It is 15 minutes before curtain at just another midweek performance of Disney’s “The Lion King,” and people have begun zeroing in on their seats. As we watch them from a high catwalk near the control booth at the back of the theater, it is hard not to anticipate the giddy moment of audience astonishment when two gigantic golden giraffes on stilts will teeter exquisitely onto the stage.
Then exuberant South African choral harmonies will seem to come from everywhere in the darkness, and a huge rice-paper sun will unfurl onstage. And then, coming from behind and up the aisles to the wonderment of young and not-young, a grand mountainous elephant with flapping ears of African batik will lumber toward the stage, as will the rhinoceros and the flying birds on tall sticks, all singing “The Circle of Life” and telling audiences that this beloved, highest-grossing worldwide theater spectacle will do it all again, right now, just for them.
Meanwhile, backstage and in the control booth, all is meticulous organization, quiet professionalism and an almost shocking calm. After all, on Oct. 15, it will be 19 years since that elephant (she’s Bertha to cast and crew) took that first walk for the first preview of an epic masterwork and family classic that would be seen by more than 85 million in 20 countries.
The show would establish the Disney brand as a high-quality mainstay on corporate-wary Broadway. Instantly, the spectacular would identify Julie Taymor, a director-designer of rarefied folkloric puppet extravaganzas, as a master — and, soon, the first woman in Broadway history to get a Tony Award for directing a musical. (The show earned six Tonys, including best musical and another to Taymor for her inventive, gorgeous costumes.)
But that’s all history. The urgency each day, each week, each month is how to keep each performance fresh — how, after all these years and all these countries, the passionate performances and the complicated technology can strive to get as close to the excitement of that first opening night, Nov. 13, 1997.
This is why we are here, to observe what theater people call the “preset,” usually two preparatory hours before curtain, to watch how the screws and the bolts, the pieces of wood and power cords are regularly transformed into those magic, intricately stylized moments that have trained young theatergoers to grasp more than straightforward realism. With “Lion King,” you can see the human being and the creature at the same time — what Taymor calls the “double event.”
It’s one thing to be told that rehearsals are held eight hours every week, that 150 hours are spent keeping the wardrobe together and that the puppet department spends 40 hours a week painting and 18 hours checking the mechanical units, replacing the cables and batteries that make the masks and moving parts seem human.
It’s a different kind of wonderment altogether to climb carefully around the remarkably compressed — OK, small — backstage area with Ron Vodicka, the production stage manager. Vodicka, who has been with the show 12 years, is expected, as he puts it, “to keep the show excellent for the audience.” Tested first is Pride Rock, the most complicated set piece, which must rise 12 feet from below the stage five times per performance — initially to let the regal lion parents climb to the tip of the rock to show off their precious baby Simba. The rest of the time, Pride Rock stays modestly down in the automation department, which is the resting place for everything meant to move.
It is even harder to have Vodicka say that, after the “Circle of Life” opening number, after the zebras, the antelope, the gazelles and the wildebeests have created a jungle of infinite creative possibilities, they are all hung up in the air someplace until needed again.
And — don’t read this if you don’t want Bertha’s illusion ruined — she is built to be collapsed down flat for backstage storage.
“The Lion King” was the first production at Disney’s grandly renovated New Amsterdam Theatre, which has seven floors. Eventually, to make room for the next new show, the production had to move in 2006 to the Minskoff Theatre, which has just two floors. Imagine the virtuosic designers who somehow have kept all those departments functioning with impeccable finesse in a much smaller space — and still left room to dry laundry in the hallway.
There are 142 people directly involved with Broadway’s “Lion King,” including 51 cast members. Eight, significantly, are South African, and six indigenous African languages are spoken in the show. Then consider the training of new young Simbas and Nalas, because 10-year-olds have a tendency to grow. The 24-member orchestra is split, with brass down the hall, two percussionists in the side boxes, the rest in the pit — all with monitors.
Add the wardrobe staff, makeup and wig artists, puppet craftspeople, carpenters, electricians, sound people and props people. And don’t forget the full-time on-site physical therapist. It cannot be easy on the human body to inhabit an 18-foot giraffe or carry a 45-pound warthog as if it were a backpack. Not surprisingly, Vodicka stresses, “We’re committed to being safe.”
Then remember that all this happens in theaters around the world. Including Broadway, right now there are eight productions — one on a North American tour, others in London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Madrid, Mexico City and Shanghai.
Overseeing all those is John Stefaniuk, associate director of the productions running all over the world, and, as Vodicka describes him, “Julie’s eyes and ears around the world.”
According to Stefaniuk, Taymor “checks in quite a bit. It’s lovely.” He says she comes to see each new production, usually close to the opening, and makes sure that the technical aspects do not overwhelm the emotional meaning, the universality of the story.
Stefaniuk has a “core team of associates” who take care of the show around the globe. He and two others also go around auditioning for the next production. The important part of maintenance, he believes, is more than specific details. “I want to make sure these people are really connecting with the story, with the joy and passion. The audience has to feel Simba’s struggle, to go on that journey,”
As for Taymor, he believes, she wants each opening night “to feel what she felt on the first opening night.”
Plans for Broadway’s 20th anniversary are still in flux. But you can bet, need it or not, the 200 masks will get yet another fresh coat of paint, the gazelle wheels will be oiled, and Bertha — the largest and longest animal in the show — will get an extra fluffing.
Meanwhile, as Stefaniuk knows, “One company will close. One will open.” It is, after all, the circle of life — and musical-theater history.