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Interview: Director Mary Zimmerman On Bringing 'The Jungle Book' To Stage

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 15, 2013 4:00PM

Rehearsals for the Goodman Theatre's production of The Jungle Book with director Mary Zimmerman.

There's no denying Goodman Theatre's production of The Jungle Book was one of the most anticipated musicals of the summer. With all the character of the animated Disney movie and added cultural context from the Rudyard Kipling stories, the stage version isn't just another movie-to-musical concept. We caught up with the show's director, book writer and overall creative genius Mary Zimmerman to discuss bringing this long-awaited project to stage.

CHICAGOIST: The Jungle Book is now in its third week of performances at the Goodman and will soon be on its way to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. What has surprised you most about the show's reception in Chicago? Is it the kind of reaction you envisioned?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: I had no idea what to expect — you never do. I've never had a show where people leap to their feet at the end in the way they do for this — and some of them do it at intermission. Normally my shows end rather quietly and sometimes in a melancholy way. And Jungle Book doesn't. I know that reception is due to the accomplishment of the musicians and the actors, but also in part of the great love that much of the audience already has for the film and its characters. One of my longtime collaborators, Anjali Bhimani, who plays the mother wolf Raksha, says that she has never in her career felt anything like what she feels from this audience at the end.

C: You're known for a somewhat "backwards" creative process (i.e. casting actors with several parts in mind and starting rehearsals without a script). What is it about this unusual formula that works well for you and your team?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: What I hope it does — what I think it does — is make a show that "fits" its performers like a glove. The text, the performers and I all "grow up" at the same time, and all together. They influence me. There's always a moment in the process when I realize that I am writing for the particular actor as well as the character. I figured out how to write for Akash Chopra (who plays the man-cub Mowgli) at one point. And I wrote certain things for Larry Yando (playing the tiger Shere Khan) that I know only he could pull off. Because the show is designed before the script is written, I write to the design, trying to exploit every bit of the design that I can.

C: Disney, who has provided financial backing for the show, has entrusted you with the script and songs from the beloved animated movie, and yet much of your adaptation has been taken from the Rudyard Kipling stories from the late 1800s. How did you strike a balance when it came to incorporating elements from the original stories and the cartoon?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: When I started out, I assumed I would use much more Kipling than I ended up using. When you draw songs from a source — in this case the film — you are also drawing character, plot and above all, tone. The tone of the film is radically different than that of Kipling. My aim was to stay true to the heart of the film while trying to enrich the language and the ideas of it a little and give it a bit more structure, a bit more sense of return at the end. To that end, I used the character of Akela, the dignified old lone wolf, and a secret promise that is made between him and Bagheera. There is such a promise in Kipling, but it is a bit different and not secret. The thing is, if I hadn't had Andre De Shields in the cast to play Akela, the character would probably not exist in the production. Andre's presence inspired me to use that character.

C: As the show was in its final weeks of rehearsals, you were dealing with public criticism from Jamil Khoury, the artistic director of Silk Road Rising, who felt your attitude toward racism and colonialism in a recent Chicago magazine interview was insensitive. Now that the show is in full-swing and the two of you have made amends, what did you learn from that public encounter?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: That I pretty much always speak too fast and too ironically, and I compulsively try to make clever points in a way that may not translate into print in the way I intend. I haven't read the Chicago magazine interview because it is all too painful and embarrassing, but I gather I sound as though I am saying pretty much the opposite of what I was trying to say and what I feel. Horrifying. It makes me want to go sit in a field and never speak to anyone again. But I often feel that way anyway.

C: After the final curtain at the Goodman, what do you hope your production of The Jungle Book leaves in its wake? Where do you hope the show takes you?

MARY ZIMMERMAN: This is a great question, but I'm not sure how to answer. I think the show is a mix of great joy and melancholy, a celebration of the perspective of childhood, but an elegy for its loss as well. And it has something to do with the search for the right parents. The show has already taken me where it needs to take me. My mother was the greatest reader I've ever known. She died a few months ago. At the very end of the show, our little boy sits in a chair to read, and then decides to lie in the chair sideways. I spontaneously asked him to do that in rehearsal without thinking why. It was only after we opened the show that I came across a picture of my mother that I had seen shortly before starting rehearsals but forgotten. She's sitting in a chair in that sideways way, reading. Reading was my connection to her. For better or worse, it's my connection to everything.

The Jungle Book runs through Sunday, August 11. UPDATE: The show has been extended through Sunday, August 18. Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, tickets available by calling 312-443-3800 or purchasing online.