The Jungle Book: A Home-Grown Project With a Deceptive Disney Disguise
Like a Kennedy without a trust fund, the Disney name conjures a polished image, evoking thoughts of a commercial powerhouse, able to part the Broadway seas at a moment’s notice. Inside the walls of the Huntington, however, — though it is undeniably one of the theater’s biggest financial investments — The Jungle Book is simply considered one of the many new works with great artistic potential that the Huntington has helped nurture over its 31-year history.
Founded in 1982, The Huntington has garnered a reputation as one of Boston’s preeminent theater companies, earning the 2013 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Over the past three decades, the Huntington has transferred over a dozen of its productions to New York stages under the leadership of founding Managing Director Michael Maso, past Artistic Directors Peter Altman and Tony nominee Nicholas Martin, and current Artistic Director Peter DuBois who, since taking the position five years ago, has overseen the Broadway transfer of Boston playwright Lydia R. Diamon’s Stick Fly and the off-Broadway transfer of Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Despite the theater’s extended professional history with Broadway and off-Broadway producers, the Huntington has only ever transferred straight plays to New York stages. And only sporadically does the theater produce musicals, and rarely musicals of this scale. “This certainly stands as among the most ambitious things we’ve ever done,” said Maso, recalling his three-plus-decades history with the Huntington. “[But] we decided this is worth committing a lot of resources to.” Production Manager Todd Williams, who has been with the theater for over 20 years, commented, “I think we were a little surprised that we actually committed and were able to find the support to do it…I actually had to cut the budget for this show,” said Williams, “Just like I had to cut the budget for all the others this season to make the season work.”
Yet, surprisingly, these Disney perks were not among the primary incentives for Maso and the rest of the Huntington staff to jump into such an ambitious creative and financial undertaking. The element of the project that was unanimously singled out as the greatest appeal was the participation of its book writer, Mary Zimmerman. “It all comes down to Mary Zimmerman,” said Maso. “If we didn’t have deep faith in Mary as a really transformational artist, we would never have gotten involved.” Huntington Artistic Director DuBois agreed: “When I found out [Mary] was working on it, I knew right away I wanted us to be a part of it.”
Prior to The Jungle Book, Zimmerman had already collaborated with the Huntington on three other productions — her 1996 adaptation of Journey to the West, a 1998 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, most recently, her 2011 adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which the Huntington again coproduced with the Goodman (Zimmerman’s primary theatrical home for the past 20 years). “When I saw Mary’s take on Candide, I got even more excited about The Jungle Book,” said DuBois. “I trust Mary so much as an artist. I never feel like I have to jump in and meddle.” Maso concurred: “[Mary] is a consummate storyteller. We’ve seen her do this over and over again.”
The Huntington prides itself on the lasting relationships it builds with its resident artists — as evidenced by the theater’s 20-year partnership with the classic American playwright August Wilson — and is continuing this tradition with Mary Zimmerman. Throughout his tenure, Williams has seen firsthand how the Huntington fosters these relationships and weaves the artists’ work into the fabric of the theater. “We try to make a home for our artists,” he said. “August Wilson…would be hanging out on the porch and people would just go talk to him.” Over the years, Zimmerman has become a similarly familiar presence. “They come to the theater and she’s a friend. The relationship with August Wilson has certainly defined the Huntington in many ways [and] I think Mary’s work is among that…We have a lot of people who have been with us for twenty or more years [and] they feel that Mary is a regular part of the family.”
With Zimmerman at the helm, alongside her longtime friends and partners at the Huntington as well as the Goodman, The Jungle Book has become a family project. Rather than simply aiming for the Disney stamp of approval to package it as a commercial product, the team has approached its work of adapting the new musical with the same artistic consciousness the Huntington has demonstrated over the past 31 years of developing new works. “We love and take the job seriously of being an incubator,” said DuBois. “We did it with Sons of the Prophet and with Stick Fly…I love providing really great artists a home to create their best work. That really gets me excited.”
As a foreigner to the world of commercial theater, Zimmerman came to The Jungle Book with a unique and arguably un-Disney-like approach to the constructing the piece. “Knowing who I am, I made it very clear how I work,” she said, as she began explaining the writing process that has guided every last one of her adaptations. “I begin with no script and I figure it out in the hours between rehearsal every day. They weren’t going to see anything in advance — [no] more than anyone who’s ever worked with me.” This unconventional process has in turn inspired an unconventional product — unconventional, at least, in terms of the musicals typically seen on big Broadway stages. “There’s no big opening number, there’s no ballad, not every main character sings…It doesn’t do those things that musicals typically do. I still think of it as a play with a lot of songs,” she commented, half-jokingly. “I know [it’s] ridiculous, but for a long time I tried to get my two theaters to just use ‘musical’ as an adjective, not as a noun.”
Luckily, the Huntington has taken on this unorthodox approach with unflagging confidence and pride: “It was too exciting not to be a part of,” said Maso. “I think we’re creating a classic musical and that opportunity doesn’t come along very often.” DuBois agreed, though cautious not to anticipate what lies ahead for the piece: “I certainly don’t want to predict its future, but I do feel like it’s got all the bones of a classic American musical.”
Judging by the oversold houses and enthusiastic responses from Goodman audiences, all signs, thus far, are proving them right — though only time (and Disney Theatrical Group) will tell whether or not The Jungle Book will have a life beyond the Huntington stage. For now, though, these thoughts have no bearing on the task at hand for the people at the Huntington: “That’s really got nothing to do with what we’re going to do,” said Maso in response to musings about the project’s future. “Our job is to produce it in our theaters and make a success of it here.” DuBois’ hopes for the piece are similarly contained within the walls of the Huntington: “If we get a great production that resonates with our audience — if people can find points of entry into this story…then I think we’ve succeeded.”
As a nonprofit writer who unexpectedly stumbled upon the wonderful world of Disney, Zimmerman’s aspirations for The Jungle Book are probably the most modest of all. “I always felt I may perhaps make something not quite right for the commercial world — not obeying those very smart things of successful musicals. I’m not an expert in that,” she said. “I had to just make the show that I like for the good people of Chicago and then the good people of Boston.”
“Of course I want it to have a future,” she added, “but I’m used to a very splendid thing that doesn’t stay on the vine very long. My desire is [just] to make a show that’s pleasing to me and hope that my taste is shared by other people. I’ve fulfilled my desire.”