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'The Lion King' on Broadway: Behind the scenes at complex show

The urgency each day, each week, each month is how to keep each performance of “The Lion King” 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.

The following photographs document what theater people call the “preset” — usually two preparatory hours before curtain — when the screws and the bolts, the pieces of wood and power cords are transformed into those magic, intricately stylized moments that have trained young theatergoers to grasp more than straightforward realism.

Bertha, the magnificent elephant

The elephant, lovingly known as Bertha to the
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The elephant, lovingly known as Bertha to the backstage crew, is being prepared for her close-up — one of the most wow moments of the first part of the show, which has been seen by more than 85 million people in 20 different countries. Bertha is the largest and longest animal in the show — 13 feet long, 9 feet wide — and requires four mere humans to walk her up the aisle through the theater. When she is not on stage, she collapses down flat for convenient backstage storage. The indignity!

Julie Taymor's legendary puppets

Baby Simba puppet and his papa Mufasa rest
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Baby Simba puppet and his papa, Mufasa, rest before they take to the stage and amble along the grasslands. Director-designer Julie Taymor (who was the first woman in Broadway history to win a Tony Award for directing a musical) and designer Michael Curry hand-sculpted and painted every mask. Their department of mask makers, sculptors and puppeteers spent 17,000 hours on the animals for the 1997 premiere at the New Amsterdam Theatre. To keep the show fresh after 19 years, rehearsals are held eight hours every week, 150 hours are spent keeping the wardrobe together, and the puppet department spends 40 hours a week painting and 18 hours checking the multiple mechanical units.

 

 

The Elephant Graveyard

The towering bones of the Elephant Graveyard wait
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The towering bones of the Elephant Graveyard wait in the wings at the Minskoff Theatre, where space is always at a premium. "The Lion King” opened as the first production at Disney’s grandly renovated New Amsterdam Theatre, which has seven floors. But to make room for "Mary Poppins," the production had to move in 2006 to the Minskoff, which has just two.

He keeps things running

Ron Vodicka, production stage manager of
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Ron Vodicka, production stage manager of "The Lion King," has a rare quiet moment in the theater before making sure that the entire intricate show — all 200 puppets and 51 performers and 24 musicians — is ready for the curtain to go up. Vodicka, who joined the company 12 years ago, knows every detail of the show, like precisely when the 14-foot giraffes, as opposed to the 18-foot giraffes, have their entrances. The worldwide hit had its first preview on Broadway 19 years ago Oct. 15.

A wall of zebras

With backstage space tight at the Minskoff, everything
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

With backstage space tight at the Minskoff, everything has a place when not on stage. The zebras take a much-needed — if slightly undignified — time out near the bones from the Elephant Graveyard.

Face painting 101

Make-up artist Brenda O'brien prepares the three characters
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Makeup artist Brenda O'Brien prepares the three characters who are onstage for most of the night — Rafiki (Tshidi Manye, far right), trusted court bird Zazu (Cameron Pow) and the villain of all villains, Simba's uncle Scar (Derek Smith).

Puppet maintenance

Ilya Vett, puppet technician, doesn't seem a bit
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Ilya Vett, puppet technician, doesn't seem a bit frightened of the hyena — one of 39 — who has come to him for some R&R. The puppet department spends 40 hours a week painting and 18 hours checking the mechanics of  some 200 puppets in the show.

The wildebeests at rest

The Wildebeests--52 of them!--don't look nearly so fearsome
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The wildebeests — 52 of them! — don't look nearly so fearsome when hanging on a wall before and after their stampede changes young Simba's life forever.

Bringing the animals to life

The 21 gazelles appear to soar on the
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The 21 gazelles appear to soar on the actors who wear them on their arms and their heads. But those actors probably have it easier than the cast members who inhabit the 18-foot giraffe or carry a 45-pound warthog as if it were a backpack. Of the 142 people directly involved with Broadway’s “Lion King," the busiest may be the physical therapist.

Readying Rafiki

The character Rafiki (Tshidi Manye), the all-knowing South
Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The character Rafiki (Tshidi Manye), the all-knowing South African shaman, gets her makeup done early because she opens the show and threads her sage commentary throughout the evening. She is one of eight South Africans in the show, which has a cast 51.

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