A new musical adaptation of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,’’ directed by Mary Zimmerman, will kick off the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2013-2014 season, which will also include world premieres of dramas by Lydia R. Diamond and Melinda Lopez.
In an interview, artistic director Peter DuBois described “The Jungle Book,’’ slated for the Boston University Theatre Sept. 7-Oct. 6, as “the most ambitious show that the Huntington has ever tackled.’’ To be coproduced with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, which will premiere the work, “The Jungle Book’’ is being adapted by Zimmerman, whose 2011 “Candide’’ at the Huntington won wide acclaim.
From March 7 to April 6, 2014, former Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin will helm a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,’’ starring Kate Burton, at the BU Theatre. (The production will also feature Burton’s son, Morgan Ritchie, who will play Konstantin to Burton’s Arkadina). Lopez’s “Becoming Cuba,’’ a historical drama set in Cuba on the eve of the Spanish-American War, will run March 28-April 26, 2014, at the Wimberly Theatre in the Boston Center for the Arts, directed by M. Bevin O’Gara.
Diamond’s “Smart People,’’ which explores the provocative question of whether racism is “hard-wired’’ into human beings, is slated for May 23-June 21, 2014, at the Wimberly Theatre, directed by DuBois. Four additional productions for the upcoming season will be announced at a later date, one of which will be a world premiere, DuBois said.
Zimmerman acknowledged in an interview that “The Jungle Book’’ is “a new and quite strange thing for me.’’ But when Disney approached her about doing a stage adaptation of the 1967 animated film, she agreed to do it, she said, because she saw the project as a challenge and because she has “a private attachment to this story, private feelings that are strong.’’ Zimmerman declined to elaborate, but said she will draw from the Rudyard Kipling stories more than the Disney film did. The musical will be infused with Indian music along with the swinging jazz of the original score by the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard. Robert Sherman died last year, but Richard Sherman has been involved in Chicago workshops for the production.
“If you’re going to take the songs from the film, the songs bring with them character and plot and tone,’’ said Zimmerman. “Our challenge is to figure out how to honor that tone, those stories, that music, but allow it to have a little bit of weight and beauty. It can’t look like the movie, because the movie is drawn. So you have to find imaginative solutions — how to do a snake, how to do animals — to things that weren’t intended to be onstage.’’
Asked whether she hopes to eventually bring the production to Broadway, Zimmerman replied: “With any project like this, that is something, or a future life at least, is something that people would want it to have. But about 45 things have to line up right for something like that to happen.’’
Lopez’s “Becoming Cuba’’ will be produced during the first year of the playwright’s recently announced three-year residency at the Huntington, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Her new drama focuses on a widowed pharmacist named Adela, who, according to press materials, has to “choose between loyalty to country or to family.’’ In an interview with the Globe last month, Lopez said: “It’s a history play, it’s a war play, it’s a romance. There’s a great woman at the center of it.’’ DuBois added: “It’s got really strong bones. From the opening monologue, it’s about something bigger than the everyday.’’
According to Diamond, “Smart People’’ was inspired by a Princeton study on brain imaging and human behavior. The play revolves around four characters: a white neuroscientist, an African-American actress, a Chinese-Japanese-American psychologist, and an African-American doctor. Diamond said the play looks at, among other things, “how we spin around in our own hyper-intellectualism.’’
“It’s a play that lives in the flaws and reaching out that these very, very intelligent people do in their professional worlds, and how that lives with — and sometimes settles uncomfortably with — their own human need to reach out and touch other people,’’ Diamond said in an interview.
The playwright, whose “Stick Fly’’ was produced at the Huntington in 2010, acknowledged that “it’s scary to put into the national discussion that which we are sometimes accused of having discussion fatigue about: the question of race in general.’’ But Diamond said that as a writer she is irresistibly drawn to “the big questions that make me uncomfortable and that I don’t know how to answer, that we struggle with and don’t talk about, that are around sex and gender and race and class.’’
In “Smart People,’’ according to DuBois, “The research of one of the characters, into the genetic and biological basis of racism, really is the fifth character of the play. It sort of becomes nitroglycerin. It’s really smart, when you get wrapped up in those fever-pitch dialogues so that the ideas — Tom Stoppard does it; my friend Gina Gionfriddo does it — the ideas themselves become emotional. That’s thrilling to me, when the mind and heart are moving at a rapid pace.’’