Outside of a zoo or nature preserve, you won’t encounter as many "animals” in one place as the vast array on stage in Disney’s "The Lion King.” Continuing through May 24 at the Civic Center Music Hall, the musical is a magical place where lions roar, birds squawk, giraffes amble gracefully and gazelles leap with abandon. Making sure the musical’s 230 masks and puppets function properly is Willie Wilson, the tour’s expert puppet supervisor. For seven years, Wilson has managed this incredible menagerie, a job that requires a keen eye for detail and a vast knowledge of what each actor must do to bring an animal to life. "One of the things (director) Julie Taymor wanted was to give each animal an individual look,” Wilson said. "So, there are no two animals in the show that are exactly alike. There was actually a team that researched African tribes and animals.” Most of the animal masks are made of carbon fiber, the same material used in race cars. Once they’ve been sculpted and painted, the masks come alive with detail. The carbon fiber also makes them very lightweight; Mufasa’s mask weighs just 11 ounces. The actors who portray Mufasa and Scar wear special masks that usually sit atop their heads, but they can be lowered, visor-like, in front of their faces by a hidden battery-powered control. "The Lion King” also is populated with numerous realistic-looking animal puppets, most notably the colorful bird Zazu and the meerkat Timon. Actors manipulate and voice the animal characters in full view of the audience. It’s a Western take on Japanese bunraku puppetry. Depending on the complexity of the character, an actor will spend one to six months learning the intricacies of the puppet. Wilson said much of the early training is done in front of a mirror. "When a new actor comes into the show, it’s good for the company and good for us,” Wilson said. "We get ... to show them what we’ve learned and help them learn what to do. We’ve got a new person coming in next week who will play a giraffe. It takes about two weeks to get up on stilts and moving properly. It’s all about balancing.” Visiting Wilson’s backstage area is a bit like walking into a toymaker’s shop. There are benches and tables lined with masks and puppets, each of which will be used in the next production. "On performance days, we’re here from 10 a.m. until the end of the show,” Wilson said. "If anything goes wrong, we can fix it. It might be something mechanical — a cable that operates Scar’s mask might break, or Zazu’s wing might stop working properly. We never want to stop the show to fix something, so we have backups.” Thanks to Wilson’s expertise, the two dozen animal species appearing in "The Lion King” will continue to captivate audiences. And though he doesn’t get to take bows with the cast, Wilson admits he is happy to have played such an important part in the show’s success.
For "Lion King" performance and ticket information, call (800) 869-1451.
‘Lion King’ facts
→More than 200 puppets are used in the show. →There are 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects represented in the show. →A dozen bird kites are featured in the Act 2 opening. →It took 17,000 hours to build the puppets and masks. →Mufasa’s mask weighs 11 ounces; Scar’s mask weighs 9 ounces. →The tallest animals in the show are the 18-foot giraffes. →The smallest animal is a 5-inch mouse at the end of Scar’s cane.