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It is a phenomenon. Sweeping. Engulfing. Measured in numbers that boggle the mind, but also superlatives that include almost every synonym for all that is great and wondrous. It is part of a multimedia franchise valued at more than $1 billion, with a b. Since opening on Broadway in 1997, it has won six Tony Awards, scads of other accolades and is closing fast on Beauty and the Beast for seventh-longest run in Broadway history. Its director is a certified genius. It has conquered the world, establishing outposts from London's West End (where it has played for more than 10 years), Paris and Hamburg to Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Johannesburg, Toronto and Los Angeles.
When the touring production of Disney's The Lion King pulls into Madison this week for a month-long stay at Overture Hall, it will arrive with a roar. A fleet of 19 or 20 big trucks will unload its sets, costumes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 puppets and the rest of the production's properties. The city's population will jump by 150, including more than 50 cast members, 20-odd musicians, three puppet wranglers, a dozen carpenters, 10 electricians, an administrative staff of eight and more than 20 wardrobe, hair and makeup artists.
The production will also arrive amid great expectations. "There are very few productions that can thrive for such long periods of time in venues across the country," observes Susan Crofton, Overture Center's vice president for programming and marketing.
Crofton first saw The Lion King onstage in Toronto circa 1999. "It was transporting," she says, "a visual extravaganza." She remembers feeling swooped up by the emotional power of the experience.
Bringing the tour to Madison for a month means "about 70,000 people will come through the doors and into Overture Hall," Crofton notes. That's about 87.5% of capacity at Camp Randall Stadium - for a theatrical event. It also works out to the rough equivalent of almost one out of every three people in Madison, or 15% of all Dane County residents, carrying the shared experience of Lion King at Overture Hall.
The narrative's appeal is profound, Crofton says. "It's not dissimilar to the story of Hamlet. There's a powerful mythology, I think, in the story itself."
Based on Disney's 1994 animated feature film about a lion cub's coming-of-age, the stage version was conceived by veteran opera and theater director Julie Taymor, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" fellowship. Taymor's directorial contributions to The Lion King include lyrics for the song "Endless Night," design of the production's costumes and co-design of its masks and puppets, which import influences ranging from traditional African masks to Japanese Bunraku puppetry. Her vision for The Lion King made her the first woman to win a Tony Award for best director of a musical, and also earned her a Tony for best costume design. Other awards in her trophy case include an Emmy and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Set in a wild kingdom of anthropomorphized African species, with music by South African composer Lebo M and familiar award-winning songs by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice, The Lion King is a story of rivalry, power, intrigue, deception, justice, love, redemption and triumph.
Tony Freeman, 51, has lived with The Lion King for most of the last 10 years, as Zazu, the frazzled hornbill who provides a substantial measure of the show's comic relief. At the moment, he is strolling the streets of Philadelphia, where The Lion King's month-long reign is drawing to a close. "I'm walking right between the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall," he says through his cell phone. "I love Philadelphia."
Freeman first saw Lion King on Broadway within a couple weeks of its 1997 opening. He was transfixed by "one of the most amazing opening numbers in the history of Broadway," and noticed how it moved the audience. "It's the only show I've ever seen or been a part of where you see people wiping tears out of their eyes 30 seconds into the show," he says.
Freeman didn't imagine he would join the Broadway cast for 3½ years starting in 2000, nor foresee his current 2½-year tenure with the touring production.
After some 2,600 performances as Zazu, Freeman has gained a bird's-eye perspective on the production. His speech cadences are rapid-fire, and you get the sense that at least a bit of his avian character has imprinted on his own human DNA.
Born in Kentucky but "raised in a lot of different places" as his father's ministry took the family from one city to the next, Freeman remains itinerant but is anchored with his wife and 11-year-old daughter at 43rd Street and 10th Avenue in New York City, convenient to Times Square and the theater district. His c.v. includes more than 250 stage and screen productions, ranging from the Tony Kushner musical Caroline, or Change to guest performances on TV's Law and Order franchise and a supporting role in Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. The latter earned him a Barrymore Award from the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which may, at least in part, explain his stated affection for the City of Brotherly Love.
Freeman conveys a sense of the satisfaction that comes with a role in something so grand. When he was with the show on Broadway, he marvels, "on the way to the stage door every night before the show, there was a line of people down the street - even though we were sold out! They hoped that, somehow, somebody had canceled their tickets for that night."
He gives credit to Taymor, whose fingerprints remain all over the touring production. She is, Freeman notes, meticulous in the care and feeding of The Lion King. She attended his audition, he recalls, and he spent a full day rehearsing one-on-one with her before he joined the Broadway cast. "She comes back to work on the show every once in a while," Freeman says, "to tweak things, to remind the resident directors what her ideas are, and also to remind the performers why they're doing certain things."
At the core of every movement and impulse, he explains, is Taymor's notion of each character's "double event, which is that you're playing a human being but you're also playing an animal." The title character of Mufasa, for example, is regal as an African king but grows more primal and leonine when provoked to anger or conflict.
"Zazu is a bird, but he's also this kind of fakey British butler character," Freeman observes, "so I have this tuxedo on, but then the tuxedo tails flip up into a bird tail. So I'm sort of human, and I'm sort of British, and when I'm in control of myself I'm more like this" - here, Freeman assumes a British accent - "upper-class British butler. Then the more I panic, the more I" - here, he emits a great squawk - "the more I become like a bird."
Taymor, he notes, was essential to helping him explore the line between Zazu's human and animal qualities. "It's a beautiful balance that she came up with," he says, suggesting that each character's dual nature makes it easier for the audience to relate to them and "invest emotionally in the story."
This may help explain Lion King's enormous success on Broadway, on tour and around the world as a resonant theatrical phenomenon.
Despite all his performances as Zazu, Freeman insists he does not walk around with this "double event" between shows. The transformation comes during the 35 minutes he sits in the makeup chair, he says. Donning the costume and puppet complete the process.
The puppet is the most difficult part of the performance to learn, he says. Having to hit cues and marks and interact with the cast and concentrate on all the other usual things actors have to think about means you can't look to make sure your puppet's expression and posture are correct. "I have to know every expression on the puppet's face by how it feels on my arms," Freeman says.
To achieve this, you must merge with the puppet, inscribe the proper movements into muscle memory. "You have to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse in front of a mirror until you know what the face looks like by how it feels."
It takes a couple weeks to get the hang of it, and a bit longer "to make it look like it's an animal and not just a puppet in your hands," Freeman says. By the third or fourth week, "you can start to relax into it and own it a little more."
Then you join the Broadway cast and your life changes. Your stake in the character grows. It comes to own a bit of you. With the touring production, you alight for a month at a time in a relentless parade of venues, pouring yourself into the show's rigorous demands, mustering energy and enthusiasm night after night and sometimes twice a day through more than 30 performances in each city.
In this, Freeman says, he is galvanized by the show's audiences. As each performance begins, he is at the back of the house. With no stage lights in his eyes, he gets to watch the audience respond to the opening scene and share in the wonder he felt the first time he saw Lion King on Broadway in 1997.
"The excitement of the audience in the first scene," he says, "feeds me."
And sustains The Lion King's phenomenal roar.