Puppet supervisor shares what it takes to bring The Lion King characters to life

Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 11:12 AM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Disney’s “The Lion King” is in Reno for just a few more days as part of the Pioneer Center’s Broadway Comes to Reno 2023-2024 tour. KOLO 8 News Now’s Katey Roshetko got an exclusive backstage pass to see how the puppets of this show have captured the Disney magic on stage for 25 years.

One of the first things people think about when picturing The Lion King is the music. And after a quarter of a century performing on Broadway and around the world, millions have people have seen the show.

But by the time the actors take the stage, a different show is already in its final act. Backstage at The Lion King is a whole other type of production. There are costumes meticulously organized, masks hanging from rafters and puppets everywhere.

Michael Reilly is the puppet supervisor, working on The Lion King since 2000. He brought KOLO 8 backstage to show us how just some of the magic works to bring these characters to life.

“Here we have Mufasa, Nala and Simba, kind of the heroes of our story,” Reilly said. “And they’re all painted to look like wood or marble, but of course they’re not.”

Most of the masks weigh less than a pound and are intricately designed to embody aspects of African culture.

“Julie Taymor and Michael Curry who created all the puppets went to Africa, really did a lot of reference to that,” Reilly said. “So what you see in Mufasa is a lot from the Maasai tribe. And then different little things that you might not think are anything like the little triangles, all come from a very referenced places in Africa.”

While many of the masks are stationary, Scar’s headpiece takes on a life of its own.

“I’m not going to lie, I was watching the show and my husband and I are like, ‘how do you think they’re doing that?’” Katey Roshetko said. “And what we guessed is not what I see here. This is amazing.”

“Everyone has a different guess like bungees or magnets or gravity, but it’s none of those things. It’s motors,” Reilly demonstrated. “He has these motors on his hips that he wears and he has this tiny little controller in his hand and he operates everything this mask can do. It goes out, puts it in front of his face; he can put it up on its head. And all of that stuff is controlled by this tiny little controller.”

Actor, Peter Hargrave* who is the North America Tour’s current Scar, carries an additional 35 pounds in gear but hides the secret to the mechanics in his characterization of the villainous lion.

“Putting that duality of the human and the animal is so great,” Reilly said. “We could have easily put them in a ‘Cowardly Lion’ costume and said, ‘Okay, go for it.’ We would not be here 25 years later. So that duality and that ability to really believe in the character. And a lot of people say after watching the show for like two, three minutes, they stop looking at the actor’s face entirely and start looking at the lion face.”

Reilly explained that while Scar’s puppetry is complicated, there’s only one other puppet that has him beat.

“This is the puppet,” Drew Hirshfield said picking up is puppet counterpart. “And Zazu is the only hand puppet in the whole show.”

Hirshfield plays Mufasa’s uptight royal advisor who looks strikingly like the cartoon Zazu.

“It’s great to have the legacy of the character, but there’s permission given to me as the actor in the role now to make it my own,” Hirshfield said.

The puppet’s neck goes up and down, making it look like “a long strand of asparagus,” according to Hirshfield. But it’s actually made of a slinky. And there are three different levers to add additional movement.

“The mechanism is fairly simple,” Hirshfield demonstrated. “My left hand goes under the body and it articulates the motion of the wings like this. And then my right hand holds this portion of the puppet and with my index finger, I trigger the opening of the mouth; and with my thumb, I can trigger the eyelids.”

The mechanics may be simple, but the technique and art of bring the hornbill to life is anything but.

“He’s just like, ‘Ay, ay, ay. These people. They’re crazy.” Roshetko said trying her hand at maneuvering Zazu. “And I’ve held it now for 30 seconds and my arms are already killing me so I’m going to set this down.”

She might need some practice, but even after years of performing the role, even Hirshfield still practices right up until he takes the stage

“We have mirrors backstage that really are for make up, but I’ll sometimes sneak in front of the mirror and think, ‘How is this working? Are we synced up?’ So it’s a process that never ends.”

And of course with live theater, when things happen in the middle of the performance that don’t exactly go according to plan, Reilly and his crew are waiting in the wings to fix things on the fly.

“We have zip ties, tape, glue. Whatever it takes,” he said. “The show’s not stopping.”

Roshetko asked Reilly and Hirshfield what their favorite parts of the show were.

“It’s so funny,” Reilly said. “There’s so many puppets in the show, but my favorite moment in the show is one that has no puppets. It’s where we have a bunch of bird kites and people run out in in dashikis and they sing ‘One by One’ and it’s this beautiful moment where Africa becomes the central character in our show. And it’s so beautiful and there are no puppets on stage. So for me that’s my favorite moment.”

“Well, that’s the moment when you’re not biting your nails being like, ‘Okay... what are they going to break this time?’” Roshetko joked. “You’re like, ‘I can actually enjoy is part.”

“That’s true,” Reilly laughed. “I never thought of it that way, but maybe.”

Hirshfield and Roshetko share the same answer to what their favorite part of the show is.

“I know it’s not everyone’s favorite song, but I do love, ‘I Can’t Wait to be King,’” Hirshfield said. “Even though it’s physically the most demanding little stretch of my performance just because I’m running around like a maniac. But it’s so joyful and you know, it’s also such a privilege to work with young actors, you know our child actors who play Young Simba and Young Nala. Sometimes I marvel that there we are, the three of us on stage all at once; it’s a really beautiful thing to get to do.”

“And your child actors are incredible,” Roshetko agreed.

“They’re amazing! Yes, so amazing,” Hirshfield said.

And that’s all part of bringing the magic of Disney and Broadway under one roof.

Tickets for the remaining shows are very limited but still available. There’s a matinee performance Thursday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. Then shows Thursday-Sunday night before the cast heads to San Francisco. You can your tickets at clicking here.