As interlopers go, 'The Jungle Book' is welcome

Whenever one of Chicago's nonprofit companies joins forces with a Broadway producer — let alone one with the name Disney — the prickly local twitterati start tweeting of the dark forces of commercialism invading our sacred nonprofit spaces.

So it went this week when the Goodman Theatre confirmed what we'd known for a while: Mary Zimmerman will stage "The Jungle Book" at the Goodman in the spring of 2013, with full Disney backing and resources, including access to the movie's bizarre but beloved suite of ditties, from "The Bare Necessities" to "I Wanna Be Like You."

These complaints are claptrap. Here, the biggest career drawbacks are the difficulties associated with being a freelance theater artist — especially one with a mortgage and a family. "The Jungle Book," though, represents a singular opportunity for the creative people of Chicago.

Here's why: Disney Theatrical Group has several shows in development at once: "Freaky Friday," "Dumbo,"even Tim Burton's 3-D "Alice in Wonderland" (go figure). And, of course, "Newsies" is about to open on Broadway.

But none of these titles carries the weight of "The Jungle Book," one of the mouse house's greatest animated achievements. If the new stage show turns out to be any good then the upside is considerable.

More important, though, this project is something rather different from the practice of commercial producers parachuting into a regional theater to try out a potential Broadway show. Charles McNulty, my counterpart at the Los Angeles Times, has been sharply critical of this practice on the West Coast, arguing that artistic directors and their boards of directors in that region have been seduced by Broadway and are too willing to let their artistic missions take a back seat to "marketplace trends."

If we're talking about a tryout arriving in a city as a prepackaged entity, McNulty has a point. Especially when the title is, say, "The First Wives Club." But some of these projects have a lot to offer. They're no more commercial than any other slot on a typical Chicago season. Take, for example, "Far From Heaven," a new, musical version of the dark but prismatic Todd Haynes movie. The artists involved very much wanted to premiere the piece at the Goodman Theatre, but it could not be worked out and the show, which stars Kelli O'Hara, is premiering at the Williamsburg Theatre Festival this summer instead. In my book, that's a shame. But it's not my main point here.

"The Jungle Book" has been, to use the word of Disney Theatrical President Thomas Schumacher, wholly "entrusted" to Zimmerman. The most significant beneficiary won't be Zimmerman, whose career is established at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, but the people she chooses to work with, many not so well-established. She gets to pick. Disney has come as close to offering carte blanche as it ever comes. That means her frequent collaborators, almost all of whom live and work in Chicago, will have the rare chance to work on the only kind of property in American theater that really makes you some big money. (Broadway, London, theme parks, stuffed toys — you get the idea.) The kind that can sustain you while you, say, work on your labor of off-Loop love 10 years from now.

It's hard to think of another time this has happened in Chicago, and it could be life-changing for an artist like Doug Peck, for example, whose musical chops are beloved in Chicago but who has yet to really be discovered in New York. I doubt Zimmerman will be able to cast this show entirely in Chicago, but one can be sure that the Chicago actors in her show will be numerous.

If all goes well, "The Jungle Book" will be an international outgrowth of a definable Chicago aesthetic traceable back through Zimmerman to her teacher, Frank Galati, and to his teacher, Robert Breen.

Those few Chicago theater people in steady jobs running theaters or teaching easily and frequently forget the difficulty of making a living as a freelance artist in Chicago. One such young theater artist sent me a note this week bemoaning the difficulty of breaking into big, sedentary institutions.

They won't all be able to work on "The Jungle Book." And like all risk-takers, Zimmerman has had her share of failures. But this is still a project that can change not just artistic lives, but real lives — and can build up the structural and fiscal backbone of a city that has yet to understand that freelance theater artists have to eat to live.


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