Michael Reilly operates Zazu, the red-billed hornbill, from the theater production of Disney's 'The Lion King.' (Photo by Nicole Cohen)
Michael Reilly starts his Wednesday morning the same as he does most show mornings during Disney’s “The Lion King” tour. As the tour’s puppet supervisor, he examines the principal puppets used for the show, checking for nicks and scratches, making sure nothing is loose and everything is in working order. He takes out some paint to touch up the mask of Mufasa. “It just needs a tiny bit of a paint touch-up,” Reilly says. “Everyday there’s something, some little mark or nick so we keep [the masks] in good shape.”
Reilly has been on tour with “The Lion King” for 10 years. From the city of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, he says his family has been involved with theater going back 100 years, and so his involvement with productions just developed naturally. He remembers when he was 16 years old being asked to help with wardrobe for a production of “Cats.” “I fell in love with that, I was like, ‘This is amazing, I’m 16 years old and I’m dressing these amazing dancers’ … it was life changing,” he says.
From that age on he would continue working with wardrobe and the technical elements that go into theater productions, even honing practical skills such as fixing cars, painting, “anything that was hands on,” he says.
Working mostly in wardrobe from the late '80s to the early '90s, he started being recruited to help with more technical elements of productions. “As shows kind of progressed and became more and more amorphous … there was no longer normal wardrobe anymore, normal props, it was this blurry line, so I just fell more and more towards props and stuff like that and so 'Lion King' came along and I literally was the obvious choice [to manage the unique puppets and masks].” Seeing the Disney movie on TV, he was excited. “Little did I know [joining the tour] would be almost half my career,” Reilly says, with a laugh.
“The Lion King” masks and puppets are surprisingly lightweight. Carbon fiber and foam are primarily what they are made from to make them as light as possible for the performers who have to wear them. Onstage, they have the appearance of wood, but Reilly says they are covered in cheesecloth and painted a certain way to create that illusion.
The production team has had a huge hand in creating the masks and puppets as well. For example, Mufasa is made up of carbon fiber adorned with burnt and bleached peacock features inside of small sticks of wood that were all hand-whittled and painted by the crew. “I would say he’s probably my favorite puppet in the show just because he kind of represents the circle of life, being so symmetrical and round and of course he’s the big daddy,” Reilly says.
One of the heavier puppets is the villain, Scar. Complete with battery packs and motors to allow the mask to be operated, the performer ultimately bears 32 and a half pounds wearing the costume. The battery packs and motors are attached at the actor’s hips and a cord runs through his arm and comes out at the wrist attaching to a tiny mechanism that will be covered by his claw, giving the actor complete control of the Scar puppet. “He does all of this stuff while he’s remembering his choreography, while he’s remembering his lines, while he’s remembering his blocking, all that stuff, and still controlling this effortlessly,” Reilly says.
Zazu, the red-billed hornbill, is the only fully hand-operated puppet in the show. At 4 pounds, he’s reasonably light to handle, but with multiple triggers and mechanisms to operate, he’s one of the more difficult puppets to master. Reilly says the performers have a minimum of four weeks of intensive rehearsal just to learn how to maneuver and operate their masks and puppets, but when you add in all the other requirements of the performance: lines, singing, moving, etc., it becomes even harder to be truly skilled at operating these amazing show elements. “I would say it takes six months for someone to master that,” Reilly says.
On a typical show night, Reilly remains on call, just a radio signal away in case there’s an emergency puppet repair needed. “We do not stop the show for puppets, so whatever needs to happen, needs to happen in that 30 seconds or a minute and get that thing back out onstage in whatever shape it’s in,” he says. Typically, he says, if the crew members have done their jobs properly in preparation, they won’t get a call, but he acknowledges that accidents happen, so they’ll have to rush in with zip ties, tape or paint, whatever is needed for a quick fix.
He says beyond minor repairs, puppets have lost limbs before. “One time the elephant actually snapped a leg and the performer had to carry it with the leg broken. He really was a hero that day, but it’s live theater, anything can happen.”
Regardless, Reilly has enjoyed his time on tour and loves being a part of the larger-than-life production that goes into creating a menagerie of animals right on stage. “If you don’t get goose bumps after 'Circle of Life,' I don’t think you’re human,” he says, laughing.
Disney’s “The Lion King” tour celebrates its 14th anniversary this week and continues to run through May 8 at the Altria Theater. Ticket prices start at $28. For tickets and more information visit broadwayinrichmond.com.