Forgotten Musicals Friday: Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK on Stage

Usman Ally and Akash Chopra in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Usman Ally and Akash Chopra in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

Jumping into July’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we thought it might be worthwhile to look back at a more recent forgotten musical: Goodman Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company collaboration, The Jungle Book. Over the course of the month, we’ll take a look at the background of the show, its book and score, its staging and design and finally, the show’s legacy. Today, we’ll take a look at how the show came to be.

Based on the 1967 Disney film and its source material, Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories, this 2013 adaptation of The Jungle Book was not actively being developed for a Broadway run, although its producers were looking for business doing regional tours in the USA and in possible international runs. The lure of another licensable commodity must also have been strong for Disney Theatricals, which did not actively produce the show despite the company’s financial investment in it. Despite a great deal of press coverage, this widely marketed presentation has largely sunk into memory since its debut. In part, this is due to the mixed notices it received from the critics. But perhaps its disappearance is also a sign of just how difficult it is to develop new theatrical pieces based on pieces that were born in problematic histories. The conservative argument will always be that such pieces are products of their time and should be viewed as such; the problem is that we aren’t watching a new piece of live theatre then – but now.

The “now” of 2013 saw director Mary Zimmerman, musical director Doug Peck and choreographer Christopher Gattelli heading up the team that would bring The Jungle Book to life. Zimmerman herself wrote the book for the musical, while one member of the original songwriting team, Richard M. Sherman also worked on the show, providing new lyrics as well as access to unused songs that he and his late brother, Robert, had written for the film.

A contemporary stage production of The Jungle Book has some interesting territory to navigate. Marrying the original narrative’s British colonial perspective with Disney’s distinctly American take on the material is one thing, but allowing an authentic Indian voice that doesn’t simply appropriate the so-called exoticism of the setting or reproduce a perceived aesthetic to emerge as an equal player is quite another. We’ll be delving into the identity politics of the show in a little more depth in the further installations over the course of the month.

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