For David Benken, “The Lion King” isn’t just another Broadway show.
For two decades, the musical has plagued Benken as a constantly shifting puzzle, a machine that needs frequent maintenance, and a logistical problem that requires years of forethought. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a remarkable piece of theater,” Benken says, speaking by telephone while watching a rehearsal of “Cirque du Soleil Paramour” at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre. “We broke a lot of ground when it came out, and it’s still one of the most dramatic pieces of theater out there right now.”
This week, the tale of a young lion who must reclaim his throne from an evil uncle returns to the Altria Theater. Based on the animated Disney film, the musical’s elaborate costumes, puppets and choreography took New York by storm in 1997, becoming the highest-grossing Broadway production of all time.
“[Director Julie Taymor] did a great job with the integration of the costumes with the actors,” Benken says. “Bringing the animals from the animated movie to life onstage was not a small challenge, but Julie came up with some dramatic and really great ways to do it.”
As the show remains one of Broadway’s largest, creating a version that could go on the road wasn’t easy.
“[Disney] wanted everyone to be able to see the same show, and be able to see the show in its full magnificence,” Benken says. “A lot of money was spent on things the audience never sees, as far as coming up with innovative engineering solutions for how to pack it up and get it into a truck quickly.”
Where the set, costumes and other production elements for most touring shows fill five or six 18-wheelers, “The Lion King” fills 17 of them and requires five days to load into a new venue. There are also 14 duplicate trucks, so the show can be loaded into one city while it’s still performing at another.
“The actual look of the show from Broadway to Richmond, most people would not notice much of a difference,” he says. “Similar size, similar cast size. The look of the show is something we’ve tried to maintain, and I think we’ve achieved that.”
While Pride Rock — one of the show’s largest set pieces — comes out of the floor in the original production, Benken substituted a collapsible version that is brought from offstage during the tour.
Another part of Benken’s job is visiting venues sometimes years in advance to see if they fit the show’s demands. The Altria was barely big enough: Doors have been added to the back wall of the stage, the set has been modified to hang out in front of the audience, and seats have been removed to accommodate one of the show’s numbers. On occasion, power is an issue.
“Some cities, we’ve actually had to bring generators in,” he says, “or get the venue to bring in extra power and extra electrical servers.”
Because the show has been around for so long, Benken and company also have had to upgrade technology, including overhauls of the sound and lighting systems.
Still, Benken remains enraptured with the show that’s occasionally a headache. “It’s a wonderful show to see,” he says. “I still see it quite often myself.” S
“The Lion King” plays through May 8 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. For information, visit altriatheater.com or call 800-514-3849.