He calls himself the keeper of the keys. Julie Taymor's keys.
John Stefaniuk, associate director of the Broadway musical “The Lion King,” travels the world to make sure Tony-winning director Taymor's vision of the show is realized in each new production or touring company.
Stefaniuk called from Sao Paulo, Brazil, in late February, halfway through rehearsals to mount a new production there. He had just come from opening a new United Kingdom version, and he'll next head to Sydney, Australia, to mount yet another.
Along with music and dance associates, Stefaniuk regularly pops in on four European and two American versions of the show, keeping quality high.
The secret is not to accurately copy story, characters and puppetry, Stefaniak said. A copy lacks heart and soul.
“It's about introducing the story to a new culture and finding what that culture is through the show,” he said. “It's a living, breathing thing.”
For example, Stefaniak said villainous Scar's character is often given the royalty and dignity of a king of England. But in France, the role demanded a different kind of physicality, a bit more flamboyance.
But Stefaniak has to strike a balance.
“Much as I love to see the show be fresh, I also love to respect and nurture what it was on its first day,” he said.
He made a surprise visit to the cast now in Omaha when it was in San Francisco in November. They spent an entire day at a table reading, improving scenes and talking about what the characters meant to the actors playing them.
That personal connection is important, Stefaniak said.
An auditioner for young lion Simba in Sao Paolo sang beautifully, he said, but something was missing. Stefaniak asked what Simba's song of doubt, “Endless Night,” might mean to him. The actor spoke of his father's rejection of his career choice, and his coming to peace with that.
“He sang the song again, and Julie Taymor cried in the audition room,” Stefaniuk said. “We're not just looking for someone who looks like Simba. We're looking for truthfulness, vulnerability. If it rings true, it rings loud.”
Stefaniuk said nearly everyone can identify with Simba and the family story at the heart of “The Lion King.” Done right, he said, the show can take them away to another world, yet show them a world right in front of them.
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