BWW Interviews: Mary Zimmerman Brings the Beat of THE JUNGLE BOOK to Life

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman (Metamorphoses) is currently staging her fanciful adaptation of The Jungle Book - based on Rudyard Kipling's 1893 collection of stories and Walt Disney's 1967 animated film - at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. This world premiere musical debuted in June at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago to generally positive reviews and continues in Boston through October 13, already extended one week beyond its initially announced run.

The Jungle Book brings Zimmerman back to the Huntington Theatre Company where she has been lauded for her stirring productions of Journey to the West, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Candide. The latter earned her both the IRNE and Norton Awards for Best Director of a Musical. For The Jungle Book, Zimmerman is reunited with her Candide music director Doug Peck and is joined by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies, Godspell, South Pacific). New lyrics are being written by Richard Sherman, Academy Award-winning composer and lyricist who with his brother Robert wrote more than 150 songs for Disney films plus the original scores to The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The multi-cultural cast blends long-time Zimmerman collaborators with newcomers, including 10-year-old Akash Chopra as Mowgli, the young "man cub" at the center of the story. Other cast members are Usman Ally as Bagheera, the panther; Elena Flores as Raksha, the Mother Wolf; Keven Carolan as Baloo the bear; Glory Curda as the Little Girl; Thomas Derrah as Kaa, the snake; Tony Award winner Andre De Shields as King Louie the orangutan; Nehal Joshi as Rama, a wolf leader; Larry Yando as Shere Khan the tiger; and ensemble members Jeremy Duvall, Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Monique Haley, Ed Kross, Govind Kumar, Alka Nayyar, Timothy Wilson, and Victor Wisehart. Goeff Packard (who played the title role of Candide at the Huntington) is also featured.

Supported with seed money by Disney Theatricals but produced independently by The Goodman Theatre and the Huntington Theatre Company, The Jungle Book is not scheduled for a Broadway run at this time. caught up with Zimmerman by phone during a break from final tech to discuss her vision for the show and the particular challenges involved in bringing a beloved, but dated, book and animated classic to the stage in the 21st century. Excerpts from that interview, edited for clarity, follow:

BWW: So, the first burning question is "Why The Jungle Book?" What did you see as the compelling reason for adapting this to the stage?

MZ: Well, I'm always seeking the experience of making a show that's challenging, and this is very challenging. The film had a visual apparatus that is incredibly familiar to millions of people, so that drew me. Also the setting of India draws me very much, and the story itself. It's the story of leaving childhood essentially, and I was drawn to the melancholy that's in it as well as the great joy. Primarily, though, I love the challenge. I love something new that I perceive is going to be potentially difficult to solve. I like that. I'm always after that.

BWW: Certainly bringing a very well known animated film to the stage has its challenges. How are you approaching those? What do you feel is gained, what's lost, what do you have to do differently?

MZ: First of all, representing the natural world on stage is quite difficult. I think sometimes the more naturalistic you try to be about that the more you fail because nature is so irreproducible. It's always in motion. It's always alive. It's always changing. So we knew we wanted it somehow to be artistic or representational. Then we knew we wanted it to be a graphic jungle but not the one that's in the film. We wanted to make it an Indian world. And we thought that the way we do each of the animal species was sort of going to be the key to everything. We early on decided that we didn't want to cover the whole body. We hit upon picking one essential element for each of the animals. Other than that they're essentially human figures dressed in very elaborate costumes that are more reminiscent of Indian performance costume than Indian everyday wear. Then, with the addition of the animal elements, the costumes are sort of collaged in a way. They're beautifully integrated and seamless. Each one of them makes sense. They don't call attention to themselves in a strange way.

BWW: By comparison I think of Tarzan which in my view was sort of a failure by having humans really mimic the animals. Then there is The Lion King which obviously is a tremendous success by having the humans animate these spectacular puppets. Your approach is different from either one of those.

MZ: Yes, we're very old fashioned actually. One inspiration was Kipling himself. He always refers throughout The Jungle Book stories to the "people of the jungle" - the monkey people, for example. The wolf people are called the "free people." By calling them people he makes them alternate human societies or alternate societies that resemble human society in each of their different little tribes. That was a big inspiration for us. It puts faith in the "let's pretend" aesthetic that comes a little bit more from the aesthetic of the back yard when you're children. You don't necessarily use a lot, yet you believe a lot in the illusion. It's very complete because you give over to it. So for our animals the human face is still there to be as expressive as it always was.

BWW: You're inviting the audience to use imagination.

MZ: Yes. I think that partnership with the audience creates a very strong intimate bond in the same way that lovers have a deeper language, a deeper understanding. I think that each show you go and see cultivates a language which then becomes an unspoken understanding between audience and the story world depicted on stage. It's a partnership to make that thing real. That's true in any show, but it's even more apparent here because we're asking people to imagine a fantastical thing. It's funny, but no one ever even bothers to question the idea that the animals are speaking. That's not even on the table. They all speak English! It's absurd, of course, but you just fall into it.

BWW: I just watched the Disney movie again and one animated sequence in particular where the monkeys are tossing Mowgli around in the trees really struck me. How do you address that challenge? I assume that a lot of that kind of action is taken care of by the choreography. Can you talk a little bit about Christopher Gattelli's approach?

MZ: Yes, well that was an early invention. When he's first kidnapped by the monkeys we do this big toss around. Of course, unlike in animation we have to obey the laws of physics. All theater does. So it's really a quite delightful tossing around and it is a highly choreographed thing. But when the monkeys and King Louie do the song, it's not done so much in the trees. For all of the choreography we drew from certain actions that different animals have and combined them with swing and jazz - just as the music combines Indian instrumentation and certain tenets of Indian gospel music with American standard classic swing and jazz. I think it's a really beautiful hybrid.

Going back to one of your earlier questions, some of my favorite moments in the show are ones that pay a kind of homage to the film. They are transformed, of course, but those who know the film really well will see it. I have these three insect characters, these little butterflies. They come from this moment in the film when Mowgli walks along and kind of snatches a butterfly. When I was thinking, "What other animals can I have in this jungle?" (because the movie has all of eight characters if you can believe it), I thought of that butterfly and those insects. Jungles are full of insects. So someone who knows the film really, really well will see where that moment came from. And there are others, too. There's a certain revelation of Shere Khan where the leaves seem to part in a very theatrical way like curtains. That was a big inspiration for our set. Often in the film the camera fasts forward through parting curtains of leaves that work very much like an old theatrical wing and drop set. So that's the kind of set that we used. It is very old fashioned.

BWW: You talked about the fusion of the jazz idiom that Disney used with Indian music. Are there new songs that have been added to this production?

MZ: There are new songs, but they're new old songs. They are trunk songs that The Sherman Brothers wrote for other projects but never used. They have been repurposed for this. Richard Sherman has also written some new lyrics. There's also a lot of background and transitional music that is original to the production. Doug Peck and our Indian instrumentalists improvised much of it in our music workshops. The new songs are not Indian - they are in the original jazz idiom - but they are inflected with our instrumentation. We have these six phenomenal Chicago jazz players and we have six Indian instrumentalists. They are all really kind of famous in their worlds. It's like we have Yo-Yo Ma in our pit! It's true. People can not believe that we have certain people in our pit.

What is also a little neat is that when both the Indian instrumentalists and the jazz ones solo, they are doing it differently every single night. They have a certain number of bars they can play, but the dancers are dancing to different solos every night. This keeps the performance very alive and true to both musical traditions. The improvised solos that each musician in the band takes are very much in keeping with both jazz and Indian tradition.

BWW: From reading some of the Chicago media I know there was some controversy about casting Andre De Shields as King Louie. There was a suggestion that you are somehow perpetuating a negative evolutionary stereotype. It seems to me that by casting Andre you're actually in a way turning the stereotype on its head.

MZ: That's what I'm trying to do! I cast an actor who gave the best audition I've ever seen in 25 years. I did think about it. I also discussed it with him. And Andre basically said, "Why should my body carry your white guilt about this ugly historical discourse?" He's very eloquent on the topic. That controversy also took place I believe entirely before the show opened, without anyone seeing it. That's not to minimize this concern of that historical discourse. I don't want to be disrespectful of those ideas. I understand that they come from somewhere really real. I just wish anyone could be in the rehearsal room about four minutes and all of that would just evaporate.

BWW: As we look at the story itself we can all attach various metaphors to the various animals. We can attach political connotations, man vs. nature, or any number of things. To you, what is the essence of the story of The Jungle Book that you are bringing to the stage?

MZ: I'll answer at some length and maybe the last part of it is the interesting part. I had known long before this project of Kipling's biography. I knew what had happened to him in childhood. He was born in Bombay, Mumbai, to British immigrant parents. His father was an art teacher and illustrator. At the age of eight his parents took him and his little sister, Trixie, who was four at the time, back to England ostensibly on a visit. But they took them to a house and then woke them up in the middle of the night and said, "Goodbye, goodbye." And they abandoned them there in this boarding school which was also sort of a home. For the next three years they were systematically extremely physically and probably sexually abused. And when Kipling was 10 or 11 his English relatives wrote his parents back in India and said, "You've got to come and get Ruddy, he's going mad. He's running into walls and banging his head until he's unconscious." And so they got him out of there but Trixie stayed. She didn't really make it in adulthood. She ended up being institutionalized most of her life.

I feel in some ways much of the discourse around Kipling comes from his "invented" India which is fantastically romanticized in The Jungle Book. Well, obviously, he came by that rather honestly. He had India as a child and then he lost it. When he came back to it, it was in this incredibly imperialistic and authoritative and authority-loving way. Psychologically I feel like he reached that point of view partly through his powerlessness as a child. That's not to excuse it, but it does complicate it and leads to compassion for him as a human being.

In any case, when he wrote The Jungle Book stories, he was not living in India or England. He was living in Vermont. He had married an American woman, they had come over for their honeymoon, their bank went belly up, they were stranded and they ended up living in Vermont near her in-laws. And that's where he first started writing The Jungle Book stories. And to me it's emblematic that works of art come from that which we have lost and are seeking to regain. We create a world that we want to be in that does not exist. I think it's called the jungle book interestingly, because the title references this is a book of stories. We go to the book in order to go somewhere. It's a kind of tribute to the power of imagination.

That all said, I feel like Mowgli's journey out of the jungle is all of our journeys out of childhood, away from the natural world, away from animals. All children have that relationship and fundamental fascination with animals. The Walt Disney Corporation understands this, correct? Children very strongly identify with non-verbal creatures that don't have agency in the world of grown Man. They have to make their way in a world that is dominated by adult humans. We lose that identification, that touch with our natural selves, ourselves as animals, the more we grow up. And I think that's what The Jungle Book, especially in the way it's imagined by Disney, is about - the melancholy of having to grow up, the self which is lost. That really was the centering idea for me in the production.

That's not to say I am making a dark Jungle Book. It's also full of joy. Those songs are so full of joy. But there is a shade to it, and I think that is what accounts for the fact that this simple movie has lasted almost 60 years.

The Jungle Book began previews September 7 and has already been extended through October 13. Official press opening is September 18. For information and tickets, visit

PHOTOS BY Liz Lauren: Director Mary Zimmerman, composer Richard Sherman and choreographer Christopher Gattelli; Thomas Derrah (center) as Kaa with Akash Chopra as Mowgli; Thomas Derrah as Kaa and Larry Yando as Shere Khan; Andre De Shields (King Louise) and Mary Zimmerman in the rehearsal room; Andre De Shields as King Louie and Ahash Chopra as Mowgli

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