Behind the Scenes of Broadway's 'The Lion King'

19. October 2014 11:15 by Julie Merar in Theater  //  Tags:   //   Comments ()

Believe it or not, many critics expected the Broadway musical adaptation of the 1994 Disney film "The Lion King" to be a tremendous flop. Now the show has grossed over $5 billion, has been performed around the globe, and has become one of few productions to play longer than 10 years. That's probably because "The Lion King" is one of the most elaborate performances of all time. Directed by the brilliant Julie Taymor, each production requires massive collaboration of 100 workers including puppeteers, stage hands, actors, electricians, musicians, wardrobe staff and prop experts. From the opening moment when Simba is held for all the world to see until the curtain closes, "The Lion King" is a vibrant and energetic masterpiece that has wowed millions worldwide, and a lot of that is because so much work goes into it backstage. Here's a look behind the scenes of the Disney Broadway musical "The Lion King."

Pride Rock
It takes 18 tractor trailers to transport the entire set of the production. Perhaps the most challenging element to pack in this convoy is Pride Rock, which weighs in at a whopping 8,500 pounds. It towers on the stage at 35 feet, making it difficult to transport on one truck. However, Pride Rock is in many ways the centerpiece of the scenery, as it is essential to the monumental opening scene where Simba is lifted above Rafiki's head. Pride Rock is remote controlled and has the ability to rotate so it can alter the scenery while maintaining its dramatic presence.

Huge puppets
When most people imagine puppeteers, they likely think of street performers manipulating small figures or quiet artists in rafters fiercely pulling at numerous strings. In the Broadway production of "The Lion King," puppets are of a slightly larger proportion. Actors have to climb into gigantic animal puppets, using their entire bodies to control the beasts. For example, a giraffe on stage walks in at 18 feet tall, and is controlled by an actor on mounted stilts. Learning to operate these puppets smoothly takes an immense amount of practice. Imagine, the actor manipulating the puppet must have full control of how the animal walks and moves, working diligently to make sure it looks natural. The enormous elephant puppets require four actors to maneuver, and all of them must work in sync to assure there are no gaffs or slip-ups.

Lighting
There are almost 700 lighting instruments used to give depth to the show. The production requires such a large number of lights to recreate the natural feel of the sun rising and setting, as "The Lion King" takes place outdoors in the animal world. When the show hits the road, the crew often has to create new places from which to rig up lights. Considering each venue is entirely different, this can be a daunting task. One production can require the work of up to 10 electricians.

Waiting for the drop: Riding high on EDM

17. October 2014 10:10 by Julie Merar in Music   //  Tags:   //   Comments ()

Music journalists seem intent on pushing EDM (that's electronic dance music, for those late to the party) as the de rigueur youth-music movement. Much in the same way hip-hop succeeded rock, and rock succeeded jazz, and jazz succeeded whatever Victorian industrialists had been listening to in their parlors, EDM is seen as the turning point in the evolution of American musical taste. Even the New York Times, that international arbiter of the contemporary vogue, quoted Live Nation executive Michael Rapino as saying, "If you're 15 to 25 years old now, this is your rock 'n' roll." But is it really? If we consider the fact that Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival tickets continue to sell out within hours, it would seem as though the music revolution has been digitized. Add that to a thriving European scene, where the genre first reached notoriety, I should add, and it isn't hard to imagine EDM being the next generation of music.

Angering the old folks
EDM also has the important feature present in most musical revolutions of being able to make the older generation grumble. Indeed, even the current generation engages in the occasional EDM-bashing, deriding its decadent nonsense or vapid noise as being representative of the millennial zeitgeist as a whole. The musical cognoscenti are quick to point out the differences between American and European EDM - the former exhibits a physical, get-up-and-move-before-I-sober-up mentality, while the latter takes its time to ebb and flow.

The result has been a somewhat fragmented scene of EDM purists along with the current superstars that have been able to rise up to international fame. Names like Skrillex, Deadmau5, David Guetta and Avicii are likely to be familiar to anyone with an FM radio receiver. However, these megastars are the result of a scene that once could only be found in abandoned warehouses in dingy London neighborhoods. However, if there is one thing that can define a musical movement from a fad, it is its ability to make a 30-somethings opine for the music of "their day."

Decades in the making
Of course, there is a substantial community in the older generation to whom EDM will seem intimately familiar. In the same way that rock and roll took the syncopation from jazz and amped it up with electric instruments, EDM is distilling the musical elements of the many movements that have come before it. Ever since the auditory experiments of artists such as Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Giorgio Moroder in the 1970s, people have been using synthesizers to make dance music electronically. The disco craze of that time period provides the roots for the idea of "music for dancing" as opposed to "music for listening."

EDM is nothing if not a tribal event. It got its start with people gathering in abandoned industrial spaces to hear DJs create 26-hour-long sets, during which groups would transcend the individual to become one, giant, sweaty, heaving mass of humanity dancing in the dark. From these humble beginnings EDM has exploded into shows offering no less than full-on sensory assault. The bass is so heavy it could save a choking victim while there are so many lasers it'll feel like you are in the rare gems exhibit of the Natural History Museum after hours.  Being a part of the community is as integral to EDM as the music itself.

Whatever the historical status of EDM, it is clear that the style has captivated a significant portion of the world's youth. One need look no further than the current state of pop music, where artists such as Ke$ha and Lady Gaga are producing songs that have been strongly influenced by EDM elements. Time will tell what we are to make of EDM, but for now, it is here to stay.

What do you think of the current EDM craze? Boom or bust?

Coldplay's philanthropic efforts

15. October 2014 10:53 by Julie Merar in Music   //  Tags:   //   Comments ()

Over the past decade and a half Coldplay has become an international phenomenon often compared to U2. The bands are similar in many ways, including that both groups consist of four members, but perhaps most notable is that they are both very involved philanthropically. U2 has often performed and collaborated with other celebrities to raise awareness and funds for numerous charities, most of which address disease and poverty. 

In the same vein, Coldplay as a group gives 10 percent of their profits to charitable organizations and are extremely conscious of how their music is used in advertising campaigns. Furthermore, both bands have received a wide range of criticism despite international acclaim, becoming a common  topic of discussion amongst music pundits. These critics weigh in on both bands usually in regard to the pop sound of their artistic endeavors and the ethos behind their philanthropic ones. 

The band
Coldplay is formed by frontman Chris Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion. The quartet formed in 1997 after Martin and Buckland had met at University College London during orientation week a year earlier. The band experienced several early name changes, performing under the title Starfish before settling on Coldplay on the recommendation of a fellow student. Over the next couple of years, Coldplay would build up a fan​ base locally and regionally, releasing several EPs in small circulation. Champion was briefly fired from the band during this early period, but then Martin pleaded for him to return, which would prove an important event in the band's history.

With the return of Champion, the members of Coldplay agreed to operate democratically, in a similar fashion to bands U2 and R.E.M. This also meant all of the band's members would receive equal profits moving forward, making it easy for Coldplay to donate to charity as collectively as well as individually. The band released their first album, Parachutes, in 2000, which debuted No. 1 in the U.K. The singles "Yellow" and "Trouble" quickly became hits in the United States, propelling Coldplay to international fame. Since then, the group has become a worldwide sensation, performing to enormous sellout crowds around the globe and earning as much as $3 million per performance. 

Charity
The members of Coldplay have always been conscious of how their music is used. The band has turned down multimillon​-dollar contracts with a number of advertisers seeking product endorsement because they believe it would be counteracting the message of their music. Coldplay consistently raises over one million pounds for charity each year. The band does this through the J Van Mars Foundation, a charitable organization formed by the band's members in 2009. The foundation serves as a general fund through which Coldplay can donate to a wide range of charities through individual and organizational grants. 

One group that Coldplay regularly supports is the Kids Company, an organization that supports inner-city children in London and Bristol. The band originally considered opening their own youth center, but realized that not only would the project take a lot of work, but it would also be challenging to execute effectively. The group was advised to meet with Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company.

In a 2011 interview, Martin said, "After one meeting, we knew that was where we wanted to put our money. We had not thought past the Ping-Pong table aspect of creating a youth center but watching Kids Company in action we suddenly realized, 'oh right, it's actually about life skills, parenting, taking kids to the dentist' – all those things we took for granted but which Kids Company provides. It was very moving. We were blown away by it."

Remarkably, the band was able to donate substantial sums of money to the organization for some time before it became public knowledge. This is greatly beneficial for both the charity and the band, because it allows donations to not be subjected to media criticisms and unnecessary judgments. In some ways public contributions can become an onus on both the artists and the organization, allowing anyone to question why the celebrities chose a specific charity. Coldplay expressed that the band would continue to donate to Kids Company as long as they were able. 

In 2010, Coldplay helped raise money during Haiti Now fundraiser after the island was hit by a horrific earthquake. The band performed "A Message" during the Haiti Now telethon.

In the past Coldplay has also asked that any gifts intended for the band instead be donated to charity. Coldplay continues to regularly donate to charity and create new music. Ghost Stories, the group's sixth studio album, was released in Spring of 2014. The album release was followed by a promotional international tour. Album sales were high in both the UK and U.S., which with the band's 10 percent charity rule, will assuredly allow them to continue supporting worthy organizations far into the future.

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