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.