Michael Reilly will always remember the sight of a headless Big Bird.
Reilly grew up in a theatrical family, and one day his mother invited him to the set of “Sesame Street” where he met the actor playing the yellow-feathered character up close.
“He removed the head, and that kind of sealed my fate. I was in love with puppets,” Reilly says.
But it took some time, and more than a few mechanical courses under his belt, before he embraced puppetry as a profession.
Reilly, Puppet Supervisor for the traveling Broadway version of “The Lion King
,” makes sure the gaggle of puppets which bring the story to life remain in perfect working order. He’s also there to help the actors, even those who may have never gotten within 10 yards of a puppet, handle the mechanical wonders with care.
The Toronto native studied to be a technician in college, learning how to rewire houses and fix cars along the way. He eventually fell into the family business where he worked on the wardrobe side of theater for 10 years. When the opportunity came along to be the puppet wrangler for “The Lion King’s” Canadian-based production, his unique skill set made him the right person for the job.
He worked on the Toronto-based version of the Tony Award winning musical for four years, and later oversaw the puppetry behind the stage version of “The Lord of the Rings.”
Now, he’s responsible for keeping the domestic version of the show in working order, using puppets modeled after the original creations by Michael Curry and show director Julie Taymor.
“Things are breaking every single day. Hopefully, they’re just tiny adjustment,” says Reilly, he keeps in contact with two puppeteer colleagues via radio communicators. “We walk around, waiting for something to happen.”
“The Lion King” puppets run the gamut, from the bulky elephants to the tiny, sophisticated bird creations. The actor playing the villainous Scar must operate two hip-based motors through hand controls. The performer behind Zazu, the mischievous bird, is responsible for manipulating a mechanical hand puppet with very fine parts inside its head, like the levers that make its eyes blink.
Sometimes no amount of preparation can prepare Reilly for what happens on stage.
One night, the exuberant understudy playing Timone “literally ripped the head right off the puppet,” he recalls. “There was a disembodied head on his hand. That was pretty horrifying.”
The actors in “The Lion King” must not only sing, dance and emote but be able to adequately work the show’s puppets in convincing fashion. That means Reilly and his team train them for weeks before they’re ready for their curtain call.
“We take someone with no puppetry training and build up those skills they need to have,” he says, be it teaching them to walk on giraffe stilts to learning how to operate three hand controls at the same time.
Touring with “The Lion King” allows Reilly to meet with talented puppeteers across the country, and he’s heartened to find so many gifted folks in his field. But he realizes today’s audiences sometimes crave the seamless effects show in movies to the more mechanical performances of your average puppeteer.
It’s one reason he’s glad the upcoming reboot of “The Muppets” film franchise doesn’t resort to computer-generated effects. It’s all about the puppets.
Reilly says puppetry gigs are harder to come by these days, one reason he’s glad to be a part of “The Lion King” show as it travels across the country.
“This is the pinnacle of puppetry work,” he says.