Backstage at "The Lion King"

by Joel Greenberg

Forbidden Broadway's tribute to the Julie Taymor-Disney megamusical features the lyric, "Can you feel the pain, tonight?" Borrowing from Alessandrini and Co., my recent visit to The Lion King certainly made me ponder the vicissitudes of an actor-dancer-animal's life enough to round up a couple of giraffes and hyenas plus a meercat and a wart-hog. Not by nature a safari-ophile myself, the trek was pretty painless. Negotiating my way past the stage door of the Princess of Wales Theatre–the cartons of Tropicana may be a pick-me-up for gazelles, leopards and other critters, but where, I wondered, was all that Bailey's Irish Cream headed?–I was led to a third floor lounge where the 'animals' were brought to me two-by-two.

Eddison B. Lindsay and Phillip Nero play giraffes, among many other roles in the show. (Phillip also understudies Ed, one of the principal hyenas.) The sight of those tall, slow-moving creatures remains for me the signature image of the production. So struck was I by them, and the apparent physical demands placed on the actors, that they seemed a good starting point for satisfying my curiosity.

Lindsay, whose background prepares him well for the Garth Fagan choreography, is on leave from the Danny Grossman Dance Company. Nero's dance training and theatre profile is pure musical theatre and he acknowledges that this work has required more from him than he had at first expected. Regardless of the dancers' training, both performers are in complete agreement that the early stages of preparation were highly demanding. When asked if the constant body work required of them as giraffes was painful, they exchanged knowing glances and indicated that they were finally able to get into and out of the braces and stilts with remarkable speed and without assistance. Since the highly sophisticated costumes, masks and accoutrements weren't a part of this interview, I asked them to demonstrate how the body transforms itself from merely human to tallest-of-the-tall.

Phillip explained that the boots are made so that they force the wearer into a 45-degree stance. The body brace, or girdle if I understand this correctly, further prompts the body to bend so that attaching the leg stilts and the arms stilts will complete the necessary profile. At this point, Phillip leans against a chair as though he is about to undergo a proctologic examination and Eddison adds that this position is the one used for costume fittings. I am struck by the fact that Phillip is leaning into the shape that he adopts every time he dons that animal's 'skin'.

Is it painful? They tell me that the early days were especially tough. "Getting used to the hand stilts was done by conditioning that felt like sustaining a 5-6 minute push-up. And that's not fun." The early stages, too, required them to learn how to get into and out of their trappings from atop ladders. Has the process of learning the manoeuvres and allowing the quick changes to become second nature been clear and smooth? Pretty much, if you include or forgive the occasional tangling of Phillip's headdress from among the various set pieces and lighting instruments that share his air space. At this, the slim and trim dancer shows me how he tries to peer out from beneath his giraffe's head 'crown.' The contorted face, eyes squinting, makes it apparent that the straining is not worth the effort. Eddison, for his part, laughs when he reveals that he has fallen twice. "The first time I fell I was amazed that the last thing I thought was, 'I could break my leg doing this!'" Nero adds, "As you're falling, all you have time to think about is how to fall safely."

Dancers live to dance, a truism that gives the lie to anyone arguing otherwise. So, what do these guys most look forward to each night? Eddison loves the chance to fly in Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, the big ballad that is staged in the manner of an underwater ballet from an Esther Williams film. In the course of the song, he is flown in on wires and he executes a series of aerial rotations. He says he is up to three-and-a-half turns, a statistic he sounds determined to improve upon before his time with the musical is done. Although he is getting ready to begin understudy rehearsals, Phillip would be happier to dance more than the show permits.

Bill Perry and Jason Lee Jackson play two of the three principal hyenas, roles that demand extraordinary physical commitment, discipline and stamina. While the giraffes move as if in slow motion, the hyenas whirl, leap, scuttle and roll with manic ferocity. They also speak, some more than others, and unlike the giraffes, they are more than mere visuals.

Bill, whose background is the most eclectic of those I interviewed, said he started going to the gym regularly when he was signed for the show. And this was well ahead of the rehearsal process. Both he and Jason, the lone actor cast from the Vancouver audition tour, were intimidated when they first saw what was required of them. "We wondered if we could last the year."

Since they are principals, and since their costumes aren't designed for quick in-and-out, they don't do multiple duty in the course of an evening. (Essentially unnoticed, they form part of the massive elephant in the opening number.) But if there were initial doubts and challenges about the roles' physical demands, both actors found the rehearsal period positive and always encouraging. Perry enjoyed spending an hour each day in his puppet as he explored the physical nature of the character he played, because in addition to adopting animal characteristics, he knew that he had to invent personality. And playing in front of mirrors, a feature that all of these actors enjoyed, helped to free the imagination and to eliminate self-consciousness.

Jackson added that the use of videotape provided them the valuable opportunity to monitor the details after, and not during, the working part of rehearsal. "And we were encouraged to incorporate many of our own ideas as we experimented with the puppets," he said, largely dismissing the notion of a cookie-cutter operation, something often used to discredit the artistic merit of the franchised commercial product.

While Jason is not contracted to cover any other roles, Perry is understudying two of the larger principal parts–Zazu, the bird played by Jeffrey Kuhn, and Timon, the meercat played by Jonathan Wilson. So, what's life like for a hyena that isn't free to rest on his laurels? As it turns out, Bill's schedule is more than full. After the lengthy prep period and the generous number of previews that followed, opening night was "this massive tidal wave that hit. And next day, I was right back in rehearsal."

Perry's natural energy and exuberance suggest the kind of school kid who might have made his teacher nervous. You can see and hear the wheels spinning–the ideas turning over faster than adept jugglers can master their clubs and flaming swords–and though he refers to Kuhn and Wilson as "miraculous" for having mastered their respective characters' operational demands, there's no doubt in my mind that he'll come through in due course. But the toll of eight shows per week and the 2-3 days of understudy rehearsals on top of that doesn't go unnoticed.  

Jackson and his smaller hyena buddy also speak about the freedom they have felt in the process of creating these bizarre personalities. Although a considerable amount of the show's direction derives from earlier stage productions, the actors were told to find their own way of solving certain problems. Their costumes' many restrictions demand that each actor sorts out for himself how best to move as required and how to avoid dangerous physical choices. Having had a company chiropractor watch them at work, providing examples of what to do and what to avoid, and having had Alexander classes along the way has made a significant contribution to a longer and healthier stage life.

High-energy, long running musicals are notorious for the body count of hurt and injured performers. A loud and raucous singing show can hobble all but the conscientious and technique-driven musicians. The athletic dance show, even for the fit and fighting, can do damage of the worst kind. The Lion King is neither of these theatrical beasts, but its requirements have contributed to cast replacements aplenty elsewhere. To investigate the facts a bit further, I included a couple of the less obviously challenged among the company.

Mark Terene plays Pumbaa and Jonathan Wilson plays Timon. They do not serve double duty, switching costumes and roles with breakneck speed as most of the ensemble does, and they don't understudy any other parts. They are senior principals and they are spared the large, frenetic staged numbers.

Terene plays the wart-hog by carrying around his 18-pound costume. However, in contrast to the 35-pound outfit he had to balance as Cogsworth, the clock in Beauty and the Beast, this design is a major step forward. "The clock was made without any point of balance. On more than one occasion my back gave out and an understudy had to continue the performance for me." Nothing of this nature has happened throughout the long training period of The Lion King and Mark credits the design along with the thoughtful attentions of the creative team.

Wilson, by contrast, stands entirely outside of his character's body. (Timon is operated with stick and hand movements, the actor positioned directly behind the puppet itself.) He has found the removal of himself from the character particularly unique. As a veteran of Second City, among many other performing styles, Wilson is adept at creating voices and personalities from within himself. As a successful playwright, he has mastered the technique of defining characters through their behavioral patterns as much as through their emotional experiences. But how this wide range of skills helps to define the life and hard times of a meercat is probably not a skill he has previously contemplated.

"I think I enjoyed the freedom to experiment in the studio in front of the mirrors most of all. Getting to the text and the stage business wasn't the hard part, but Mark and I were allowed to work out a lot of stuff by ourselves." And the work they did was largely approved by the host of creative personnel who check out all the details in such an undertaking. "What was really hard," Wilson continued, "was remembering what to do with the hand puppet at the same time that I had to work the rest of the body." They talk about rehearsals without their puppets, when they were setting the pace for their vaudeville-inspired scenes together, and then having Taymor come in to say, "Why can't you do it that fast with the puppets?" Having seen their performances the other night, I would guess her question no longer needs to be asked.

So, do these actors have an easier time of it than the company around them? According to Wilson, the challenges are still there every time. He needs to remind himself that he isn't free to rely on his own facial reactions, since the audience is prompted to watch Timon's face and not his own. "But you forget that the puppet's face doesn't have moving parts. I have to compensate with a variety of head movements." And he adds that the arm used for the puppet's mouth is already beginning to feel a certain strain. It's not surprising to hear this after you've seen the workout that he gets. Both he and Terene credit the Alexander technique, under the direction of Kelly McEvenue, for such a healthy approach to potentially punishing work.

My visit complete, I returned to street level and headed toward the subway. The slight drizzle and intense humidity, always a winning combination for rush-hour subway ambience, conjured an urban jungle, with the men and women, merely the habitues. Life onstage, even with stilts for arms and an 18-pound wart-hog on my back, seemed almost tame by comparison.

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