As the brightly colored King Louis belted out his jazzy “I Wanna Be Like You” tune, all of Groton sat mesmerized in the audience, enjoying the show at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. The vibrant performance was a scene from the play, The Jungle Book, directed by Mary Zimmerman. This musical is based off of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and bears striking similarities with Disney’s 1967 animation. It was a great opportunity for the school to come together and watch such an entertaining work of art.
The trip received generally positive reviews compared to last year’s The Glass Menagerie. Most people agreed that The Jungle Book was a very lively and entertaining play. Joe Gentile ’14 said, “As I sat watching The Jungle Book, I couldn’t help but notice the stark difference between this experience and the experience watching The Glass Menagerie last spring. The energetic and spirited performance seemed to be enjoyable for a larger number of students.” In entertainment value, The Jungle Book, with all of its frivolous dancing and singing, beats out The Glass Menagerie. Such a production is bound to have support; people of any age enjoy entertainment and it is certainly easier for children to sit and watch people dance and sing instead of following a complex plot.
Zimmerman intended the play to follow Kipling’s original version yet retain elements of Disney’s musical. The play certainly did include a mix of both. Anna Thorndike ’16 said, “Mary Zimmerman did an incredible job of combining the music and frivolity of Disney’s production with Rudyard Kipling’s original story.” There were many striking similarities between this production and Disney’s 1967 animation, most noticeably the song “Bear Necessities.” Kevin Carolan (Baloo) sounded strikingly similar to the actor who voiced Baloo in Disney’s version. Sydney Pagliocco ‘16 said, “Once the song ‘Bear Necessities’ came on, the mood of the play was lifted and flashbacks to my childhood were brought back.”
The soundtrack was incredible – musicians not normally seen on stage marched out, boisterously blaring their gaudy tunes. Indian dancing and costumes brought a cultural aspect to the play that was absent from the Disney movie. Many members of the community thoroughly appreciated the flourish of Indian culture. Zimmerman also casted the actors very diversely, choosing actors of all different ethnicities.
The casting of Andre De Shields, however, along with the portrayals of the monkeys, posed some controversies. Kipling was known for being a racist and a colonialist; he was called “a prophet for British imperialism” by George Orwell. In his original story he portrayed the monkeys as inferior beings, an allegory for Indian people when India was under British colonial rule. The lyrics of the song “I Wanna Be like You” further magnified this problem. When asked in an interview by Chicago Magazine if this was a concern in adapting the film, Zimmerman replied, “Yeah, it was a concern. But I’ve decided to make it not a concern. I know what the lyrics say and how squeamish you can get about that. But we’ve done some things with casting that I’m not going to give away, but that I think will remove that element. I know what the lyrics of [“I Wanna Be Like You”] say, but look at the original—it’s sung by Louis Prima. He’s the King of the Swingers. It’s something I think where the racism is in the eye of the beholder, you know? Look, if you wanted to eliminate every masterpiece or painting created by someone who had moronic ideas about status and race, you’d have to empty the museums.” It is problematic that directors can be criticized for casting an actor of specific ethnicity for a certain role; Andre De Shields was chosen not for any reason other than being an outstanding singer who fit the character of King Louis perfectly.
Under the glittering stage lights, the world of the jungle and the animals that inhabit the leafy wonderland came alive in a way that the Disney movie could not portray. The dancing and singing entertained everyone and overall the trip was great success. Thank you to the anonymous donor who provided this wonderful occasion for us.