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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Giving ‘Jungle Book’ its beat

Indian, Western musical fusion adds to staged Kipling tale

Andre De Shields as King Louie, as musicians join actors on stage, in Huntington coproduction of  “The Jungle Book.”

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Andre De Shields as King Louie, as musicians join actors on stage, in Huntington coproduction of “The Jungle Book.”

“Now I’m the king of the swingers, oh, the jungle VIP.” Richard Sherman is sitting at a piano in a studio at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion, playing and warbling “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song),” which he and his late brother, Robert, wrote for the animated 1967 Disney film “The Jungle Book.” He’s flanked on the piano bench by Mary Zimmerman, the director of the Huntington Theatre Company’s current adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” and Doug Peck, who did the production’s musical orchestration and arrangements.

Kevin Carolan plays Baloo in “The Jungle Book,” here accompanied by musicians playing trumpet, percussion, and sitar.

T. Charles Erickson

Kevin Carolan plays Baloo in “The Jungle Book,” here accompanied by musicians playing trumpet, percussion, and sitar.

Sherman is 85, but he performs with the zip of an 18-year-old, stretching out the ending of the song like the pro he is: “I wanna be like you. One more time. I wanna be like you. Take me home, daddy. I wanna be like you.” Finishing up with a big tremolo as Zimmerman and Peck convulse with laughter, he calls it “the never-ending ending.”

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All five of the songs the Shermans composed for Disney, along with Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” and some recycled tunes with new lyrics, are included in the show, a world premiere coproduction between the Huntington and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre that runs through Oct. 20. But this is not your parents’ “Jungle Book.” Zimmerman wanted her version to reflect the Indian setting of the Rudyard Kipling stories that inspired the Disney film. She envisioned Indian-flavored sets, costumes, music, and dance.

Composer Richard Sherman, of the Huntington Theatre's production of "The Jungle Book.”

Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff

Composer Richard Sherman, of the Huntington Theatre's production of "The Jungle Book.”

“Mary came to me with the idea of taking Indian forms of representation
seriously — specifically for me, in music,” Peck explains. “We wanted to make a fusion of jazz music and Indian music. I know jazz very well; I didn’t know Indian music very well at all.”

So he went to India twice, the first time with Zimmerman. He studied both the Hindustani music tradition of the north of India, which he describes as Arab-influenced and even Western-influenced, and the Carnatic tradition of the south, which he says is “completely Asian, mostly untouched by music of other cultures, and it deeply influenced me in terms of the instrumentation.”

The goal of the fusion, he says, was “to amplify the songs with Indian sounds and Indian instruments and Indian rhythms. And we wanted a lot of underscoring, because there’s these beautiful visual moments that need music to support them.”

In Jaipur, they heard the snake trumpet, which, says Zimmerman, “heralds
elephants arriving in the courtyard. And in another very obscure place where we stayed overnight, a guy sang for us a song that’s part of the epic of Hanuman, the monkey king.” They would adapt that melody twice in the production, during the monkeys’ kidnapping of Mowgli and their tap dance.

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Back home in Chicago, their contractor found the 12 musicians they needed. Peck had started out with north Indian instruments such as sitar and tablas, but after his trips to Chennai, in the south of India, he added the veena, an ancient stringed instrument that may be the ancestor of the sitar, and the Carnatic violin, which he describes as a Western violin that’s played across the body. He’s particularly taken with the latter instrument.

“The goal of all Indian music, but especially south Indian music,” he explains, “is to imitate the quality of the sung or spoken voice. And the violinist, I think of all the instruments in Indian music, gets the closest to that.” He has high praise for the show’s Carnatic violinist, Anuradha Sridhar, describing her solos on “Trust in Me” and “My Own Home” as “so vocal and so soulful.”

The Indian percussion instruments he chose included the daf (a frame drum), the dumbek (a gourd drum), and the ghattam (a kind of clay pot). The Western side was represented by brass and wind instruments — trumpet, trombone, flügelhorn, tuba, clarinet, flute, saxophone — plus bass and drums.

Peck leads the orchestra and plays the harmonium, which he learned for the show. If you go down to the orchestra pit and look at the harmonium, you’ll see that he plays it while sitting cross-legged. “I’ve sat cross-legged Indian style my whole life,” he says. “And then out of solidarity with my Indian musicians, I wanted to become as much of an Indian musician as I could.”

Zimmerman says that, in rehearsal, it was fascinating “to watch the Indian musicians with these complex rhythms, which are nothing to them, but it blew the minds of the Western musicians. And vice versa. There are things that were very easy for the Western musicians, like harmony, that kind of blew the mind of the Indian musicians.”

Workshops in Chicago helped them to get the balance right, between Western and Indian. “We found that sometimes it’s best to lean completely into the jazz, and sometimes completely into the Indian,” Peck says. (You don’t need a ticket to “The Jungle Book” to hear the 12-piece ensemble’s hybrid of jazz and Indian music. They will perform a one-night-only concert at Johnny D’s Uptown in Somerville on Oct. 6.)

Zimmerman describes how in rehearsals the musicians would “jam softly, and it leans toward the Indian, and then it’ll curve back toward the jazz, and no one’s speaking, and it goes on for hours. And some of it I wish we had recordings of, it’s so beautiful.”

What Zimmerman and Peck do have, however, is musicians improvising — which means that each performance of this “Jungle Book” is never quite the same. “The actors are dancing to different music every night,” Zimmerman says, “but it’s the same amount of bars, so it doesn’t throw them, but it excites them.”

Another unorthodox decision Zimmerman and Peck made was to have the musicians come onto the stage for their solos. “It’s just like ‘What’s happening?’ when they first come out of the pit,” Zimmerman says.

And what does Sherman think of all this? “I was tantalized,” he says, “because I was hearing instruments I had never connected with my work, and all of a sudden I thought, ‘God, this is great.’ ”

Sherman’s adventure with “The Jungle Book” started when he and his brother were staff writers at Disney Studios. They had already composed “It’s a Small World (After All)” and won two Oscars for “Mary Poppins” when Disney asked them to write the score for his Kipling adaptation. “I Wanna Be Like You,” for the monkey king, got started with the idea that monkeys swing in trees. “So that gave us our opening line: ‘I’m the king of the swingers. The jungle VIP.’ We decided to make a jazz song, a real Dixieland kind of a jazz, where we could do scat singing, scoobie-doobie-doo and little things like that,” Sherman says.

They did a military march for the elephants, turning Hathi from Kipling’s stories into Colonel Hathi for the film. Sherman describes “My Own Home” as “a very pretty song . . . which had an Indian flavor to it.” “That’s What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song)” was going to be a rock sendup of the Beatles, but Sherman recalls that when Disney listened to the demo, he said, “We don’t want to date this.” So they made it a barbershop quartet, but they kept the Liverpudlian accents.

For the Huntington production, Zimmerman and Peck added “Baloo’s Blues,” which the Shermans had composed for a sequel to the film that was never made, and Richard Sherman freshened up the lyrics, changing “They civilized my man cub” to “They monkeyfied my man cub.” They created a monkey tap dance with lyrics from Kipling’s “Road-Song of the Bandar-log.” And Sherman took a song he and his brother had written for the 1970 Disney film “The Aristocats” and turned it into “Your Unexpected Friend” for the show’s villain, tiger Shere Khan.

The show’s upbeat finale, “Jungle Rhythm,” was composed by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowski for the 2003 Disney sequel, “The Jungle Book 2.”

“Some people,” says Zimmerman, “were puzzled by the end of ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ by that exuberant thing on the train tracks.”

“I adored it, I adored it,” Sherman interjects.

“But that’s how every Bollywood movie ends,” she continues, “and that’s how I wanted our show to end, with this great exuberance.”

“And what a great way to have a Bollywood ending,” Sherman concludes, “a big happy ending. Everybody steps out of character and has a great time with it, and it makes everyone come out feeling very good.”

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreym
gantz@gmail.com
.

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