Forgotten Musicals Friday: Adapting Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK

Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando in THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

For July’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we’re taking a look at the 2013 adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book. In last week’s first column, we set the scene for this Goodman Theatre-Huntington Theatre Company collaboration and this week, we’ll take a deeper dive into how the show was adapted by librettist Mary Zimmerman and the show’s musical team, which included one of the film’s songwriters, Richard M. Sherman, and the production’s musical director, Doug Peck.

In approaching the book, Zimmerman followed the process of starting her work on adapting the film’s screenplay at the first rehearsal and working on the piece through opening night. This method allowed her to investigate every moment of the piece and to consider how to restore elements of Rudyard Kipling’s original book, which served as the movie’s inspiration. While originally planning to make much greater use of Kipling’s original work, the tone of the Disney adaptation, particularly its score, made this untenable.

For Zimmerman, the key that unlocked the world of The Jungle Book was an understanding that this was a fantastical story about a boy who befriended wild animals in his imagination. Indeed, she framed the show with the image of a small boy in a Victorian sitting room. He holds a copy of The Jungle Book in his hands as he dozes off. A peafowl, one of the new female characters in the piece, guides him through a door into the story’s main setting, where the child sees himself as Mowgli, but is also privy to interactions in which he is not directly involved. In Zimmerman’s jungle, some of the characters have been fleshed out more and the currency of fire in the setting has been strengthened. The focus on fire and its potential to shift, destroy and transform leads to a key moment in the show, Shere Khan’s death, in which the audience is shown the tiger’s soul transitioning from one plane of reality into the next – probably the most significant addition to the piece. Before the final curtain falls, the young boy is returned to his chair. This strategy allows Zimmerman to blend the Indian, English and American strands of the tale into one cohesive whole, but it also makes the story a dream that has no impact on the real world.

The thing that is missing from this adaptation is the very thing that Zimmerman indicates as being at the heart of the story, which is, in her words, ‘a world of imagination – a paradise you’re going to lose.’ Just what is at stake here, in the world outside of this boy’s imagination? What threatens his world of imagination? Zimmerman’s libretto never grapples with this idea. While she finds a form that can be viewed more comfortably today than the original film, the stage musical relies on its resonance with an audience’s potential nostalgia for the film rather than engaging their minds and hearts on what this story might mean in our contemporary world.

The score of this new version of The Jungle Book included the favourites from the film like Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” and the Sherman Brothers’ “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Trust in Me.” It is augmented with material like the plaintive “Baloo’s Blues,” which was written for a read-along album that followed the film, More Jungle Book, as well as some of Kipling’s own lyrics in pieces like “Road Song of the Bandar-Log” and a completely new song by Richard Sherman called “An Unexpected Friend.” Even a song written for one of Disney’s regrettable direct-to-video sequels, “Jungle Rhythm” by Lorraine Feather, Paul Grabowsky and Joel McNeely, found its way into the show. Peck’s vision for the score’s sound was to marry the distinctly jazzy sound of Disney’s score with Indian musical styles. The pit included jazz musicians and classical Indian instrumentalists, juxtaposing saxophone with sitar, clarinet with Carnatic violin. Peck also incorporated a variety of authentic percussion instruments into his arrangements. While this approach could be incredibly superficial, a cosmetic and patronising reinvention of the score, Peck’s work on the songs and underscoring reduces everything to its fundamental harmonic and melodic components, after which he builds up everything the audience hears. The result is a score that sounds like something new, its diverse individual elements unified as a sum greater than its very substantial parts. It is a pity that no cast recording exists to showcase this version of the score.

That’s it for today. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the staging of the show, its design and its legacy. See you next week for Forgotten Musicals Friday!

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