Michael Reilly was backstage at the Pantages Theatre, brushing tiny strokes of blue paint around the bulging eyes of Zazu - a dodo bird hand puppet featured in Disney's "The Lion King." The coming-of-age parable that tells the tale of Simba, the lion cub destined to reign over the African savanna, is onstage through Jan. 12.
As the show's puppet supervisor, Reilly ensures all 230 puppets seen during a single performance look and move as good as new.
"Sometimes it's heartbreaking when you paint your Mona Lisa and then it goes out onstage and gets handled like a sledgehammer," he says. "But it gives you another opportunity to paint your Mona Lisa."
The constant upkeep of these creature puppets, first brought to the stage by Tony-winning director Julie Taymor, is integral to "The Lion King," which is based on the 1994 animated movie of the same name. Since its Broadway premiere in 1997, the stage show has dazzled audiences worldwide with its melding of South African sounds and colorful costumes, including stylized lion masks, leaping gazelles and galloping giraffes that require the actors to wear 4-feet-tall necks on their heads and walk on stilts.
Worn or carried, the puppets are onstage from beginning to end in all but two scenes.
They include mouthless Roman-style masks of Simba and his love interest, Nala, as well as Simba's father, Mufasa, designed as a full Grecian face mask.
"I always liked Mufasa because, for me, he always represented the Circle of Life," Reilly says. "His mask is almost perfectly round."
The adult masks are cast from lightweight carbon fiber (like fiberglass) and painted to resemble wood. Simba's mane is fashioned from horsetail. Mufasa's is made of peacock feathers that have been burned and bleached. Each mask is then stitch-mounted to a plastic helmet custom fit to the head of actors, including Jelani Remy as Simba, Nia Holloway as Nala and L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa.
Japanese shadow puppets, bunraku (puppets manipulated by rods), body puppets and Western hand puppets round out the production.
From a mouse to a full-size African elephant, they're kept in the ready position throughout the theater.
The use of puppets makes "The Lion King" unique from other musicals.
Reilly, who comes from a technical and art background, says he knew from the moment the original Broadway cast performed on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" in 1998 that he needed to be part of it. He joined "The Lion King" a year later.
As he puts it, "It was so obvious that this is what I was meant to do."
Walking through the backstage area, Reilly admits not everything that looks like a puppet is a puppet.
Why the grass skirts belong to the wardrobe department, but the grass headpieces are puppets is anybody's guess.
"If it's worn and animated, then it's definitely a puppet," he says, highlighting full-body rhino, baby elephant and wildebeest costumes that fall under the auspices of the puppet department.
Sometimes several departments are brought together to create a character.
Four different groups work to transform Patrick R. Brown into Scar, Simba's villainous uncle who murders Mufasa so he can claim the throne. Reilly's part is to outfit the character with a mechanical face mask embellished with a mane of turkey feathers covered in cheesecloth.
Many of the puppets are decorated with everyday items that add texture without weight.
But that's not all.
"We use these materials because we don't want to hide things," Reilly says. "We don't want to hide that there are two guys in the rhino and we don't want to hide how the zebra works. When the light hits it, you can see right through her, you see the inner workings; how the legs are moving and how the actor is moving the head."
Most of the principal characters have a twin puppet should something go wrong during the show - it always does. Zazu's head, for example, is prone to snap off the rod that controls it at least once a year.
The head is left swinging.
"It looks horrible," Reilly says. "The actor has to quickly lift up the head by the broken rod, and do the rest of the scene like that until he can get offstage and get the backup Zazu. So we do our best to catch it before it breaks.
"But it's nonstop."