- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

NEW YORK The elephant, baby in tow, shambles down the aisle casting a wary eye for a stray leg or briefcase in her path. The giant pachyderm, a puppet with four performers inside her legs, is the largest animal parading to the stage at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre to herald the birth of a princely cub in "The Lion King."
Imposing and fragile at the same time, the 9-foot-wide elephant "sucks" in her Fiberglas ribs, collapsing them to a mere 34 inches so she can pass along the narrow corridor.
The beast, like many others in the long-running Disney musical, has made this trip thousands of times since the show opened Nov. 13, 1997.
But as the blockbuster musical enters its sixth year, the fast-moving choreography, directed by Tony winner Julie Taymor, continues to place the multitude of puppets, masks and elaborate costumes in jeopardy.
The elephant, ears flapping and trunk waving, appears only in the opening scene. It is among several of the show's large puppets that must be drawn up into the theater's wings for safekeeping when not on stage. But even here she is in danger.
So far, she has suffered a broken spine (the aluminum rod to which her Fiberglas ribs are attached) and broken controls for her ears and trunk.
"She is the most delicate of animals," says puppet supervisor Sonya Wysocki.
Ms. Wysocki, associate mask and puppet designer Louis Troisi, and Kjeld Andersen, the production wardrobe supervisor, gather in the small workshop they call the "puppet hospital," eight floors above the stage, to talk about their work.
At first, Mr. Troisi said, no one realized a separate department would be needed to take care of the show's puppet stars, designed by Miss Taymor and Michael Curry. Miss Taymor also designed the masks and elaborate costumes, for which she won a second Tony.
The room where most of the masks and puppets get fixed is lined with stools, work benches, desks and cabinets. Three backup understudy hyena puppets appear ready to spring from atop a cabinet at one end, while gazelles hang from an overhead rack beside several giraffe heads.
The head of Simba, the young Lion King, sits on a counter awaiting attention. Clusters of small drawers containing puppet parts, tools and materials are handy for technicians who work long hours to ready damaged animals for their next performance.
"We often work 150 hours a week," says Ms. Wysocki, explaining that technicians over three shifts must arrive at the hospital by 8:30 a.m. and remain in the theater until the final curtain drops at about 11 p.m. on most nights. Repairs can cost up to $10,000 for some of the larger animals.
During each performance, a member of the puppet and mask crew must be on duty, along with a costume expert.
Some masks, puppets or costumes need maintenance every day. There's a preventive maintenance plan to keep accidents from happening, but instant repairs are often necessary.
"We don't know where it's going to happen or when, but something will break down," said Mr. Troisi. The crew keeps emergency kits in three key places: stage left, stage right and at the back of the theater. They are stashed with tools, gaffer tape, screws, nuts and bolts.
Despite such precautions, there have been embarrassing moments.
Mr. Troisi recalled how the warthog Pumbaa's back leg fell off during a performance and the fractured limb made "nice, slow turns on the stage's turntable" until someone finally pulled it offstage.
"Once Scar's mask got stuck in the down position," Mr. Andersen noted, referring to the lion who is the show's main villain. His mask weighs only 9 ounces and moves up and down with the help of two small, battery-powered motors that the actor controls with a finger switch. The motors need frequent attention, and sometimes quick replacement.
And there are those in the audience, the puppet crew say, who like to see disaster strike.
"Some people just want to say, 'I was there when the rhino lost its head,"' Ms. Wysocki said. In fact, the rhinoceros did lose its head about a year ago and performers had to hold it up manually until it could be repaired.
"The animal, stored at stage level, is too big to go up the elevator," said Ms. Wysocki, who was on duty that night, "We had to wrestle it out of the way and fix it on the spot." The rhino, a new steel rod holding its head, reappeared on cue for the grand finale.
Most of the masks and puppet parts are molded of carbon graphite, a kind of rigid foam that makes them light and durable. Some have a set of wires to move the mouth and other parts, like the elephant's ears and trunk. Many of the masks have fine details, like the row of teeth in Scar's mask that were in the original design, but can't be seen much beyond the first row.
"We never compromise those details," said Mr. Troisi, who also spends much of his time training new crews for the touring company plus seven other "Lion King" companies in Los Angeles, Toronto, London, Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, and Hamburg, Germany. He's hard at work preparing the menagerie for the new Chicago production, scheduled to open in April.
Handling their charges more like works of art than stage props, the puppet masters use a variety of materials to repair them, including epoxy resin over Fiberglas, Kevlar (the same material used in bulletproof vests), and a two-part liquid rubber called 962, that gets laid over fabric.
Thermal plast, a medical supply used in hospitals, comes in handy for fitting masks and puppets to the torsos, limbs and heads of individual actors.
New puppets occasionally are made for the company, by shops in Oregon and near Toronto. The current elephant is the production's second. The first lasted about three years before the company had to order a new one at an undisclosed price.
"You can buy a nice luxury car for the price of an elephant," Mr. Troisi said.


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