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up close shot of masks for Disney's The Lion King

The roar from backstage at Disney's The Lion King

Wed, Sep 18, 2019

Written by: Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It’s nice to be good, but it’s great to be a Disney villain.

Next in line for the juiciest roles coming out of the Magic Kingdom are sidekicks of friend and foe alike. And helping those lucky actors to strut their stuff on stage is a village of people who make sure about a million pieces add up to a spectacle the likes of Disney’s The Lion King.

The megahit that has been on Broadway for 22 years and touring the United States since 2003 has returned to the Benedum Center through Sept. 29, in all its unique puppetry and pageantry, and with all those beloved characters...

By now you know the story, right? It’s the classic retelling of Hamlet as a fairy tale, set in the African savanna and focused on lions that rule the lands around Pride Rock. Young cub Simba is destined to be king but must overcome terrible obstacles, amid a jungle-full of family, friends, enemies and songs by Elton John and Tim Rice.

The national tour recently lifted the curtain and allowed media members backstage, to get to know some of the artists who make the musical tick.

Although the “Circle of Life” tells us, “There’s more to see than can ever be seen / more to do than can ever be done...,” this trio shows how cast and crew work in harmony to get the job done for eight shows a week.

Scar

If the audience is booing or hissing at Spencer Plachy, well, “Then I’m doing my job right,” says the actor who snarls and schemes and menaces with gusto as Scar — the murderous brother and uncle we love to hate.

Spencer Plachy as Scar in Disney's The Lion King
Spencer Plachy as Scar in Disney's The Lion King. Photo by Deen van Meer.

 

Let us pause here for a moment to say that, in the annals of Disney villains, Scar is in my top three — right up there with Urusla of The Little Mermaid and the marvelously named and coiffed Cruella De Vil of 101 Dalmations. Ursula wants revenge on her brother and to rule the oceans, and she has a great song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” that gets me every time. Cruella is PETA’s worst nightmare — she wants to kill puppies to make a coat, for heaven’s sake! But I digress...

In the Disney animated film, Scar has one of the best villainous songs gifted an actor. “Be Prepared,” sung by Jeremy Irons in the movie, is a blood-curdling cry of pure evil.

Plachy is a native of Houston, Texas, who has been on tour as Scar for the past year. It’s hard to picture him as the black-sheep lion I had seen onstage the night before, as he patiently explains the automated contraption he wears as Scar. A teenager when he first saw Disney's The Lion King on screen, “I couldn’t help but give a nod to that in the way I do it,” he said of Irons’ vocal portrayal of Scar.

Spencer Plachy backstage at Disney's The Lion King
Backstage with Spencer Plachy.

 

Irons, of course, was heard and not seen on screen. Plachy carries 40 pounds of costume, strapped to his body for maneuverability, and has wire work that starts atop Pride Rock. His lion’s head is a mechanical marvel, controlled by a button in Plachy’s hand.

“The helmet is custom built to my head, so it’s about as comfortable as it can be, given this look,” he says. “The mask itself only weighs about half a pound.” As for being a villain, yeah, he’s having as much fun as you might expect.

“I think all of us have a fascination with being a villain,” he says. “I think it’s inherent in our nature to be a rebel and break the rules. Why? Just to break them. I think that’s part of our nature, so when you get to play the villain, you get to play with that and explore and do all the naughty things most of us only imagine. It’s a lot of fun.”

Zazu

The most complex and only hand puppet in Disney's The Lion King is that of Zazu, the hornbill bird who flutters around the kingdom as a majordomo to King Mufasa and, too often for his liking, babysitter for the young prince, Simba.

The actors who play Zazu move like a prancing clown, speak in a British accent and control a puppet with dozens of tiny mechanical pieces hidden within the bird. Zazu’s eyes and feathers move naturally, thanks to the puppeteer-actor at the controls.

“He is very expressive and he can move a lot. Because of that, he is also the most difficult puppet in the show,” said Lion King puppetmaster Michael Reilly. “He has a lot of fine hand controls and of course you have to be aware of everything he does, from behind his head.”

Reilly compared the requirements for the actor who plays Zazu to “patting your head while rubbing your belly; so it’s a lot of muscle memory.”

Quick fun fact. Pittsburgh lately has been teeming with Zazu actors. Besides Greg Jackson, who plays him on the tour now in Pittsburgh, longtime Broadway Zazu, Jeffrey Binder, brought his play Scapino to Oakland for Kinetic Theatre earlier this year, while actor Tim McGeever, a relatively recent Pittsburgher seen on many stages here, was a touring Zazu.

Reilly and his two assistants are responsible for prepping and maintaining The Lion King’s 230 puppets and masks.

Of course, I had to ask: What’s the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong onstage? To which he replied, “So many things.” Most have quick fixes, except the one time Pumbaa, the warthog, lost a leg. With tape and whatever was at hand, “We just put it back together as best we could.”

Backstage in a Benedum dressing room, where the main character masks are on display, Reilly answers questions, all the while maneuvering the Zazu puppet. And as he talks, I am unsure if I should address him or Zazu. I now know what it feels like to be a guest on Sesame Street, which I imagine is the best compliment you can pay a puppetmaster.

Pride Rock

If Reilly holds the puppets together, it’s head carpenter Lindsey Roller who keeps Pride Rock and everything else in its place, including unloading and reloading the 17 trucks it takes to bring The Lion King to Pittsburgh.

“I’m in charge of all the logistics of how to get the show in the building, set it up and then the running of the show while we’re here, and how we pack it up and get it the next city,” she explains.

Roller acknowledges with pride that she is the rare 20-something (she’s 27) woman in the job of head carpenter on a big Broadway musical, just six years out of the North Carolina University School of the Arts.

One of her charges is Pride Rock, which moves on and off stage and curves in a circular formation, all by remote control. From an audience perspective, the height of the piece seems dizzying — just watching the actor playing young Simba dangle from the top can trigger personal danger signals.

Pride Rock in Disney's The Lion King
Pride Rock, one of the signature set pieces in Disney's The Lion King.

 

But Roller reassures me that it’s as safe as safe can be.

“My automation person is watching on monitors, stage managers are watching on monitors and in the wings whenever somebody’s on it, and there’s this controller” — she picks up a rectangular box with color-coded buttons — “so if something would ever go wrong, you push the red button, and the thing will stop.”

A big advantage of a show such as The Lion King is that by now, the musical has made several stops in the theaters it is headed to, including the Benedum Center. The Pittsburgh theater has a further advantage of one of the country’s largest backstage areas — a seemingly chaotic place to an outsider.

“We call it the ‘Rock Ballet,’ ” Roller said of how the massive prop works its magic.

Just as dancers have to make the same moves every night, so goes the cast and crew of The Lion King, making sure that all the components meld for the audience experience that has been mesmerizing audiences for 22 years and counting.

Sharon Eberson writes about theater, pop culture and all things Pittsburgh at www.post-gazette.com. Twitter: @SEberson_pg. Check out a story about Disney's The Lion King flutist Darlene Drew and Percy the Traveling Farm Dog here.

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  • Broadway