NEW YORK -- Masks,
puppets, mime, dance and junglelike
behavior make an
animated film come to African life in The
Lion King, the hottest
musical on Broadway.
"We don't just become animals onstage,"
Jason Raize (Simba) said during
the recent New York meeting of the
American Theatre Critics
Association. "We become the duality of a
human and an animal. That's
Julie Taymor's vision: that the audience
will see the animal in the
human and the human in the animal."
Taymor -- the director, costume designer
and co-designer of masks and
puppets -- has received the most credit
for the celebrated stage
version of the most popular animated
A recipient of a MacArthur "genius"
fellowship and two Obie awards,
Taymor developed her distinctive approach
-- a fusion of puppetry,
fantasy, multicultural motifs, cinematic
close-ups and vertiginous
scenes -- in two other musicals: Juan
Darien -- A Carnival Mass and The
Thirteen lead actors and 31 chorus members
learned to blend symbolic
movements and rhythms "to express human
emotion as well as animalistic
instinct," Raize said.
South African vocalist Tsidii Le Loka
views her character, Rafiki, as
the "moral conscience."
"The character is part baboon, but my
internal touchstone to create the
character was a shaman, doctor or healer
in the African tradition of
shamans," she said. "More than getting the
comedy by taking the baboon
aspect, I wanted to establish the dignity
and integrity of the role."
Mufasa is seen "more as a man with a mask
rather than a masked man,"
said Samuel E. Wright, who plays the aging
Wright portrayed Dizzy Gillespie in Bird,
voiced Sebastian in The
Little Mermaid and earned a Tony
nomination for The Tap Dance Kid.
"We didn't just walk in and crawl around
to become these creatures in
this wonderful fable," he said. "It took
quite awhile for Julie to help
us perfect it so that as performers we
didn't feel silly. The last
thing I wanted to do was put on a Bert
Lahr suit and walk around
onstage as the 'king of the forest.'
"Rather, I fell in love with the
animal-human identity and approached
it from the perspective of a warrior king
leading his people."
The ingenious, flexible approach to
theatrical masks allows most cast
members to wear them without hiding their
The masks, co-designed by frequent Taymor
collaborator Michael Curry,
are worn above the head. They swing away
from the face for more
personal moments or are moved up and down
with hand-held controls.
"That combination of image and movements
can make it look quite
realistic," said Wright, who manipulates
his mask dramatically in
confronting the evil Scar.
To become convincing animals onstage, the
actors quickly discovered the
need to move slowly and smoothly.
"We couldn't just jerk our heads around,
or the masks would look
silly," Raize said. "I'm very expressive
in my adolescent Angst, but,
when I walk around with my 'head' down,
all they see is the lion."
Meeting with critics, Wright and Raize
passed around their massive,
surprisingly light masks.
"Mine looks like it weighs a ton -- and I
try to make it look even
heavier onstage -- but it actually weighs
less than a pound," Wright
The elaborate masks, covered with skin and
feathers, look organic but
are made of ultra-light materials such as
graphite and plastic.
"To show how light they are," he said, "my
mask almost doubles in
weight when the miniature microphone
transmitter is placed on top."
For the auditions, the costumes and masks
were much larger and heavier.
"They wanted people who wouldn't balk at
putting these masks on their
head or flying like a gazelle."
Besides the masks, few elements needed to
be changed during the initial
two-month tryout in Minneapolis or
monthlong Broadway preview before
the November opening.
"The first time the actors walked through
the Minneapolis theater
swinging kite birds while singing the a
cappella African number was so
amazing," Raize said. "For me, the spirit
of The Lion King, of the
birds representing freedom, came together
"Usually when a show has that much time in
previews, scenes get cut and
new scenes written," Wright said. "Rather
than spending time hacking
away at the show, we polished the
performances and smoothed out the
kinks. You have to know when it's time to
The actors praised Disney for returning to
Broadway after its initial
success with the stage version of Beauty
and the Beast.
"People pick on the juggernaut of a huge
company, but you can't have
monumental art without monumental
support," Wright said. "Disney and
Julie both gambled, but the gamble has
paid off with a huge hit."