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EXCLUSIVE! Go backstage with SDGLN and discover the secrets of 'The Lion King'

The Mufasa, Nala, Scar and Simba masks propped up on a table being primped and pruned just as they would in the African Savanna.
Photo credit:
Timothy Rawles - SDGLN

San Diego Gay and Lesbian News got the rare opportunity to go behind-the-scenes of Disney’s The Lion King now playing at the Civic Theatre through Oct. 2.

This is a spectacular show which is immediately apparent after the lights go down and a familiar baboon begins chanting the first chords to “Circle of Life.”

There are 55 performers that make up the troupe, and about 60 people backstage making sure the show goes off without a hitch.

The technical wizardry of The Lion King is multi-layered. Not only are people singing and dancing they also must manipulate over 200 animal puppets, some the size of a Range Rover. 

Just as you would imagine, the choreography is as intense in the wings as it is up front and we got an exclusive tour backstage with production stage manager Matthew Shiner.

He spoke about the production and everything that goes into making this spectacle a reality, giving us a glimpse at the costumes and huge props powered by the magic of Disney, revealing some of its secrets along the way. 

Aside from the music, the colorful and complex costumes make up the core of the show and sometimes the actors have to take on multiple acting duties.

That's where our tour began; stage-right as Matthew pointed to the zebra costumes and said the actors who play them must hurriedly scamper backstage in the dark after their number and peel off their leotards and bodysuits to get into the complex grasslands livery.

“The last thing they need to do is put the grass heads on, they’re often zipping up starting to sing as the grass head is being turned on," he said. "The technology is a little crank on the inside all the masks, and the head mounts they can tighten up.”

One bit of magic that Matthew revealed is that most of the props are stored high above the stage on ropes, “everything just goes up and flies away.”

Indeed they were, there was a solid path we followed on our ground tour; wardrobe, props and work stations on either side of us, but when we looked up, a menagerie of colorful animals were hanging from ropes waiting to descend and come alive. 

The Lion King is the only touring musical that has a dress rehearsal at every location stop. It's an essential part of the routine because they have to make sure everything in this technical masterpiece is working properly and is exactly where it needs to be.

The scale is so big, there is one person whose entire work day consists of doing laundry.

The child actors also have their own entourage. They travel with one parent, a resident director, resident dance supervisor and a resident musical supervisor. Moreover, they have a child wrangler who supervises them back stage and in California they have a studio teacher.

"The kids," Matthew smiles, "God bless ‘em are the hardest working people because on top of their performance schedule and their rehearsal schedule they put in anywhere between ten and twenty hours of school on top of it.”

Our tour continued through a scheduled maintenance work call. Workman and stage hands busied themselves, using small leaf-blowers to clear dust and debris. Some examined props, doing touch ups and damage control.

I saw a seamstress mending fabric on a sewing machine center stage, while another carefully repaired opera netting used as scrim; a large draping net that contained appliquéd bright green jungle leaves. 

Moving through the bustle, Matthew gave us the opportunity to handle one of the heavy-looking African masks that I eyed to be about 30-pounds, but when I held it in my hand it felt more like two.

He wasn’t giving away any secrets though; the Imagineer's recipe for the deceptive hand-painted masks is safe with him. He called it "Disney magic."

He then led us through more props and more masks, explaining that it takes seven days to load in the show, “Our last week in Portland, the crew came down and loaded the set in here"

Matthew said The Civic Theatre needed to reconfigure the house seating layout, adding aisles, to accommodate some of the elements in the "Circle of Life" opening showstopper. 

We learned that "The Lion King" has two traveling sets. One leap-frogs to the next city, while the other remains active at the current location. 

“The last week in San Diego the other set that was in Portland will get loaded in Albuquerque."

The company resembles a circus train as it heads down the freeway to the next theater with 18 trucks in the caravan. Thirteen contain the set, and five "show-to-show" trucks hold wardrobe, office supplies, PT equipment, and school stuff. Otherwise they have two of everything. 

Basically everything stays the same on-stage at each venue, it’s backstage that must make accommodations if it's small or designed differently. 

“Still everything flies, but it may fly in an entirely different location," Matthew laughs. “It becomes a little puzzle; it becomes a little Tetris-y game.

“When they get into a new site, they show the entire cast exactly where everything is. They try to put everything in the same spot every time. They are all trained to look in a certain area no matter what city they are in. We have four stage managers that run the show. They each have a side of the deck and know exactly where to stand and step at any given time during the performance."

As we made our way through the sundry of lifeless puppets resting comfortably in their respective places, we were introduced to the largest puppet, Bertha the elephant, as she hung mid-air high above us.

She weighs sixty-pounds and is made out of the same material as FedEx envelopes.

"Have you ever tried to rip open a FedEx envelope?" Matthew asked, "That’s how durable it is.”

He said there are four people who run Bertha; the three people who play the Hyenas and one of the singers. 

Matthew has been doing the show for over 14 months and says he still goes to rehearsal every single week.

“It’s a big show, it’s a big company, and not only will we bring new people into the fold, sometimes we wanna touch up, we wanna refresh this--we wanna reinvigorate it.”

Disney wouldn’t have it any other way. They make sure that their shows are well-maintained and sometimes associate directors will come watch to make recommendations about the dancers. These notes are then given out to the entire production crew and actors.

Continuing on, we came upon the looming sunset-hued Pride Rock, one of the largest pieces in the production. It moves around the stage like an accordion, depending on the scene via small grooves in the floor laid out like a large slot-car racing track. I asked if there were any difficulties with it. 

He says it’s very reliable and emphasizes that large pieces like Pride Rock may be visually arresting, but audiences are more surprised when they see that there aren’t a lot of grand set pieces in the show, and the pageantry comes from the “performers on stage,” such as “the lioness hunt which is this pure movement of dance it’s sort of amazing without anything.”

Our backstage safari led us to the towering bones of the Elephant Graveyard, another large prop which also makes its debut in the first act.

It is in three pieces and comes together both by people and automation. Matthew says it might be the most complicated machination, but just like Pride Rock, it's dependable and secure. 

Safety is very important to Disney, and the production crew doesn't cut any corners when it comes to the wellness of its actors.

During the show Pride Rock and the Elephant Graveyard tower over the stage with actors young and old seemingly teetering on their edges, but the props are equipped with handles and other safety devices.

“I really like my cast, and I don’t want anyone getting hurt,” Matthew says, “If something goes wrong, we have rehearsed plans. It becomes very second-nature to us. If a dancer loses a shoe or something everyone knows how to adjust just a little bit to keep the stage picture going, it’s sort of amazing like that.”

As we concluded our tour, we came upon the giraffe outfits. They are made of large stilts for the arms and legs, which actors climb into via a ladder.

“This is probably one of the more complicated things we have," he said speaking of the giraffe costume. "Not only is it a very long time to teach someone how to do this, but it’s also athletic, it requires grace and so forth; it takes a little bit longer. It’s also one of the most fun to see them get into costume backstage.”

As we ended our backstage trek through the secrets and magic of Disney's The Lion King, my mind still held the indelible imprint of colors and craftsmanship that fills the show from beginning to end. 

The Mufasa, Nala, Scar and Simba masks propped up on a table being primped and preened just as they would in the African Savanna.

Zazu in all of his stunning plumage which are hand-painted and hand-cut, taking four weeks to complete. 

I recalled the Simba cub puppet laying on a shelf, looking at me with an innocent and angelic countenance.

I thought how the intricate orchestrations of movement of the over 50 actors onstage don’t compare to the 60 moving about in the wings.

“Everything that’s choreographed onstage is twice as choreographed backstage," Mathew says, "but doing it in the dark while changing clothes and scenery being pulled up and down."

It's a settlement of continuous activity that lasts just over a month, only to have the stakes pulled up and moved to the next town like the traveling circus. 

And the puppets that remained so quiet during our adventure behind the curtain will also have to earn their keep come performance time, when Rafiki wakes them up with her song. 

With all the power and skill that goes into each and every performance of The Lion King, it is ultimately the music that unifies not only the performers, but the audience. 

"Everybody sings!" Matthew laughs, "So much singing! Singing and dancing – it’s like a musical!”

Sometimes that holds true for some of us even days after the curtain drops for the night and everything is put back in place until the next show in this theatrical "Circle of Life." 

Disney's The Lion King plays through Oct. 2, at San Diego's Civic Theatre. 

Click HERE for details.