'The Lion King' returns to Boston, puppets in tow

Keeping "The Lion King"'s masks in working order requires three different people on repair duty, and one on call during performances, because like any complicated machine, the masks can often have little problems come up during use.

Credit: Joan Marcus The Scar and Mufasa masks are both animatronic. The biggest puppet? The four-person-operated elephant puppet, which the crew has christened Bertha.
Credit: Joan Marcus

 

The long-running “Lion King” musical is a well-oiled machine at this point. First premiered in November of 1997, the show has been a global success, and returns to Boston for the third time this week. But to keep that machine running, a lot of little pieces have to come together. A vital part of that machinery is the elaborate masks and puppets that the actors wear to bring the world of the savannah to life.

 

 

Keeping those masks in working order requires three different people on repair duty, and one on call during performances, because like any complicated machine, the masks can often have little problems come up during use.

 

“I have my walkie talkie and my head lamp, and the things that I carry with me all the time are scissors, and wire cutters, and a hex key and pliers,” says puppet assistant Sue McLaughlin.

Talking to McLaughlin is a little bit like talking to a professional "MacGyver," since many repairs have to be done on the fly. She says the weirdest piece of material she’s used to get a performer back on stage is telephone wire. “There wasn’t time to run back to the shop to get a nut and screw that were the right size, so I slipped the wire through the holes and sent her back out for the next scene, and [the performer] was good to go.”

That was for one of the hyena masks. “They have jaws that open and close and just one side of her jaw hinge had come apart and we had very little time to fix it,” explains McLaughlin.

Some of the masks go beyond mechanical hinges, though. “The Scar mask has two motors and a battery and wires that run through a finger control that he wears in the palm of his hand,” says McLaughlin. What happens if the battery dies onstage?

“Occasionally it will blow a fuse,” admits McLaughlin. “The electronics are actually worn on his thigh, and they’re hidden by his leather chaps.”

For McLaughlin, the show is a homecoming of sorts. The Manchester native says that although she’s been with the tour before, this is the first time she’s come with the show to Boston. “I remember going to Boston with my high school groups and seeing the big Broadway tours that came through, so to be part of one of them now is amazing.”

A long-term relationship
McLaughlin was one of the original crew members. Her background was actually in wardrobe, but the decision was made to have wardrobe workers on puppet duty because the puppets were worn by the performers. As to what keeps her coming back years later, McLaughlin says partly it’s because almost everyone has some connection to the story of “The Lion King,” but she also enjoys knowing that her work with the puppets can help the performers “bring them to life and touch the audience in a really tangible way. That’s all so exciting to me.”

If you go
'The Lion King'
Tuesday through Oct. 12
Autism-friendly performance Oct. 11
Boston Opera House
539 Washington St.
$43-$143, 617-259-3400
www.boston.broadway.com

 
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