That roar of a distant lion means theater's all-time box office king is on its way, and with "The Lion King" comes a complex menagerie of puppets, big and small and a herd of humans that brings the animal characters to roaring, singing, squawking life.
A rare bird among the puppets is the imperious red-billed hornbill Zazu, which since June has been in the hands of Milwaukee native Andrew Gorell.
The 37-year-old actor was working as a reader for actors trying out for the company when the casting director said, "Why don't you audition?" There was no concern that his background was stage experience along the lines of Shakespeare and the mute roles in operas, although he tended toward the more physical roles.
"We don't hire puppeteers; we hire actors," explained Michael Reilly, supervisor for the more than 230 puppets and masks that will be on stage during the musical's four weeks at the Benedum Center. "It's all on-the-job training, and it's intensive. We've been at this for a long time, we have a system. ... It's so much more important to have the right actors in place."
After months of training, Mr. Gorell now speaks of Zazu as a co-star in his performance, because the puppet embodies the work of so many people.
"It all comes together when I realize I'm not alone out there; I have the support of the designers, the wardrobe staff, the puppet staff -- it takes a lot of pressure off me as an actor. I just have to exist in the world we've all created," he said. "But I do have to say hi to Zazu every time I pick him up, and I don't get to see him until right before the first scene; he's being taken care of by his handlers. I have to run out, and I have about 15-20 seconds off stage with him to see how he's doing and get him warmed up."
The personification of the puppet might strike others as odd, he agrees, but it's what makes Zazu click with audiences. For the puppeteer, "It's a weird alchemy we have to create here, and the puppet is in the relationship."
Puppet supervisor Mr. Reilly said so far, so good, as far as keeping Zazu ready for his entrances, and there is a back-up puppet, just in case. But for the more than 200 other characters, there might be a little chipped paint here, a nick there ... What's the worst that can happen, right?
"There's always a worse thing that can happen," Mr. Reilly says, laughing.
For example, a few weeks ago, an elephant's leg broke while on stage and the actor inside it "muscled the thing" and was able to mask the mishap for the moment.
"That was pretty much a nightmare scenario because we don't travel with extra elephant legs, because elephant legs aren't supposed to break. That was a nine-hour stressful day before the show even started, just to get that leg working," said Mr. Reilly, whose performance-day routine entails an early arrival at the theater, and with his two assistants he inspects the dozens of puppets and masks.
"We literally go over every single principal puppet, give it a full diagnostic ... Then it's on to projects like painting and anything we think needs our attention the most."
The work might start in a certain order, but that list gets thrown out 20 minutes into the inspection, he said. "There are certain things that have to be looked at, and then it's fly by the seat of your pants -- whatever needs your attention."
Don't be fooled by the size of Zazu, relatively diminutive compared to the elephant but a key player in the Hamlet-esque plot of the show. The high-brow bird is King Mufasa's majordomo, a loyal adviser enlisted as a guardian to the mischievous lion prince, Simba.
Zazu presents challenges that make the puppet one of the show's most difficult roles.
"Zazu is basically the only hand puppet in the show," Mr. Reilly explained. "He has so many levers that [Mr. Gorell] has to manipulate with his hands to make Zazu blink, to make him talk, to make him flap his wings, all these different things he has to focus on while doing his show. He can't actually see the puppet's face to know exactly what he's doing. So he has to know it by rote ... and of course he has to sing and dance and do all his lines and his blocking. That's what makes Zazu so difficult."
Mr. Gorell spends a lot of onstage time with child actors, including the intricate crowd number "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" with young Simba -- played at various performances by Jordan A. Hall, 10, and Nathaniel Logan McIntyre, 9. If you've seen the animated film, you can probably hear Zazu's frantic pleas as you listen.
The character was voiced by Rowan Atkinson in the film, but Mr. Gorell said he needed only to use a British dialect. "It was never said that I had to speak like anyone. In fact, they were very specific in saying this should be my own take. But I did watch a lot of 'Black Adder,' " he said of the television series that starred the comedian.
That was the fun part. Becoming one with Zazu took some time.
"It's two handed, and the small muscles in the wrists, forearms and hands aren't used to working in that way," Mr. Gorell said. "I played around for five minutes the first time, and my arm felt like a noodle. There was a slight panic in my stomach that I couldn't do this. Then the next day I could do it for eight minutes, then 12 -- the muscles respond very quickly. The rest is studying actual birds, how they fly, how they land, the way they move their heads. ... Then you sit in front of a mirror and the puppet tells you a lot of things you can't come up with yourself."
Creating the magical illusion of bringing the animal characters to life is the life blood of a show that owns box office bragging rights on Broadway and on the road.
The musical that began as a hit animated movie, featuring songs and music by Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer, has been seen by millions, but it continues to draw wherever it goes. Theatergoers can't seem to get enough of director/designer Julie Taymor's magical re-creation of lions and zebras and warthogs and other "Lion King" characters.
"The Lion King" touring companies exist within their own circles of life, traveling musicals that have put down roots and then pulled out every few weeks since the show began its migration patterns throughout the United States and Canada in 2002. The six-week run in 2008 broke box office records at the Benedum Center, and last month, the Walt Disney Co. announced that North America's touring productions have reached the $1 billion mark in ticket sales.
Mr. Gorell joined the "Lion King" troupe in Cleveland and then it was off to Charlotte before making his introductions to Pittsburgh. Mr. Reilly, a Toronto native, started with the Disney juggernaut in 2000, with time outs for shows such as the original company of "The Lord of the Rings" musical, then returning more than six years ago.
"I love Pittsburgh; it reminds me of home in a lot of ways," Mr. Reilly said. "Everywhere we go, we are accepted very warmly, but certain cities have an affinity for 'The Lion King,' and Pittsburgh seems to be one of them."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published September 1, 2013 4:00 AM