So, Who is this Tony Person?

The 71st annual Tony Awards air June 11, 2017 from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The ceremony honors achievement on Broadway for the 2016-17 season, and we’ll certainly be tuned-in and on-edge as they announce the big winners. Like us, perhaps you’ve wondered “why are they called the Tonys?” We did some research, and the answer uncovered a rather fascinating story.

PBDANPE CS001

Actress and director Antoinette Perry, c. 1910. (CSU Archives—Everett Collection)

Let’s start here, at the American Theatre Wing.

Actually, that’s not the beginning.

Let’s start here: 1917, and America is about to enter World War 1.

Somewhere in New York, seven established women in theater meet to discuss how they could provide war relief. If they could provide aid, what would they do? What did they have to give?

They form the Stage Women’s War Relief, an organization that raises more than seven million dollars for the troops and sews countless articles of clothing for soldiers. They become one of the most significant relief organizations in the world.

The war ends, life goes on, yet here comes World War II looming on the historical horizon. By 1940, the Stage Women’s War Relief revamps with an extra personality in tow: Antoinette Perry.

stage womens war relief

Stage women’s war relief poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918. Depicts a woman on stage, throwing off her cloak to reveal a white volunteer’s uniform.

You can see where we are going, yes?

They regroup and form the American Theatre Wing, which sponsors Stage Door Canteens throughout the United States and in London and Paris. Theater stars work the canteens as wait staff and dishwashers, also putting on shows and other entertainment to keep up the troops’ morale. Money from a movie made about the canteens funds the production of touring hit shows for the troops. On the home front, the Wing’s Victory Players inspire civilians and their “Lunchtime Follies” entertain defense plant workers.

By the end of that war, Antoinette Perry is the driving force of the American Theatre Wing and spearheads the American Theatre Wing Professional School, a rigorous veterans’ art program to train anyone who served in the Allied Powers stagecraft and theater performance. Students include Charlton Heston, George Burns, Geraldine Page, Pat Hingle, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Tony Randall, Bob Fosse and many, many more notable notables of stage and screen.

ticket

On June 28, 1946, just a few days before her 58th birthday, Antoinette Perry suffers a devastating heart attack and dies. She and others had decided that American theater needed a set of awards dedicated to honoring excellence. For Antoinette’s service to her country, to Broadway and to the theater community as a whole, the new award was named after her.

The night of the first award ceremony, a small dinner banquet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a presenter handed out an award, calling it a “Tony.”

The name stuck, and that’s why they’re called the Tony Awards.

award

During the first two years, there was no official Tony Award. In 1949 the designers’ union sponsored a contest for the award. The winning entry, a disk-shaped medallion designed by Herman Rosse, depicted the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other. It continues to be the official Tony Award.

Want to know what Antoinette Perry was doing before World War II? Trust us, you’ll want to know. Get the scoop from a Playbill interview with her daughter, Margaret, in 1998. For the Tony Awards’ history of Perry, check out their bio by Ellis Nassour.

 

Everything the Light Touches is His Kingdom

James Earl Jones receives the Lifetime Achievement in Theater recognition at the Tony Awards this year.

Tony image

In 1957, during his first week in New York as a wannabe actor, James Earl Jones saw these shows:

Night one: Tosca starring Leontyne Price
Night two: Swan Lake starring Margot Fontaine
Night three: Pal Joey
Night four: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

What a week, right?

This remarkable itinerary was put together by his father, the actor Robert Earl Jones, who wanted to give his son a taste of la crème de la crème on stage at the time (and probably of all time).

By night five, James Earl Jones, an unknown actor adrift with thousands of other unknown actors vying for a spot on Broadway, knew, one day, he would be in the glow of the warm stage lights.

One year later, he was. Jones landed the role of Edward in the FDR bio-play Sunrise at Campobello.

We feel safe assuming Jones did not know his career would land him the indelible distinction of being the voice of both the worst and best of fatherhood. And, really, who among us hears James Earl Jones speak and doesn’t automatically think, “[heavy breathing] I am your father” and/or “Look, Simba . . . everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

(Editors’ note for the benefit of diehard Star Wars fans who will surely mention this in the comments if we don’t: The classic line from Star Wars is often misremembered as “Luke, I am your father,” as even Jones’ mentions in the clip below, though the line is “No, I am your father,” as you can hear in the excerpt from the film.)

Jones, who continued to work the stage in New York after Sunrise at Campobello for the next decade, emerged as a man who would carve his place on the monument of Great Actors with his mind-blowing work as a heavyweight boxing champ named Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope in 1968. In Clive Barnes’ review, he noted that as he was leaving the theater, Jones was “receiving a standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history.”

Jones won his first Tony, in 1969, for that role. His acting prowess and newfound fame steered his career straight to Sesame Street, where, also in 1969, he was the very first celebrity guest. As for another Tony, his work in the original production of August Wilson’s Fences (the role recently revived by Denzel Washington in the 2016 film) earned him his second award in 1987.

The great white hope

The Great White Hope also won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jones reprised his role in the film adaptation and received an Academy Award nomination.

In between, there was a little $7,000 gig voicing a character for George Lucas’ intergalactic war movie. What would Star Wars have been without Darth Vader? And what would Darth Vader be without James Earl Jones? (Rick Moranis in Spaceballs — if you don’t believe us, watch this short clip of David Prowse, who played Vader, saying the dialogue in that giant, plastic helmet-mask).

Jones, who stuttered, spent eight years of his childhood in relative silence, speaking to the animals on their farm in Michigan but avoiding talking to other human beings. Encouraged by his English teacher to recite poetry in front of his high school class as a means of overcoming the stutter, Jones eventually gained mastery. The last public return of the stutter popped up during a performance of Sunrise at Campobello when he stuck over the “M” in “Mrs. Roosevelt,” though Jones says the stutter remains, even now, at 86, which is notably ironic considering Jones’ fame emanates partly from his deep, clear, bass voice.

Try saying “This is CNN” without hearing Jones. It’s impossible. His voice is that powerful. In a little-known anecdote, Jones, who is by nature a merry jokester, used to pretend to be Darth Vader on his CB radio on long car trips. When he realized the truckers were genuinely getting scared, he quit. Best to use one’s powers for good, especially when you’re James Earl Jones. As evidence of his ability to still have fun and use his powers for good, he teamed up with Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) in a series of Sprint commercials where the two former Stanley Kubrick actors performed texts and Facebook messages dramatically, on a bare stage and in tuxedos:

Congratulations, Mr. Jones, on your sixty years of valuable, funny, unforgettable and powerful work in the performing arts.

Want to see James Earl Jones receive his award? Then mark your calendars: The Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 8 p.m.

Traveling Family Road Show

The fascinating story of Clark Transfer

auntiemame

Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

In 1948, Henry Fonda gave up a Hollywood contract to star in a Broadway play about sailors in the South Pacific. That play, Mister Rogers, won the Tony® for best play that year. One year later, it garnered another place in theater history: it was the very first Broadway show to launch a national tour via the highway.

The same trucking company that hauled Mister Rogers loads in the majority of the touring shows at The Straz today. In fact, Clark Transfer has been bringing shows to our stages since we opened our doors.

Not only that, but Clark Transfer invented the idea of taking Broadway shows on the road. In no small way, this humble, family-owned trucking company revolutionized the entire performing arts industry in the United States.

And it all started with the Spanish Flu.

After World War I, a global influenza pandemic laid waste to one-fifth of the world’s population in two years, killing 675,000 Americans (10 times the number who died in the war) and more than four times the number of people who died during the Black Plague. It was an awful time, and no city in the U.S. was hit worse than Philadelphia, which lost 28% of its population during 1918-1919. There were bodies everywhere, and if you owned a few trucks, there was work.

Clark auras archive hires_0008

Louis (Whitey) Molitch and his wife Sylvia. Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

So the family story goes that Jim Clark happened to own a few trucks, and the son of Ukrainian immigrants, Louis “Whitey” Molitch, happened to need a job. The two men met amid these gruesome circumstances, formed a friendship, and ten years later formed Highway Express Lines, a high-integrity, family-owned and operated Philadelphia-based trucking company that would become Clark Transfer. Jim bought the business, and Whitey rolled up his sleeves to help make it a success.

“My father was Jim Clark’s right hand,” says Norma Deull, the current president of Clark Transfer and Whitey Molitch’s daughter. “I grew up with Jim. He bought me my first car.”

The men had their roles in the business, and Jim eventually became a power player in Philadelphia politics while Whitey focused on the logistics of their enterprise. In the beginning, the company mostly hauled movie prints, magazines and newspapers. But, Whitey was that particular brand of post-war entrepreneur who had a vision of what trucking could do as more and more highways filled the national landscape.

However, he faced two formidable obstacles: the federal government and the way things had always been done.

Cats hirez

Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

At that time, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) controlled what materials went on trucks and trains and who was allowed to cart them from state to state. The ICC allowed only trains to transport Broadway shows, with trucks getting the sets, costumes and equipment from the station to the local theater. Even more impenetrable than government regulation was the Old Boy theatrical network of Broadway producers who did not believe they could make any money by mounting New York shows in places like Omaha.

However, Whitey had a vision. He’d seen small town America, he’d seen big city life: he knew he was on to something. “He went to the ICC,” Norma says, “with the idea that theatrical material could be moved by trucks. It was not easy convincing them, and he had to go many times. But, they gave him the rights in the United States to truck shows anywhere except within a 50 mile radius of NYC. He invented the industry. I can say that without a doubt.”

Whitey figured out who to know and how to get in with the Old Boys network in New York, and his impressive chutzpah and acumen eventually convinced the Broadway producers to take a chance on touring their shows around the country.

Clark auras archive hires_0010-2

Photo courtesy of Clark Transfer.

“He had to convince that Old Boy network to do something different than they’d ever done before,” says Jonathan Deull, Norma’s son and Whitey’s grandson, who earned his company chops loading and unloading trucks as his first job while still in high school, and along with his brother, Charlie Deull, now serves as Clark’s executive vice president. “I grew up in New York, and I remember that my grandfather would come every week to the city – schmoozing, deal-making, persuading and twisting arms of producers to be able to do this. He made remarkable changes.”

The transportation changes revolutionized show business, ushering in a new era of industry, opportunity and profit for an unprecedented number of people. If Broadway shows could be trucked for touring performances, so could ballet, opera, rock and roll . . . anything. Regions and mid-sized towns built state-of-the-art performing arts centers to accommodate the scale of Broadway shows. Performers and technicians had an entirely new field of work opportunities. As Ralph Hoffman, the noted ballet dancer and stage manager of Washington National Ballet, said: “culture and live entertainment to your doorstep, wherever you live . . . it was Clark Transfer that really made [it] possible.” When Jim died, Whitey bought the business, ever seeking to find better ways to do what Clark Transfer does best: getting the show on the road.

“And doing what you say you’re going to do,” says Norma.

“And don’t be late,” Jonathan adds.

4 trucks_edit_IMG_3337_BOM 2015

Four of the trucks that brought The Book of Mormon to Tampa in 2015.

Following in Whitey’s footsteps, Norma saw another family-based opportunity for Clark Transfer, but one for the modern age: dealing with the climate-change consequences of the carbon emissions produced by millions of miles per year of show-touring in diesel trucks.  In the 1980s, Jonathan’s wife, Sheryl Sturges, had been a pioneer in developing the idea of carbon offsets, and in 2007 Charlie took the leadership in partnering with with likeminded Broadway folks to create the Touring Green Initiative, a pool of offsets to complement their efforts to reduce emissions. Soon after, Charlie became co-chair (with Susan Sampliner, Company Manager of Wicked) of the Broadway Green Alliance.

Now with four generations of Whitey Molitch’s clan working at Clark Transfer and the fifth generation currently learning to walk, the Deulls intend to keep Clark a family business. “That’s the vision,” says Jonathan, “that this continues its tradition as a family operation. We don’t do the glamorous stuff, the stuff that gets names on marquees. The thing that drives us is bringing live performances to people who may not have the opportunity to see that – people whose lives can be transformed by that power and magic. Being able to bring that opportunity to people is enormous.”

As If Going to the Theater Wasn’t Fun Enough, They Had to Invent the Lottery

bom_lottery-drawing_edit

A crowd of people eagerly await the results of a ticket lottery for Book Of Mormon at The Straz.

It all started with Rent.

When that show blew up and became the hottest ticket in town, the producers tried a radical idea to make the show more accessible to as many theatergoers as possible: sell the first two rows of orchestra seats for a scant $20 a pop on a first-come-first-served basis. In no time, students lined up at dawn to purchase these “rush” tickets when the box office opened, and the idea – like the show – was a huge hit.

Since then, producers have been concocting fun ways to get massively discounted tickets into the hands of the widest possible audience. Recently, one of the most exciting pre-show events to emerge for these ultra-affordable tickets is the lottery.

That’s right. A good, old-fashioned luck of the draw: go to the theater, write your name on a card, drop in in a box, then wait. Competition is fierce, and hope runs high, with sometimes 200 people vying for up to one pair of coveted tickets to shows such as Matilda, Kinky Boots and Wicked.

lottery-button-2
A few hours before curtain, a representative of the show (or theater) passes a hand over the box as the crowd of fans holds its breath with anticipation. The person reaches in the box, draws one card, then reads the name to the waiting crowd. Most groan, but there is one cheer – if your name comes out, you’re the lucky winner of one or two seats to the big show at a fraction of the box office rate. As technology advanced, the old-fashioned ways included a new-fangled digital lottery, where patrons can throw their proverbial names in the hat via a cell phone app – and be notified by text if they are winners.

One show hosting a pre-curtain lottery is Wicked*, running in Morsani Hall Feb. 1-26. This thrilling game of odds gives all people a chance to buy a ticket and take a ride to the other side of Oz. And if you lose … who cares? You can always come back and try again tomorrow. But you gotta show up in person; there’s no app to get you to Emerald City on the cheap.

*A limited number of tickets will be available by lottery for the performances of Wicked. Entries will be accepted at the Straz Center Ticket Sales Office two and a half hours prior to each performance. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $25 each – cash only. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid identification to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.

Extra Sensory Perception

How the stage allows us to get inside another person’s experience

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Alex Sharp in The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“You never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” goes the popular adage about trying to be less judgmental and more compassionate. The key to getting in someone else’s shoes is to imagine what his or her experience must be like, to feel what she or he must be feeling. This exercise is known as empathy.

One place that’s crackerjack at making empathy 3-D is the theater.

Since its invention, theater has served as a platform for dramatizing the human experience with all the joys, humor, complications, tragedies, injustices and awkward awakenings of the human heart. The stage also acted as a mirror, reflecting back at society what it refused to see—or, in many cases, was unable to see about itself until other people literally showed humanity what it looked like. The stage is a safe place to say uncomfortable things, to challenge the status quo, to make people laugh at themselves and others, to experiment with how to make abstract concepts concrete and in-the-flesh. Sometimes a play does all of these things while singing and dancing. (We’re looking at you, Book of Mormon.)

With the rise of interest in human psychology at the turn of the 20th century, a new challenge cropped up for playwrights and actors: how to capture the workings of the mind? We know Freud relied on his knowledge of Greek theater to name two of his bigger concepts (Oedipus and Electra complexes) and that psyche is the Greek word for “soul,” from the eponymous goddess. So, drama in real life goes hand-in-hand with the drama of the mind.

However, putting that mental activity on paper in dialogue and stage directions is not so natural. The key rests in the collaborative, team-based nature of manufacturing make believe: on stage and screen, other designers lend their skills to bring the vision of the mental landscape to completion. Set design, lighting, color palettes, sound and choreography become crucial to pulling the lofty, abstract ideas of “torment,” “sensory overload,” “insanity,” or “schizophrenia,” “addiction,” or “depression” into a detailed, concrete picture that audiences can see and understand. These elements help bring audiences to empathy, to the shift in perception that allows us to see into the soul of another—or ourselves.

movie-posters
Some of the best representations of the wacky, disjointed nature of thought occur on film. We’re thinking here of Charlie Kaufman’s body of work (Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Chris Nolan (Memento, Inception) or Pixar’s 2015 offering, Inside Out, the animated film where even emotions get emotions.

Theater plays tend to explore psychology not as a setting (like literally finding a portal into John Malkovich’s brain in Kaufman’s delightfully bizarro screenplay) but as character traits or as a theme. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scarred several generations with its unflinching examination of alcoholism and head games, and Peter Shaffer’s boy-who-blinds-horses drama, Equus, continued to make audiences squirm even when Harry Potter’s actor played the lead. And let’s quickly nod to Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, a frightful interweaving of psychological cruelty and children’s storytelling, that proved illuminating the deep, dark perversities of the minds of men was alive and well for this 2004 Laurence Olivier award-winner.

equus2650

Daniel Radcliffe, Lorenzo Pisoni, and Richard Griffiths in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.” (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Back in the day, playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his stage directions to Death of a Salesman that the set should indicate titular salesman Willy Loman’s varying psychological conditions, and Ntozake Shange’s fierce use of dance and poetry to reveal the psychological effects of racism and sexism on black women pushed For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf to be nominated for a Tony® award for Best Play in 1977.

Yet theater still experiments with finding ways to do what Kaufman’s and Nolan’s films are able to do—namely, make a character’s mind the landscape of a story. Finding plays or musicals that take place inside a person’s experience of the world to put the audience inside the character’s worldview are few and far between.

Then there’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Original Broadway Company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

This play (it’s not a musical), based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name, takes theater one step further. Curious Incident follows the events of the main character, Christopher, a boy who has a rather brilliant and extraordinary mind, after a neighbor’s dog is murdered. That mind, however, processes the world unlike most people’s minds. So, how does a production team build a play to spark compassion and empathy for Christopher? It puts the audience in Christopher’s shoes. Or, literally, in Christopher’s sensory experience.

The set itself serves as Christopher’s psychological boundaries. His mind, a grid-based thinking system (as opposed to our floaty, nebulous artists’ minds), becomes the walls of the set, the grid illuminated in different ways throughout the performance. As audience members, we are thrust into Christopher’s perception of the world with its numbers, noises, chaotic choreography, indirect and disorganized language and baffling array of incomprehensible adult reactions to facts. Christopher and his pet rat Toby must solve the murder, and we tag along for the ride, strapped into the observer’s seat in Christopher’s worldview. Often, like Christopher, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the onslaught of movement, sound and unpredictability of every day living.

Frankly, it’s a stunning theatrical achievement. Perhaps, at least in this case, we can say we know Christopher by the end of the show, not because we’ve walked a mile in his shoes, but because we’ve watched two hours from the inside of his mind.

Curious about Curious? Then come see the show.

Open To Interpretation

open-to-interpretation_credit-rob-harris-productions

Interpreters Anthony Verdeja and Carrie Moore welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing guests to the Straz Center. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions Inc)

The Thursday night show during each Broadway run has a special performer, one whose acting and choreography chops never make a sound. As part of its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) initiative, the Straz Center secures a sign language interpreter for the Thursday night show in the Broadway series, with The Illusionists being the first of this season.

While any Straz Center performance falls under the ADA guidelines and can have sign-language interpretation on an as-needed basis, this initiative guarantees a regularly scheduled interpreted performance that guests can expect.

Far from being a literal English translation of the script, a signed performance requires that the interpreter don all artistic hats at once: the interpreter must emote, understand motivation in gestures and artistically translate a musical script from English into a visual language unto itself. The common misconception that American Sign Language (ASL) merely invented gestures that correspond to English words greatly underestimates the complexity of ASL as its own novel language, complete with its own grammar, nuance and expressive capability. In other words, an interpreter creates an adaptation to visual language in real time, giving deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons the thrilling emotional experience shared by patrons who can hear the performance.

open-to-interpretation_dance
An interpreter becomes a one-person show, transforming a musical into ASL with the same need for fluency that someone would need to translate Chinese poetry into English verse. There is an ‘essence’ that must be captured in the language, and apprehending this elusive quality requires a strong set of skills and no amount of stage fright.

This tall order cannot be filled by just anyone who happens to know ASL. “We’ve engaged an exceptional company to provide sign language services,” says Straz Center director of production services Mike Chamoun. “This group is just tremendous. They add the emotional interpretation like actors, conveying that much more. Most interpreters like to locate the deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons before the show, meeting them and asking about what they want from the performance and having that dialogue inform their interpretation. It’s quite something. They are excellent at serving the patron.”

open-to-interpretation_theater

The minority-woman owned company, Absolute Quality Interpreting (AQI), hires only nationally-certified sign language interpreters. Lisa Schaefermeyer, AQI’s founder and CEO, ensures that her interpreters deliver a great performance of the show. “There’s a difference,” she says, “between someone who knows sign language and someone who can perform. There’s a skill level needed to stand on the platform and do what they do. We are fortunate to have interpreters who specialize in the performing arts.”

Chamoun requests a copy of the script from the show, then forwards the script to AQI so the interpreters have time to prepare their own performance. “But they don’t get months of rehearsal,” Chamoun says. “They’re lucky if they get two weeks.”

“The additional prep time allows the interpreter to give a better performance for the audience. She or he has time to think about the right sign to reflect what is happening on stage. Imagine a monotone reading of an audio book, read by someone with no training,” says Schaefermeyer. “Then imagine a great actor performing the text of the same book, and you’ll get an idea of what is possible with great sign language interpretation.”

open-to-interpretation_music

Typically, a Broadway show requires two interpreters to cover the many parts. In Morsani Hall, they stand in a small, specifically-designed alcove complete with its own lighting so that the interpreters fade out or blackout in sync with the main show. “It’s under the house right mezzanine,” says Chamoun. “So, it’s not on stage but on the orchestra level so patrons have a good view. We encourage our deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to call the Ticket Sales Office and have a representative make sure they get seats with a good view of the interpreter. We want to make sure they get the same Straz experience, and we are happy to do what we can.”

“We are so excited to be able to do this,” says Schaefermeyer, who has a few decades of experience in the field. “Our interpreters love their jobs, love to spend time with patrons and getting to know cast members. And that comes through in the interpretation.”

Drawing on Theater Magic

The tricky business of adapting an animated movie into a stage musical

 “The book was better.”

So goes the typical critique of movies based on novels, but one rarely hears “I liked the cartoon better” as audiences stream from theater venues where their favorite Disney film characters sang-and-danced through a musical version of the animated film.

What secret of adaptation makes or breaks a story’s translation from one genre to the next?

Adaptation itself is a challenging art form. Daunting, formidable, some brutal act of transmogrification that must appear easy to do … Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation, about him cracking up while taking a crack at turning Susan Orlean’s lurid, Florida-based book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, remains the unchallenged authority on what writers can go through trying to get it right from page to screen.

Or screen to stage.

For the writer—and in the case of Disney animated movies, the creative team—the logistics of space and time present the first two puzzles. How do I take this 350-page novel that covers three generations and boil it down to a 100-page screenplay? Or, how do we take a 72-minute animated movie and convert it to a two- or two-and-a-half-hour full-blown musical?

Story. That solves the two puzzles of time and space. For a movie, the story generally follows one character’s journey through some type of transformation, accompanied by a B story, or subplot for a minor character. (Vignettes, where the film cuts from one character’s story to another, is a popular way to have several equally-important plot lines going at once.) Most film adaptations of books fail to satisfy because the intricacies of the plots, the legion of minor characters, the flavor of the language and the gripping descriptions of place and person—what ignites our imaginations and is the very nature of the book form’s storytelling power—weighs down a screenplay, which is a streamlined form of storytelling through pictures that move. (Hence the early naming of films as “moving pictures” that became the truncated “movies.”)

In a stage adaptation of an animated film, more songs and dance numbers fluff out the story, changing the 72-minute movie to a two act, two hour musical. Characters reveal more personal details, more depth about themes and plot, with more music for the stage version.

For Disney, The Lion King remains triumphantly successful not only at the box office but also as an act of adaptation itself. Their stage musical arm, Disney Theatrical Productions, headed by Thomas Schumacher, made a bold and ultimately brilliant choice hiring avant-garde puppet theater expert Julie Taymor to conceive of the adaptation in the 90’s.

Theater’s magic lies in the fact that the audience can—coached with good lighting, stimulating costumes and evocative music—suspend its disbelief to the point of what is called “filling in the blanks” on stage. For example, a spiral staircase becomes the entire landscape for Pride Rock, and actors transport the audience members to some place magical in their imaginations though they never leave the theater.

For Taymor and the team putting together the stage version of The Lion King, reliance on the audience’s ability to fill the blanks and suspend disbelief was the gamble that paid off in the end: Taymor purposefully designed the puppets for the actors to wear, so puppet-human-animal appears visible at all times. Taymor’s artistic deviation from the animated movie—her response to how to solve the problem of making animals come to life on stage with human actors—risked alienating the core audience. However, Taymor’s vision worked. Not only did it work, it elevated Disney’s animated story to legitimate theatrical artistry.

In the final analysis, what makes or breaks the translation from one genre to another is having the work in the hands of artists and craftspeople who understand the unique demands of the individual art forms: Can we take all that makes a book a book and find a way to translate it into all that makes a movie a movie? Can we take a 72-minute cartoon and craft it into a work of theatrical art?

Taymor, who immersed herself with indigenous theater cultures and ran a mask-dance company in Indonesia before her directorial success in the U.S., knew the best ways to translate The Lion King’s story symbolically and literally for the stage and for the Broadway musical audience of Disney fans. Choreographer Garth Fagan added his exquisite choreography for the animal-human movements, and the circle of life, at least for this adaption, was complete.

(In an interesting note: Taymor originally pitched the idea of rewriting the entire ending, adding a Trump-like villain named Papa Croc who tricks Simba into fighting gladiator-style in Papa Croc’s Vegas-esque desert oasis. The end. Obviously, Disney execs eighty-sixed that adaptation of their movie.)