March 3 has been established as World Wildlife Day by the United Nations in order to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s flora and fauna. This annual occasion seeks to remind everyone of the importance of sustaining people and the planet and to bring ecological issues to the forefront. These relevant themes are often explored in creative ways in order to appeal to all generations.
And since musical theater is no stranger to featuring its own memorable casts of flora and fauna, we take a look at when the stage put animal characters front and center.
The cats in Cats may not be wildlife per se, but they’re wild, alright! No other musical in the history of musical theater is quite like this Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Everyone who has ever seen one musical show in their life is deeply inured in the eccentricities of this show with people dressed up as felines singing and dancing about being cats.
Of course, the enduring legacy of this musical is no great mystery. There’s not a lot to it story-wise, and yet the simplicity of the premise, the memorable music, and the amazing choreography keeps people coming back to the theater. On stage, it remains a fun, lavish spectacle, and it transports the audience to a fantastic feline world for a few hours.
(On screen, the less said about the cat-astrophic 2019 film adaptation, the better.)
An international touring production was most recently staged at The Theatre at Solaire in 2019 featuring Joanna Ampil as Grizabella. Back in 2010, Lea Salonga also played Grizabella in a production at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The Lion King
From small cats to big cats, musical theater loves its felines. Based on the 1994 Disney animated classic, the show centers on the life and adventures of the young lion, Simba, and his journey to become a true king of the Pride Lands.
The show opened on Broadway in 1997 and is running to this day. It went on to win five Tony Awards including Best Direction, Choreography, Costume, Lighting, and Scenic Design.
The stage show isn’t a recreation of the animated classic but instead is a truly theatrical iteration of the story. The cast isn’t dressed in gaudy animal costumes but instead rely on elaborate make-up, creative choreography, intricate masks, and puppets to portray the wildness of their animal counterparts.
The production is more focused on showcasing the themes of the story such as family, greed, ambition, pride, and leadership as well as focusing on the epic musical score by Elton John, with songs by John and Tim Rice.
(Again, we do not speak of the 2019 “live-action” Disney adaptation. What is it with 2019 and bad musical films?)
An international touring production was most recently staged at The Theatre at Solaire in 2018.
Madagascar the Musical
Based on the DreamWorks animated film of the same name, Madagascar the Musical opened in 2018. The show features a group of animal friends – Marty the Zebra, Alex the Lion, Gloria the Hippo, and Melman the Giraffe – as they escape from their home in New York’s Central Park Zoo only to find themselves on a crazy journey to the world of King Julien’s Madagascar.
The stage show notably breaks the fourth wall with the characters addressing the audience directly and even interacting with certain members as well. Like the other shows mentioned in this list, Madagascar boasts of great production values with creative costumes and makeup, puppetry, projected graphics, and fun choreography.
A local production was recently staged by Atlantis Imaginarium Young Theatre in 2019 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater.
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical
If you wait long enough, every piece of media from your childhood becomes a Broadway musical. That was the case at least with SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, based on the Nickelodeon animated television series that ran for 13 seasons and over 200 episodes.
The stage show premiered on Broadway in 2017 and scored twelve Tony Award nominations. The story focuses on the eponymous character and his adventures with his friends (and enemies) in the undersea world of Bikini Bottom.
Why is it on this list, you ask? Despite his squarish appearance, Spongebob is actually a sea sponge, after all. And the rest of the cast are mostly marine species (starfish, squid, plankton, crab) except for Sandy (squirrel.)
Like The Lion King, the cast don’t sing and dance on stage in outlandish costumes mimicking their animated counterparts but instead, they embody their characters in their larger-than-life performances. The stage version manages to capture the fun and appeal of the animated series while also telling an inspiring and positive story about the power of friendship.
The Wind in the Willows
Here’s another musical based on a beloved children’s classic.
Based on the 1908 novel of the same name written by Kenneth Grahame, the story follows Ratty, Badger, Mole and the impulsive Toad as they embark on a series of adventures spiralling from Toad’s insatiable need for speed. No human characters here.
The Wind in the Willows premiered in October 2016 at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. The stage show is written by Julian Fellowes (book), with music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
A filmed production of the show was recently streamed as part of The Shows Must Go On fundraising initiative.