The Jungle Sings & Sways: Music & Dance in The Jungle Book

Akash Chopra (Mowgli) and Kevin Carolan (Baloo) in The Jungle Book. Photo: Liz Lauren

Years after his uncle Walt’s death, Roy E. Disney commented, “With The Jungle Book, he certainly got hooked on the jungle and the characters that lived there.” Indeed, Walt became fascinated with the Kipling-based anthropomorphic jungle-dwellers who cavorted and crooned in the last animated feature that he personally oversaw. And when the movie was released ten months after his 1966 death, audiences worldwide were enthralled by characters who ranged from a wide-eyed “man cub” to a barbershop quartet of mop-topped vultures, to a blithe bear with a laissez- faire worldview.

The songs in the film (with the exception of “The Bare Necessities”) were written by Walt Disney’s favorite songwriting duo, Richard and Robert Sherman. By the time they worked on The Jungle Book in 1966, the prolific brothers had already won two Academy Awards for their work on Mary Poppins (for Best Original Score, and Best Original Song, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”), and had also penned the buoyant “It’s A Small World (After All).” Nearly half a century after composing The Jungle Book, Richard Sherman enthusiastically recalls his days working with Mickey Mouse’s creator. “My brother Bob and I were staff songwriters, and Walt brought in a whole bevy of animators and story men — the concept people — and we had a meeting. The first thing he said was ‘How many of you have read The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling?’ And nobody raised their hand, it was like a bunch of guys in school that didn’t do their homework. He said, ‘Well that’s good, because I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s based on The Jungle Book, but it’s the Disney version.’”

Sherman explains that Walt Disney’s concept of The Jungle Book was less “spooky and scary” than Kipling’s original. And even at that initial meeting, Disney had specific ideas about his characters. “He acted out what the characters looked like — Walt was a great actor and a remarkable storyteller,” Sherman says. “I remember he started looking the way King Louie is supposed to look, drooping his arms. He said King Louie is the king of the apes, and he’s a ferocious guy, but he’s funny! And he talked about all the various characters.” Once they understood Walt’s vision, the Sherman brothers brought the motley collection of characters to life using a wide variety of musical styles, from swing to jazz to barbershop quartet.

Adapter/director Mary Zimmerman

Now, Disney’s The Jungle Book is reimagined and reinterpreted for the stage, and once again, the artists involved must be stylistically versatile. While some aspects of the work are based on the animated classic, the creative team and cast have also worked with Rudyard Kipling’s original text — and have collaborated with Indian artists to infuse the work with sounds, images, and movements that are native to its setting. Richard Sherman, who counts The Jungle Book among his greatest professional achievements, leapt at the chance to revisit his work: he visited rehearsals frequently, provided unpublished Sherman brothers music, and wrote new lyrics to help bring the show to life. His new collaborators include director and adapter Mary Zimmerman, whose atypical writing process begins with the physical design rather than a script. Each of her productions start with the creation of the set and the casting of the actors, who are chosen before a single word is written. Once rehearsals begin, Zimmerman launches into the playwriting process, writing the script piece-by-piece each night in-between rehearsal and bringing in new pages in the morning. This process allows her to customize the script and staging of the particular strengths of the individual actors and to create the story-telling through the physical design as an “organic development of the whole.” Zimmerman has worked closely throughout the process with her design team as well as music director Doug Peck and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who spent countless hours creating a music and dance vocabulary that brings Walt Disney’s and Rudyard Kipling’s adored characters to life, and gives The Jungle Book a fresh, stirring vivacity.

Doug Peck found that The Jungle Book presented specific challenges. “We have seven songs from the original movie, as well as one song from the straight- to-DVD sequel The Jungle Book 2,” he explains. “The Shermans gave us access to all of their trunk songs that haven’t found homes in shows yet; there’s one that was cut from The AristoCats.

As if this jazzy array of tunes didn’t provide Peck (who is arranging and orchestrating the music as well as serving as musical director) with enough creative fuel, he also worked with material that was, for him, considerably less familiar: Indian music. “I didn’t know anything about Indian music before this started — but I’ve been to India twice now for music festivals, focusing on both North Indian and South Indian music, because we’re pulling from both cultures,” he explains. “We’re not doing authentic Indian music or authentic jazz; we’re fusing the two and making a new thing. There are six Indian musicians and six jazz musicians in our twelve- person orchestra.”

The movement vocabulary, too, will for most audiences merge familiar and foreign elements. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli trained in Western dance forms, beginning with tap at age eight, and later adding ballet, jazz, and modern dance. His movement, seen in such Broadway productions as Newsies The Musical (for which he won a Tony Award for Best Choreography) and revivals of South Pacific and Godspell, reflects both his extensive technical knowledge and an intrinsic appreciation for narrative. “I try to lead with storytelling all the time; I find what

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli directs Victor Wisehart (Ensemble)

makes sense physically that will help further the story,” Gattelli explains. For The Jungle Book, he is collaborating with consultant Hema Rajagopalan, the artistic director of Chicago’s Natya Dance Theatre. Her company performs Bharata Natyam, a major classical dance form that emerged in the courts of India centuries before Italian and French courtiers began to formalize the dance style that eventually developed into ballet. Like ballet, Bharata Natyam requires years of training to master, and calls for both sinuous and sharp movements; unlike ballet, it relies heavily on expressive, specific hand gestures. Gattelli says, “I’ll have ideas and I’ll come up with movements, and I’ll ask Hema, ‘is this appropriate?’ and it’s great to have someone there who will say, ‘Yes’ or, ‘We wouldn’t really use this hand gesture for this.’ I want to stay true to the culture and the form. Yet at the same time we’re tapping and we’re doing swing and acrobatics, so it’s going to be a nice mesh of styles.”

For the creative team, The Jungle Book provides ample opportunity to expand their already formidable skills, creating a brand new work that nonetheless retains pieces of the Disney classic. “The Jungle Book was the very last personally produced picture by Walt Disney,” Richard Sherman recalls. “And he poured himself into it. The movie’s gigantic success saved animation pictures; they were dying at the time and this revived the whole idea. He’s very much a part of this production, even though he’s been gone for half a century.”

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