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Greg Jackson on playing Zazu in The Lion King: “It’s much more than a musical”

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Disney's The Lion King roars back to Orlando this week for a four-week run at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, and one member of the touring company is no stranger to our town. Greg Jackson, who plays Zazu the high-strung hornbill, previously appeared as Saturninus in Orlando Shakes' 2013 Titus Andronicus. I caught up with Jackson ahead of his return to chat about life on the road, the legacy of Lion King and more.

... putting the new Lion King tour together:

"They closed the last tour and then started over with a full rehearsal period in New York City. They gave the show a new coat of paint, added some exciting new dance sequences and updated some dialogue, so there's some nice new surprises in the show.

"Julie Taymor was there at the first day of rehearsal; she came and gave us a wonderful talk and was with us for the first read. But there's obviously a big team of people who have been with the show for years and years, and have taken over for her in the capacity of direction and choreography. It's a very esteemed creative team, and it was pretty special to be able to come into the show and have the luxury of a full rehearsal process."

... the art of puppeteering:

"It's funny, I was always a big fan of puppets as a kid and loved to play with puppets, but never anything as complicated as the puppet I'm working with now. When I was in New York in the '90s I did a lot of downtown theater; we created a couple of shows that I built all kinds of puppets for. We actually dove into dumpsters to find materials to build puppets for an underwater fantasy musical.

"My interest in puppets has been lifelong, but this is the first time outside of off-Broadway type work that I've had a big professional job where a puppet is part of it. I'm not trained in puppetry, never went to school for it, it was just something I enjoyed."

... interpreting the role of Zazu:

"I watched the film once a long time ago before I got the job, and I didn't revisit the animated feature as I began work on the role, because obviously you want to bring your own take to it. I never really got hung up on that kind of thing. When you jump into a Shakespeare role, there are a million other actors who have played that role; you just have to come at it from your own perspective. I think that's how you stay safe from seeming like you're trying to imitate another actor's version of a character."

... life on the road:

"Lion King is the first big production tour I've been a part of in my career. It's taken some getting used to; you learn to streamline your life, and figure out what you need to have with you and what you don't. I'm used to being away from home, because I've done a lot of regional theater around the country for many years, but this is a full year contract so there is a homesickness factor. Luckily I'm able to have my wife come visit me and stay with me in some of the cities, so that takes the pain out of it."

... returning to Orlando:

"My memories are incredibly fond – I had a wonderful time working at Orlando Shakes. It's an amazing group of people there, and I found the town really lovely and welcoming. My wife came down and we went to some of the parks, and really enjoyed ourselves.

"There has been some talk of a free day at Disney for the cast, but I don't want to jinx it."

... Lion King's legacy:

"The Lion King is much more than a musical, it's become a kind of global cultural phenomenon. It's part of many generations' experience of life now. The wonderful thing about the show is that whether you're seeing it for the first time or coming back to it, wherever you are in your life, this show has a beautiful message. There are many layers to it, and I think you get something different from it depending on where you are in your life. That's part of what's magical, and makes it such a special masterpiece in musical theater history.

"I hope we'll get a lot of new people coming out to see it, but also people who want to see this new version, who may be in a different place in their life and want to see what The Lion King has to offer at a new stage."

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