Everything the Light Touches is His Kingdom

James Earl Jones receives the Lifetime Achievement in Theater recognition at the Tony Awards this year.

Tony image

In 1957, during his first week in New York as a wannabe actor, James Earl Jones saw these shows:

Night one: Tosca starring Leontyne Price
Night two: Swan Lake starring Margot Fontaine
Night three: Pal Joey
Night four: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

What a week, right?

This remarkable itinerary was put together by his father, the actor Robert Earl Jones, who wanted to give his son a taste of la crème de la crème on stage at the time (and probably of all time).

By night five, James Earl Jones, an unknown actor adrift with thousands of other unknown actors vying for a spot on Broadway, knew, one day, he would be in the glow of the warm stage lights.

One year later, he was. Jones landed the role of Edward in the FDR bio-play Sunrise at Campobello.

We feel safe assuming Jones did not know his career would land him the indelible distinction of being the voice of both the worst and best of fatherhood. And, really, who among us hears James Earl Jones speak and doesn’t automatically think, “[heavy breathing] I am your father” and/or “Look, Simba . . . everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

(Editors’ note for the benefit of diehard Star Wars fans who will surely mention this in the comments if we don’t: The classic line from Star Wars is often misremembered as “Luke, I am your father,” as even Jones’ mentions in the clip below, though the line is “No, I am your father,” as you can hear in the excerpt from the film.)

Jones, who continued to work the stage in New York after Sunrise at Campobello for the next decade, emerged as a man who would carve his place on the monument of Great Actors with his mind-blowing work as a heavyweight boxing champ named Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope in 1968. In Clive Barnes’ review, he noted that as he was leaving the theater, Jones was “receiving a standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history.”

Jones won his first Tony, in 1969, for that role. His acting prowess and newfound fame steered his career straight to Sesame Street, where, also in 1969, he was the very first celebrity guest. As for another Tony, his work in the original production of August Wilson’s Fences (the role recently revived by Denzel Washington in the 2016 film) earned him his second award in 1987.

The great white hope

The Great White Hope also won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jones reprised his role in the film adaptation and received an Academy Award nomination.

In between, there was a little $7,000 gig voicing a character for George Lucas’ intergalactic war movie. What would Star Wars have been without Darth Vader? And what would Darth Vader be without James Earl Jones? (Rick Moranis in Spaceballs — if you don’t believe us, watch this short clip of David Prowse, who played Vader, saying the dialogue in that giant, plastic helmet-mask).

Jones, who stuttered, spent eight years of his childhood in relative silence, speaking to the animals on their farm in Michigan but avoiding talking to other human beings. Encouraged by his English teacher to recite poetry in front of his high school class as a means of overcoming the stutter, Jones eventually gained mastery. The last public return of the stutter popped up during a performance of Sunrise at Campobello when he stuck over the “M” in “Mrs. Roosevelt,” though Jones says the stutter remains, even now, at 86, which is notably ironic considering Jones’ fame emanates partly from his deep, clear, bass voice.

Try saying “This is CNN” without hearing Jones. It’s impossible. His voice is that powerful. In a little-known anecdote, Jones, who is by nature a merry jokester, used to pretend to be Darth Vader on his CB radio on long car trips. When he realized the truckers were genuinely getting scared, he quit. Best to use one’s powers for good, especially when you’re James Earl Jones. As evidence of his ability to still have fun and use his powers for good, he teamed up with Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) in a series of Sprint commercials where the two former Stanley Kubrick actors performed texts and Facebook messages dramatically, on a bare stage and in tuxedos:

Congratulations, Mr. Jones, on your sixty years of valuable, funny, unforgettable and powerful work in the performing arts.

Want to see James Earl Jones receive his award? Then mark your calendars: The Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 8 p.m.

Drawing on Theater Magic

The tricky business of adapting an animated movie into a stage musical

 “The book was better.”

So goes the typical critique of movies based on novels, but one rarely hears “I liked the cartoon better” as audiences stream from theater venues where their favorite Disney film characters sang-and-danced through a musical version of the animated film.

What secret of adaptation makes or breaks a story’s translation from one genre to the next?

Adaptation itself is a challenging art form. Daunting, formidable, some brutal act of transmogrification that must appear easy to do … Charlie Kaufman’s film Adaptation, about him cracking up while taking a crack at turning Susan Orlean’s lurid, Florida-based book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, remains the unchallenged authority on what writers can go through trying to get it right from page to screen.

Or screen to stage.

For the writer—and in the case of Disney animated movies, the creative team—the logistics of space and time present the first two puzzles. How do I take this 350-page novel that covers three generations and boil it down to a 100-page screenplay? Or, how do we take a 72-minute animated movie and convert it to a two- or two-and-a-half-hour full-blown musical?

Story. That solves the two puzzles of time and space. For a movie, the story generally follows one character’s journey through some type of transformation, accompanied by a B story, or subplot for a minor character. (Vignettes, where the film cuts from one character’s story to another, is a popular way to have several equally-important plot lines going at once.) Most film adaptations of books fail to satisfy because the intricacies of the plots, the legion of minor characters, the flavor of the language and the gripping descriptions of place and person—what ignites our imaginations and is the very nature of the book form’s storytelling power—weighs down a screenplay, which is a streamlined form of storytelling through pictures that move. (Hence the early naming of films as “moving pictures” that became the truncated “movies.”)

In a stage adaptation of an animated film, more songs and dance numbers fluff out the story, changing the 72-minute movie to a two act, two hour musical. Characters reveal more personal details, more depth about themes and plot, with more music for the stage version.

For Disney, The Lion King remains triumphantly successful not only at the box office but also as an act of adaptation itself. Their stage musical arm, Disney Theatrical Productions, headed by Thomas Schumacher, made a bold and ultimately brilliant choice hiring avant-garde puppet theater expert Julie Taymor to conceive of the adaptation in the 90’s.

Theater’s magic lies in the fact that the audience can—coached with good lighting, stimulating costumes and evocative music—suspend its disbelief to the point of what is called “filling in the blanks” on stage. For example, a spiral staircase becomes the entire landscape for Pride Rock, and actors transport the audience members to some place magical in their imaginations though they never leave the theater.

For Taymor and the team putting together the stage version of The Lion King, reliance on the audience’s ability to fill the blanks and suspend disbelief was the gamble that paid off in the end: Taymor purposefully designed the puppets for the actors to wear, so puppet-human-animal appears visible at all times. Taymor’s artistic deviation from the animated movie—her response to how to solve the problem of making animals come to life on stage with human actors—risked alienating the core audience. However, Taymor’s vision worked. Not only did it work, it elevated Disney’s animated story to legitimate theatrical artistry.

In the final analysis, what makes or breaks the translation from one genre to another is having the work in the hands of artists and craftspeople who understand the unique demands of the individual art forms: Can we take all that makes a book a book and find a way to translate it into all that makes a movie a movie? Can we take a 72-minute cartoon and craft it into a work of theatrical art?

Taymor, who immersed herself with indigenous theater cultures and ran a mask-dance company in Indonesia before her directorial success in the U.S., knew the best ways to translate The Lion King’s story symbolically and literally for the stage and for the Broadway musical audience of Disney fans. Choreographer Garth Fagan added his exquisite choreography for the animal-human movements, and the circle of life, at least for this adaption, was complete.

(In an interesting note: Taymor originally pitched the idea of rewriting the entire ending, adding a Trump-like villain named Papa Croc who tricks Simba into fighting gladiator-style in Papa Croc’s Vegas-esque desert oasis. The end. Obviously, Disney execs eighty-sixed that adaptation of their movie.)

The Lioness Returns

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons’ early career began on stages around the Tampa Bay region, one of which was our Jaeb Theater. She left for New York City the week of Sept. 11, 2001, to audition for Aida, a Disney production. Her audition led to an interest in her for The Lion King, and she and her husband stayed in the city during the chaos of the September 11th crisis. That Monday, Sept. 17, Kissy was cast as Nala in The Lion King, directed by lauded Julie Taymor, and began a decade-long journey with the show on Broadway, in Las Vegas and on the first national tour, which came to Morsani Hall in 2002.

Kissy, short for Kissimmee, a town close to her birthplace of Floral City, FL, returns to the Jaeb Theater Nov. 1, 2014, for a solo show as part of our brand new Cabaret Series. In many ways, she is returning to her roots, and we are happy to welcome her home. Caught in the Act caught up with Kissy by phone in her New York City apartment to talk about identity and place and her upcoming performance in the Jaeb.

CitA: We’ve been hearing rumors that your show is going to be a retrospective/introspective look at your life from the Straz to Broadway and back again. Is this true? And will you talk a little bit about how your upbringing in Florida has shaped your life as a performer?

KS (laughs): My show centers around the Straz, how I got my start, and where life has gone. For me, it all hinges from church. I was just a church girl who wanted to play the organ. I saw our organist in church and I thought “oh my goodness, I want to play the organ!” My talent derived from that environment and was facilitated there—even acting. We did skits and had to deliver Christmas speeches. You know, you don’t think about ‘down the road’ when you’re doing it, but now I look back and see. I look at my daughter (2-year-old Sadie), and I know that experiences like that matter. It makes a difference, at least it did for me. Those are my roots. The Straz … well, that was a really big deal. I had this idea of being a performer, but I didn’t know what that meant, it felt like a fantasy. I didn’t know how I would get there. I would audition at the [Florida] theme parks and couldn’t get a job with them. Luckily, the Straz was there and I was able to do so many cabaret shows. The Straz was a blessing. I even got married there!

We didn’t know that! Do tell.

Yes, by the water. We were in rehearsals for Swing! Swing! Swing! I approached Judy [Lisi, Straz Center President] to do something small, and she was like “oh, honey…” and my little idea turned into a wedding I never could have imagined! It was run like a show with calls and everything.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center's brand new Cabaret Series.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center’s brand new Cabaret Series.

That’s fantastic. So this is a real coming home for you.

I feel no shame in where I’m from. I’m from Floral City, the town with one traffic light. I walk around New York City in my cowboy boots. That’s where I’m from—I’m a small town country girl. You are who you are. For me to come back from being away and experiencing so many cultures, Vegas, New York … it’s refreshing to come home and see how people can ground you. When I go to Winn-Dixie [the grocery store], people say hello. My high school friends who stayed now have their kids at Inverness Middle School. It’s nice to see people I have roots with rooted in their own families. There are so many people to keep me connected, and it’s important for me to come back—but it is just as important for me to give back. You realize people have been rooting for you this whole time, and it’s a two-way street. It’s an opportunity to perform for people who supported me. People give me the strength to be able to do this, and I like to give it back. I’ll always be in and out of Florida even though New York is where we are.

You are an extremely down-to-earth person, with a relatively normal life, long-time marriage, a child … how do you stay humble in the entertainment business and stay out of a lot of the traps of the lifestyle?

I met Anthony [her husband] when we were both running track at USF [the University of South Florida]. I saw him and knew that was what I wanted, and that was that! (laughs) I know entertainment is what it is. I see it as such a blessing and opportunity. I get to do what I love. All jobs are important. All of our jobs no matter what it is are so important, and I view life that way. To blow it or waste it, for me, would be tragic. I know people recover [from addictions] and overcome, which is wonderful. But I just look at it like a huge blessing that I get to participate in. I’m my own worst critic, and in this business, it’s subject to people’s opinions. It’s a judged environment, and that can be hard. I learned humility through church, and maybe if I didn’t know to pray then I would be tempted to do something external to help me out, but I can stay grounded in being grateful for the opportunity. But that’s just my perspective, just the path I have been on.

We are really looking forward to having you to all to ourselves for your cabaret show. Will you give us a little sneak peek of what we can expect?

Let’s just say … expect some familiar tunes! Especially from shows done in the Jaeb. This performance is going to be a great time. Expect lots of fun and fun moments. Stan Collins, my piano player—he’s phenomenal. I wouldn’t do this show with anyone else! It’ll be me, Stan, and bass and drums. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.