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Saturday, June 02, 2007
Backstage Tour of The Lion King
We got to see the vast array of scenery, props, masks, costumes, equipment, and even cosmetics that are part of this incredible Broadway musical by Disney. Fifty-five actors tour with this company, one of six national companies and one of nine worldwide (including the new addition of a Lion King company in South Africa, whose opening night was Thursday), soon to be eleven. Frank Lott is the man in charge of all the hiring, the logistics, and pretty much the whole show. It's an incredible, intense experience.
Frank began by telling us how fabulous the Performing Arts Center is - "the most spectacular theatre" he has ever seen. He said it is absolutely perfect, that the designers thought of everything - including the need to have more extensive bathroom space for women to reduce lines during intermission. As we stood on the stage and looked out to the nearly 2000 seats of the theater, I could see what he meant when he said there isn't a bad seat in the house. Unbeknownst to Frank, Tom Boldt of Boldt Construction was in our tour group, so Tom was pleasantly surprised with the ringing endorsement of the building his company built.
I was especially impressed with the masks. Though they look heavy, the use of carbon fiber fabrics, molded and hand painted, allows them to be extremely light. Large masks two-feet tall might only weight 11 ounces. The puppets were also fascinating. Clever materials and engineering allow them to move in many ways guided by skilled operators.
Under the the deck is a mass of electronics and wires - 9 miles of wires - that are used in controlling and guiding scenery and other devices. Interestingly, in one city, I think it was St. Louis, they had repeated trouble with the motion of Pride Rock at the end of the play. It would roll automatically out onto the stage, but would stop early. They struggled for many days trying to find what was wring in the wiring of the wirelessly operated system and the associated electronics. They tore up parts of the deck and took many things apart to find the flaw. They finally tracked down the problem: near the end of the play, a stage hand was using a cheap microwave oven to heat up wet towels to help the actors remove makeup. The interference from the microwave oven was shutting down a major prop on the stage.
Frank also talked about the music. There are 11 musicians that travel with the company, and several local musicians are picked up in each city they go to for parts that aren't especially demanding. Among the 11 traveling musicians, I was intrigued to learn that the flutist has an extremely challenging role that requires playing on 13 different flutes during the course of the evening. Four of those flutes were especially made for The Lion King, such as unusual pan pipes.
Julie Taymor, the mastermind behind the stage rendition, was concerned that the cartoon version had no African music, so in developing the musical, a composer from South Africa was commissioned to provide a true African flavor to the music. Beautiful and also quite challenging at times.
Nine South African natives are part of Frank's company. For most, joining The Lion King and going to New York City represented their first time in the US. Several wanted to go on the Appleton tour to see what the rest of the United States was like.
The selection of Appleton as the first Wisconsin location for the Broadway Musical, The Lion King, is just huge for Appleton. Not Milwaukee, not Madison, not Green Bay or La Crosse or Racine, but Appleton. It's playing here through June 17. Tickets are sold out, but if you call the ticket office of the Performing Arts Center each morning at 10:00 am, you might be able to snatch some tickets that get turned back occasionally. I'm going this Friday night. Can't wait!
Have you been by Fox Politics? Jo Egelhoff has written extensively (and I think most would also say fairly) about PAC funding, financing, and community economic impact.