Disney Theatricals have announced their professional theatrical production in the US. Is it a big push for the long-gestating Aladdin? The recently announced Dumbo? That Hunchback of Notre Dame musical that is completely written and only requires an English language translation?Nope. It’s The Jungle Book. The 1967 musical film about a lost boy named Mowgli is being expanded and re-imagined by writer/director Mary Zimmerman for a debut at the end of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre’s 2012-13 season. The film, based on the stories by Rudyard Kipling, imagines a boy’s trials as he tries to find his place in the world one species at a time. His two closest allies, Bagheera the Panther and Baloo the Bear, help Mowgli work his way toward joining the nearby man village to protect him from the murderous Shere Khan the Tiger.
I can’t say I’m particularly surprised that The Jungle Book would be chosen by Disney for a full length stage version. Even if the story isn’t as popular, the music is well-known and beautifully composed. “The Bare Necessities” received an Academy Award nomination for Original Song (losing to “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Doolittle) and still works its way into Disney compilation soundtracks.
Beyond that, the score has taken on a certain theatrical cache over time. I have a few musical theater anthology books that include songs from The Jungle Book in their original forms. Would it surprise you to learn that “Trust in Me,” Kaa the Snake’s seduction song, actually has a melody? It surprised me when I played through it for the first time. It’s a play on reflecting vocal patterns: three notes up, three notes down; phrase jumps down, phrase jumps up. The (alto?) flute and muted brass play off each other like the swing of a pendulum to slip into the memory banks. It’s clever and effective.
Similarly, the sometimes disliked “My Own Home” is, at least on a composition level, quite lovely. Put aside the lyrics about male versus female duties in the household or any feminist reading of the text. The lilting melody against the play of the harp and the vibraphone is quite enchanting. You can imagine this being a lovely moment onstage for an ingenue.
Here’s the official description of the stage production from the Goodman Theatre.
From the imagination of Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman comes a dazzling song-and-dance-filled event that chronicles young Mowgli’s adventures growing up in the animal kingdom. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s time-honored children’s tales and featuring music from the classic Disney film, this spellbinding world premiere is the theatrical event of the season.
Mary Zimmerman will most likely find a way to incorporate more Indian flourishes into the production, which sounds quite exciting. The score already has touches of that in melodic structure and instrumentation that can be brought out (the same way Andrew Lloyd Weber is reorchestrating Evita for more authentic style). The story is set in India and the use of stage conventions or referential imagery could bring life to the story. Kipling wasn’t just writing a series of stories about animals and a boy in a vacuum.
Furthermore, there is a lot more to the book and even the score to play with. The Disney adaptation took highlights from the story that could be molded to form a linear storyline. There’s a whole lot more going on that could easily expand the story to a two act structure without dragging it down.
Similarly, the familiar score by The Sherman Brothers was actually the second attempt to write the music. Terry Gilykson (“The Bare Necessities”) wrote several songs that stayed closer to the text of Kipling’s story. They were deemed to dark for the film and replaced one by one. Those songs still exist and could easily be tweaked to bring in more music. That’s not even going into the lovely theatrical scoring by George Bruns that could be built on to make entirely new songs. They could even be molded into dance breaks for some of the existing songs. There is more than enough material here to produce a piece of theater that stands on its own merits.
The Jungle Book feels like it will work on stage. We’ll just have to see what happens next year.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.