'The Jungle Book' at Goodman Theatre: When Mary met Walt (and Rudyard)

Mary Zimmerman, center, and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld  watch as Larry Yando is fitted with the costume of  Shere Khan for the Goodman Theatre production of "The Jungle Book."

Mary Zimmerman, center, and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld watch as Larry Yando is fitted with the costume of Shere Khan for the Goodman Theatre production of "The Jungle Book." (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / June 6, 2013)

Rudyard Kipling hated Chicago. "It holds rather more than a million of people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta," wrote the man whom George Orwell dubbed "the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase," following a visit to Chicago in the 1880s. "Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its water is the water of the Hooghly, and its air is dirt."

So you have to wonder what Kipling would have thought about Chicago being the city of the theatrical debut of "The Jungle Book," his collection of moralistic, even allegorical, stories set in the jungles of India, the country of his birth, and first published in magazines in 1893 and 1894.

Those adventurous yarns — much beloved in the early years of the British scouting movement, even if they were actually written while Kipling was in Vermont — are now in the public domain. Kipling remains an interesting, even a daunting, literary figure — albeit one frequently derided as an unreconstructed colonialist and thus a racist. But his stories were merely the starting point for why Mary Zimmerman's next major project at the Goodman Theatre is a musical involving the man-cub Mowgli, the sloth bear Baloo, the black panther Bagheera, the tiger Shere Khan and an entire crew of pushy monkeys.

Those characters, along with a couple of vultures called Flaps and Dizzie, and King Louie, an orangutan with passionate designs on humanity, make up the cast of characters of a 1967 animated movie, the last such animated movie that the great Walt Disney personally produced and a cultural icon that has been a part of at least three generations. Say the lyric "oobee doo," and it often prompts the comeback, "I wanna be like you," wherever you are in the world. Even India.

The global popularity of Disney's "The Jungle Book," one of the most popular animated films of all time with an inflation-adjusted gross in excess of $500 million, is a major reason Disney wanted Zimmerman to do "The Jungle Book." That backing, which involves so-called "enhancement" money for the Goodman production, likely somewhere in the high six figures, is not merely financial. Disney Theatricals, said chief executive Thomas Schumacher, has provided artistic council and also opened up its vaults and archives. That includes the so-called "trunk" (or discarded) songs of the Sherman brothers, the famous in-house Disney songsmiths who penned most of the score for "The Jungle Book" (except for "The Bare Necessities") when they weren't working on "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" or "Mary Poppins" — or "It's a Small World" for one of the rides at Disneyland, which, by 1967, increasingly was pulling Disney away from direct involvement in his animated features. But "The Jungle Book" had his personal imprint.

"He'd stand up against the wall," said Richard M. Sherman, one of those songwriting brothers, over a recent lunch, "and scratch his back like Baloo."

When this Goodman project was announced, it was declared that Zimmerman, known for adapting narrative sources like an Ovid myth or an ancient Eastern tale, or the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, would somehow combine the songs and story of the movie with the language and narrative of Kipling and the cultural context of India. But that has turned out to be a tricky business that has ensnared Zimmerman is some local controversy.

For one thing, the relationship between the movie and the Kipling stories always was, to say the least, tenuous. Disney, who knew instantly what made a great animated story, wanted the characters and ideas of the Kipling stories, especially the heart-tugging notion of a parentless child raised by animals in the jungle, but not much of the original narrative, which kept expanding and then doubling back on itself as Kipling churned out the stories over a long period of time.

"The difference between Kipling and Disney was 10 times wider than the difference between Voltaire and Leonard Bernstein," said Zimmerman, over lunch a few days ago, referring to "Candide," her last project at the Goodman Theatre.

Maybe a hundred times.

"Walt sat us all down one day and asked which of us had read the book," Sherman said, recalling a moment when he was actually in the room with his beloved mentor. "I told him I had not. 'Good,' he said. 'Don't read it.'" Sherman (who wrote with his late brother Robert B. Sherman) drew songs like "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" from notions of character rather than story, working closely with Disney's writers and editors. That ape song came about because of a conversation about what apes did — swing in the jungle while grunting — and that led to the use of swing as a musical form.

In other words, the Kipling stories and the movie are very different beasts. And Disney wanted it just so. That said, both the movie and the stories are, for the most part, episodic.

"It's a picaresque tale," said Schumacher of the movie. "There's not a lot of narrative. It does not have a big arc." From Schumacher's perspective, that made the property trickier to adapt for the stage than, say, "Beauty and the Beast," and more in need of a visionary director who could flesh out those episodes.

Then there's the major question of India itself and to what extent its identity survived the Kipling prism in these stories. Kipling's take on the nation was, of course, that of a white colonialist. Although born in India (which, arguably, confers certain rights in the telling of an Indian story), Kipling was not sympathetic to the notion of Indian independence, nor do his broader writings reflect a man who easily saw the human cost of the colonial landscape of which he was a part. As such, he has been widely derided by those on the political left, and he remains a problematic collaborator, even from the grave. Zimmerman painted a more complex picture of the man.

Kipling and his sister, she noted, were both taken from the India of their birth and placed in an abusive English boarding school. Rudyard was taken out early by his parents; his sister remained.

"I think his hyper-masculinity," Zimmerman said, "was born in his inability to protect his little sister."

Zimmerman's defense of Kipling and her view that even racists can produce great art, especially as recently voiced in an interview with Chicago Magazine, has caused some grumbling in Chicago. Jamil Khoury, the artistic director of the Silk Road Theatre Company, wrote a widely circulated and strikingly personal essay deriding much of Zimmerman's body of work as, in essence, either an aesthetic appropriation of the experience of the so-called Silk Road peoples, or a manifestation of Orientalism. As the essay moved around on social media, there were complaints that Zimmerman seemed not to want to acknowledge the historical and personal costs of Kipling's conservative views. In a letter posted online Wednesday by the Goodman, Zimmerman apologized for any offense.

In essence, Zimmerman's interpretation of Kipling's "Jungle Book" story is that the writer was sitting in the Vermont snow (after marrying an American) recalling a childhood "paradise of memory" in the Indian jungle that was more to do with his own tenuous psychological state than any literal referent, colonial or otherwise. For those who know Zimmerman's work, her insistence that Kipling's ideology — his white man's view of India, as it were — does not need to be the main order of business with "The Jungle Book" is hardly surprising. Such strong aesthetic (as distinct from political or ideological) positions form a cornerstone of her work.

"I want to engage a text and put on a good show," she said of "The Jungle Book," waving off questions of what her work might actually be saying, as she has done on numerous occasions with other projects, believing that such matters are for the audience to decide. "In this case, I really want this to be a joyful show."

In that regard, she's not so different from Disney himself, a man who assiduously steered clear from the messy business of geopolitics as he built his massive entertainment empire, which dominates the globe to this day.

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