"The Lion King" Broadway show blends live actors, puppetry and masks. In director Julie Taymor's book "The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway," Thomas Schumacher, executive producer of the original movie, admits that he doubted it could translate into a stage play. The movie has panoramic scenes and a buffalo stampede that seemed impossible to stage. In the same book, Roger Allers, co-director of the film, states that dressing actors in animal suits was unappealing. Both describe how their attitude changed after meeting Taymor.
Taymor proposed combining Japanese-style puppetry and African shamanistic dance. In those traditions the human behind the puppet or mask is visible. In Taymor's book, Allers describes finding this concept “alluring" and Schumacher recalls Taymor's explanation that puppeteers should be visible because this is a very human story. Having visible human faces would enable audiences to identify with the characters.
Cable Suspension and Animatronics
Many creatures tower above the audience. This is achieved in part through puppeteers' use of stilts and in part by suspension. Lion masks suspended above the actors' heads are lowered when the lions become aggressive, obscuring their human faces. Suspension and electronics combat the operational problems of large, heavy puppets -- Scar's head is linked to battery packs on the actor's legs and operated using a switch in his palm.
Japanese Banraku Puppetry
Several pupeteers operate each larger animal. Taymor previously worked in Japanese theater where Banraku puppets are operated by up to three actors. In Banraku, a master puppeteer, operating head, face and right arm is visible throughout. Supporting puppeteers clothed in black operate the limbs using rods. In Taymor's adaptation, Timon the meerkat is operated by a bushlike puppeteer dressed in green. A cheetah operator wears the cheetah's rear legs while manipulating the animal's front portion using rods.
Zazu the hornbill is a rod puppet seated on the actor's head or in his arms. The actor's make-up mimics the puppet's features. According to animator Goesta Struve-Dencher, this creates a “double event”: the puppeteer visibly manipulates the puppet while being imaginatively identified with it. Disney's Broadway website explains that puppet strings are visible because Taymor wanted the audience to experience both the show and its workings.
Traditional African Masked Dance
Since the dancers move both their own bodies and the puppet, the character's identity comes from both sources. In traditional African dance, dancers wearing animal masks represent those animals through bodily movements. On Disney's Broadway website, Taymor describes how African masks inspired her. She explains that masks have fixed expressions; she wanted human faces visible in order to express emotional changes. Taymor's lion heads rest above the human face as in African masked-dance. When the lioness mourns, she operates the puppet head, pulling ribbon tears from the eye sockets.
Indonesian Shadow Puppetry – Wayang Kulit
Shadow puppetry uses one-dimensional silhouettes mounted on rods. Bright lighting projects their shadows onto a screen. In her youth Taymor studied Indonesian shadow puppetry and worked in Indonesian theater. In "The Lion King," Taymor returns to these roots, using shadow puppets to represent fish, leopards and the young Simba.
Taymor's book describes a concept she terms “corporate puppetry” developed for the gazelle herd and bird flocks. Leaping gazelle dancers each carry several gazelle puppets. A dancer becomes a flock of birds by carrying a “totem pole” of puppet birds. In this way one actor represents many creatures.
Based in the Isle of Man, Tamasin Wedgwood has been writing on historical topics since 2007. Her articles have appeared in "The International Journal of Heritage Studies," "Museum and Society" and "Bobbin and Shuttle" magazine. She has a Master of Arts (Distinction) in museum studies from Leicester University.