Our final Forgotten Musicals Friday column for July brings us full circle in our journey through The Jungle Book. As mentioned in our first column, we are looking at the show’s legacy, having already looked at its book and score, staging and design. It is impossible to look at how the show sits in today’s world without jumping into its history, starting with the approach Rudyard Kipling, the author of the original text, used in placing his worldview into his writing.
Kipling is a controversial figure today, both in India and around the world. On the one hand, his ability to distil an idea to its essence is evidence of his genius. On the other, Kipling used this genius to produce works like “The White Man’s Burden,” a poem that justifies the atrocities of imperial conquests, such as the exploitation of land and the theft of natural resources, as a means to an end, colonial civilisation – so-called civilisation, that is. One question that must have sat foremost in the minds of the team behind The Jungle Book was how to ensure that the story they were telling could exist separately from Kipling’s politics. This task was nothing less than daunting. How could it not be, given that the original material deals with the theme of civilisation at its very core, using the ideas of people as animals and animals as people as a vehicle for its exploration?
This discourse made its way into Disney’s first take on the material in the form of “I Wanna Be Like You,” a song sequence in the film in which the monkeys are racially coded as black people and viewed as sub-human animals who want to become civilised men. While this is a précis of the argument, it was something that Mary Zimmerman had to address in making the show. Her response to the idea that King Louie, the monkeys’ leader, has been identified as a signifier of racism was that ‘many people believe [the character] was voiced by Louis Armstrong, but was in fact conceived for and voiced by Louis Prima, a white Italian American.’ She continues: ‘I challenged the assumption that King Louie is a derogatory depiction of a black man given that what is on the screen is only an ape, drawn in a style consistent with all Disney animation of the period, voiced by a white musician, singing to a little Indian boy.’
Zimmerman argued that observers of The Jungle Book inserted the issue of race into the material. Where is the acknowledgement that such observations are grounded in a clear socio-historical context? While Louis Armstrong may not have voiced King Louie, as some have assumed, Richard M. Sherman has been open about Armstrong’s role in inspiring the song and the character’s name. The character has no equivalent in the Kipling original, in which the Bandar-Log – or monkey people – have no king. Given factors such as these, can it credibly be argued that there is no evidence of racist worldviews in the film?
A further beat that Zimmerman misses here is that the criticism levelled at the film on this issue isn’t exclusively about King Louie but also in the scenes that lead up to it. Baloo, an American-sounding bear voiced by a white actor, forges a link between stereotypical African-American physical features and the monkeys that serve King Louie. The language used in the film to construct these stereotypes was common in the lingua franca of the 1960s. Neither can we take the sinister history of comparing black people to monkeys as unread in this context. Some cultural critics felt that Zimmerman’s choice to cast André De Shields in the role of King Louie complicated things even further. De Shields has gone on record to say that he hoped to detonate and thus exorcise the stereotype through his performance. One wonders whether they were on the same page.
Creating a stage production of The Jungle Book for today’s audiences is a complicated affair; it is simply the nature of the beast. In this adaptation, Zimmerman aimed to marry a colonial literary view of India and Disney’s American sensibilities with a more modern and socially just world. Reviews of and responses to the show put forward the idea that The Jungle Book neither felt like a fully realised vision nor negotiated the politics lurking behind the facade of a narrative about a child’s imagination. Given these reactions, is it any surprise that this version of The Jungle Book did not go any further, even though there was some hope that perhaps it might? For now, the only version of The Jungle Book you might catch on stage is a local production of The Jungle Book KIDS, a much more straightforward, half-hour-long adaptation of the original film. Perhaps, someday, someone else will have a crack at a grander full-scale production and succeed.