As preparations are being made to bring the huge stage production of The Lion King to Birmingham, Roz Laws goes behind the scenes to look at the logistics of bringing the show to the city.
You get a sense of just how huge The Lion King is when you realise it requires more than 700 pieces of costume. In fact, it is by far the biggest production ever to come to the Birmingham Hippodrome.
It’s so immense that they are currently measuring the auditorium doors to see if they’re tall enough to get the elephant through.
The animal, about 10ft tall and so wide it only just squeezes down the aisle, is the big highlight of the opening number.
Whatever you do, don’t be late, because you’d miss the brilliant start – Rafiki singing The Circle Of Life and calling to the African creatures, who all make their way through the audience in a stunning procession.
It’s one of the memorable moments in the show, and one of the reasons why it has taken so long for The Lion King to go on tour.
“The elephant isn’t easy to accommodate,” admits Stephen Crocker, director of marketing at Disney Theatrical Group.
“Many people would say ‘just forget that’, but I said ‘No elephant, no show’.
“It’s wonderful to stand at the back of the theatre, as I do every Wednesday matinee in London, and watch the audience response to Circle of Life. It’s like a Mexican wave of pointing when people first see the elephant.”
From an ant to that elephant, dozens of animals are imaginatively brought to life in The Lion King, as I discovered on a fascinating tour backstage.
The attention to detail is impressive.
In the wardrobe department, there’s a paint chart of different flesh tones. Each performer’s skin is matched to a custom-made paint, which is then used to cover their jazz shoes to make it look as if they are barefoot on stage.
Head of wardrobe Laura Linstead explains that it takes two weeks to make each hand-beaded African corset and no two are the same. There are also 180 masks and head-dresses which need constant attention.
The actor who plays Zazu, majordomo to Mufasa and Simba, is dressed as a butler in a blue tailcoat. He holds a puppet of a red-billed hornbill made of parachute silk, carbon fibre and a Slinky toy for his neck. The actor holds the puppet and operates his wings with one hand while using the other to operate his beak and eyes.
“It’s a hard technique to master, like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head,” says head of puppets Will Pearce.
The actor who plays Timon also has a complicated system of controls to work out – he is harnessed up to the meerkat, who he holds in front of him.
The Lion King is such a mammoth musical, taking 23 trucks to move it around the country, that once it arrives in a venue, it stays for a while. Hence its three-month run this summer at the Hippodrome.
Disney’s Stephen Crocker has brought Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast and High School Musical to the Hippodrome over the years, but admits there’s one show everyone wanted to see.
“The question I was always asked was ‘when are you going to bring us the Lion King?’,” he laughs.
“That seemed a ridiculous question. It’s such an insanely huge show, it couldn’t possibly tour. But we found a way to bring it to audiences around the UK without compromising the scale and grandeur, mainly through advances in technology.”
Sometimes, simple is best. For example, the way in which a wildebeest stampede is recreated is actually rather old-fashioned – it uses an old Victorian technique of cut-outs on rollers.
The way the animals are brought to life is one of the magical things about the show. That’s thanks to Julie Taymor, a director and designer who tackled the tough task of turning the hit 1994 film into a stage musical.
“Her idea was that you never hide the performer – that reinforces the fact that The Lion King is actually all about people,” says Crocker.
“She encourages us to use our imagination. Her motto is ‘you give the audience a little bit and they see more’.”
Gazelles are played by dancers making beautiful leaps, holding a gazelle puppet on each arm and another on their head.
The giraffes are also clever. The performers are on stilts to recreate the back legs, while leaning on long sticks as the front legs and wearing an elaborate headdress as the head and neck.
Similarly, a dancer forms the hind legs of a cheetah while the rest of the animal is a puppet attached to them. She moves the front legs using rods, while fine cables attach her head to that of the cheetah, so it mimics her actions.
There is little in the way of scenery but the cast set the scene. The savannah is created by dancers dressed entirely in grass, wearing grass skirts and a trough full of swaying blades on their heads.
“When I first saw the images of the stage production, I just didn’t understand how it was going to work,” admits Crocker.
“But it does, in very clever ways. It’s very theatrical.
“The show keeps changing to keep you on the edge of your seat. You can’t believe all the things you are seeing, like the wildebeest stampede – that’s ingenious.
“The Lion King uses people’s skills in a way which makes it a very satisfying show in which to perform. People stay with the production for years, they don’t seem to want to leave! There are so many aspects to it. You’re watching an epic emotional scene, then an intimate one.
“The opening number is amazing and huge, then after that we just see a little shadow puppet.
“I’ve worked on the show for 12 years and I’ve seen the whole show dozens of times. Yet every time, I see something different in it. And I still cry every time.”
* The Lion King roars onto the Birmingham Hippodrome stage from June 29 to September 18. For tickets ring 0844 338 5000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com