Giving "The Jungle Book" a World Music Beat
A new legit adaptation of the Walt Disney movie "The Jungle Book" swings onto the home stage of the Huntington Theatre Company to a world music beat.
The jazzed up Rudyard Kipling inspired adventures of Mowgli that the 1967 Hollywood animated version gave us, takes on a second and more East Indian tone thanks to additional new music from conductor and arranger Doug Peck, credited with music orchestration, supervision, adaptation, and arrangement.
"It's a fusion of jazz and Indian, original music that's a bluesy jazz blended in with a classical Indian music," said Peck in a recent phone conversation to the Goodman Theater, which is co-producing "The Jungle Book" with the Huntington.
He adds that you will hear the original songs from the movie: there were seven from the prolific Sherman brothers and one from Terry Gilkyson, the catchy "Bare Necessities."
Peck said, "it would be a crime to make them unrecognizable." (Disney himself worked closely with the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman frequently bringing them into storyline sessions to write fun songs that would advance the plot with "a lightness, a Disney touch." It was his final feature, and the film would be released just 10 months after his death).
At the Goodman, Mary Zimmerman's musical "The Jungle Book," won hearty applause from the national press during its two month run which concluded August 18 having been extended three times. "Inventive and stunning" said "Entertainment Weekly."
Now in its 80th year, Chicago’s Goodman is where shows that Peck has orchestrated and directed have won some five Jeff Awards. (The Joseph Jefferson Awards, named for a 19th century actor, have been given annually since 1968 for excellence in theater work done under an Actors Equity contract).
One of the past successes for Peck’s music was the critical and audience smash, Chicago-based auteur Mary Zimmerman adaptation of "Candide," which came to the Huntington two seasons ago and was the highest grossing musical in the Huntington’s 30 year history. It too was a co-production of the Boston 2013 Regional Theatre Tony Award winning professional company, matched up with Chicago’s outstanding Goodman Theatre. For "The Jungle Book," Peck conducts the orchestra and plays the piano and harmonium.
This time, however, Disney Theatrical Productions is part of the producers circle as "enrichment" to the show. Not only has the company handed over the scripts and songbook to Zimmerman but has given her a blank check for work going into the show that goes beyond the usual rehearsal process.
Indian & Western instrumentation
The result has been, according to Peck, two week-long sessions with the 12 musicians and five of the actors to explore arrangements that mix Indian and Western instruments and styles and an improvisational style where musicians dance right up onto the stage and interact with actors. (At the Huntington, eight of the original musicians are joined by four from Boston to comprise the jazz/Indian band).
Also, Disney paid for research trips for Peck to India.
"Namaste from Mumbai," writes Peck in one of a series of emails to Zimmerman recounting his growing appreciation of Indian instrumentation and musical styles.
"The three percussion instruments playing in driving unison rhythms were so wild and exciting and I was singing little dissonant jazz stabs in my head over them," he writes of a concert where the mrindangam (one drum played on the sides) was a featured instrument.
For "The Jungle Book," the sitar, made famous here by Ravi Shankar, along with the ancient South Indian veena, a sort of bass version of the sitar, are featured but, as well, the five Indian musicians play amongst them an extraordinary variety of percussion instruments from the frame drum, the tablas, the ghattam (clay pot), dhoil (giant drum worn across the body and hit with sticks) and others.
Another instrument that is new to traditional Western music is the Carnatic violin, played holding it across the chest. Peck feels in tune with the soulfulness of the Indian sound and the rightness of a blend its with the jazzy tones of the Disney animated film’s songs.
Dance plays a role in Indian music that Peck picked up on, as well as, singing while playing and in interludes between instrumentation. Describing one performance, Peck wrote to Zimmerman that the musician "would sometimes do the rhythms with his feet/bells (they had floor mics and he danced really close to them so you could hear every semiquaver) and sometimes with his voice." For "The Jungle Book" Peck has musicians in his orchestra who "over sing."
Performances for "The Jungle Book" at the Huntington Theatre Company begin Sept. 7. Peck, who is out, is "absolutely" happy with the prospect of a stay here. "I feel comfortable in Boston as a gay person and there are lots of places for a gay person to go after a show."
There’s speculation that the show may go on to Broadway, or even further away to India. Says Peck, "I have come to have a deep appreciation the Disney people’s business acumen."
The Jungle Book book and direction by Mary Zimmerman at the Huntington’s Main Stage, the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, opening Sept. 7 thru Oct. 13. For more info please phone 617-266-0800 or go on-line at www.Huntingtontheatre.org.