“Puppet supervisor,” Michael Reilly’s official title, just doesn’t do it.
“I prefer puppet master. It sounds better,” says the man who manages the menagerie of puppets that make “Disney’s The Lion King” the visual spectacular that it is.
The musical, based on Disney’s 1994 animated smash, is not the largest production Reilly’s been a part of (he was the “sword and armor guy” for a production of “The Lord of the Rings” that opened in Toronto in 2006) but the touring company of “The Lion King” (at the Kennedy Center through Aug. 17) certainly keeps him busy, even without any ringwraiths.
“We have so many different kinds of puppets. We have body puppets, shadow puppets, hand puppets,” he says. “Each one is unique unto itself and each one can find a different way to break.”
Reilly and his team spend each show waiting for the puppet equivalent of 911; when the call comes over the radio, they rush in like ER docs.
“We have a tool belt of knickknacks, all kinds of collars and fittings and keys and all kinds of things,” Reilly says. “It all depends on who breaks; we generally have an idea of what broke once they tell us which puppet is broken. If a hyena breaks, often it’ll be a string; if it’s Pumbaa, it’ll be a zip tie.”
The biggest problem — literally — is often the 6-foot-tall African elephant, which requires four cast members to operate. “When she breaks, it’s pretty massive,” he says.
Reilly discusses the puppets like they’re cast members, prone to illnesses and setbacks (Pumbaa the warthog, one of the two puppets who have an understudy, is particularly prone to snapping something important.) It’s that thought process, he says, that eventually travels from his shop to the audience.
“The goal is to have people look at the puppets onstage and just absolutely forget that they’re looking at an inanimate object,” he says. “I think that starts with us, the people who build these things. If we treat them like real creatures, it’s that much easier for the performer to imbue them with life.”
So far Reilly and his team have a 100 percent success rate when it comes to resurrecting their patients.
“I’m happy to say no puppet has stopped the show,” he says. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. I maybe just jinxed it.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; through Aug. 17, $40-$195; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)
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