Michael Reilly 

Toronto-born Michael Reilly has been with Broadway's traveling production of The Lion King almost since its debut in 1997 (he joined the crew in 1999, taking just one hiatus to work on shows like Lord of the Rings and Wicked) but even drama diehards might not recognize his face. That's because Reilly is the production's puppet supervisor, a behind-the-scenes job that's vital, but far from the spotlight.

"There are three of us in the department, and there are 230 puppets in the production," Reilly told Boise Weekly before the show's Oct. 17 opening at The Morrison Center. "So everything from as small as a mouse to as large as an elephant."

Reilly splits his downtime between Toronto and his wife's hometown of Hagerstown, Maryland, but we reached him on the road—where The Lion King keeps him busy year-round—to talk about pulling the strings of a Broadway production.

I don't think many kids grow up dreaming about being puppet supervisors—what drew you to this career?

I grew up in the theater. My mother was in the theater and I was backstage a lot. I remember very early on, [when I was] maybe 7 years old, I got to meet Big Bird backstage, and he took off his enormous head and it was a pretty indelible moment for me in my life. In fact, I still can see in my mind exactly where it happened and my reaction. It was a big deal. And then I went to technical school. I just like to work with my hands, and I had no clue what I would do ... I learned a lot of different things, like carpentry and metalwork and welding and electrical and painting, all kinds of crazy things. And then I kind of fell backwards into theater myself when I was 16. They needed somebody to work in the wardrobe department at the last minute.

And what production was that?

This was Cats. So they asked me, "Do you want to come and be a dresser on Cats for the night?" And I was like, "Yeah, okay!" So I did that at 16 and I just fell in love with it. And then having my technical background ... Every time something strange or funny or puppetry-related came up, it just seemed like I was the person to get asked. So it just kind of evolved into puppetry.

How commonplace would you say puppetry is in Broadway productions? Is The Lion King an exception to the rule?

Yes and no. You know, everything is cyclical, so of course puppetry has hundreds and hundreds of years in theater and [has an] arts background. But it kind of fell out of favor for a long time. I think The Lion King was certainly a mainstream way to bring it back into Broadway theater. ... Of course now, there is all kinds of puppetry on stage, in everything from War Horse to Wicked.

Tell me a bit about your day-to-day on set.

Our job is mostly during the day before the show, repairing and fixing problems on the puppets. But during the show we are on radio, just in case something were to happen. So if something breaks or something's not working quite right we're there immediately with tape and zip ties, and whatever it will take to fix it and get that puppet back on stage, because the show's not stopping.

Having seen The Lion King myself, I think it's important to note that these aren't your typical puppets. Can you speak to what makes this production different?

It's interesting because when people think of puppets they tend to think of marionettes, or sock puppets, or hand puppets. And you know, it's so many different things in The Lion King, but one of the main sort of tenets that we adhere to is that we don't hide our puppeteers. And that's very important, because these are actors and their main tools are their voices and their faces, [that's] their way to emote. So you see the human, but you also see the puppet. If they're wearing a mask on top of their head or they're handling a puppet, you see both, and you have that puppet and human side to both of them. And we play with that. We'll separate the human and the puppet at some points, and just have the human addressing [Simba]. Or we'll take the puppeteer away and we'll just have the puppet. ... So playing with that, and allowing that kind of duality, I think really is engaging for the audience because it forces them to really think about both aspects of this lion king—he's animal, but of course he still has these human characteristics, too.

Are there any special tricks you use to pull off that on-stage magic?

It's just a different way of telling the story, and there's no sort of trick to it. You just trust that your audience understands that the puppets are the animals and the humans are the humans and they're together. It's a marriage, almost.

I've got to ask—do you have a puppet that's your personal favorite?

You know, I always say Mufasa is kind of representative of our show. He's a big circle mask, he kind of is the circle of life all in his face, so that's my favorite.

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