is set on the right side of Scar.
Scar is trouble for Mufasa and lion prince Simba, and he's just as much trouble for Woody.
Kevin Gray, who plays Scar, has cables, electrical wire and a battery strapped under his costume so he can hand-operate his mechanical mask, which can move with Scar's mood — sinister or sneaky or downright dangerous.
"When you have an actor crawling around on the floor, you can have broken wires — a lot," Woody observes.
When that happens, the puppet staffer on call gets a radio alert — the stage manager and dresser are also on headphones — and hurries to the wings where fingers are crossed for a quick diagnosis.
Woody has been at it so long that often he can just listen. "Motors can make sounds you've never heard before," he says, laughing. "You learn to know where to look if it's a loose screw in the motor mount versus an electrical wire versus a cable problem."
There is a backup Scar costume, and when something goes wrong, it takes five people for a quick change — two wardrobe people, a sound expert, a puppet pro and an electrician — because "puppet maintenance staff don't have electrical skills, and the motor is from Japan," Woody says with a grin.
And the show does go on, whether Scar gets back on stage on time or not.