Interview: The Lion King’s John E. Brady on Playing Pumbaa, Wearing a 50lb Costume and Keeping Healthy on Tour

“You’re always learning something new and it’s never dull. It’s never a complete process.” — John E. Brady

Back in 1997, John E. Brady was at an invited dress rehearsal for a new musical called, The Lion King. Sitting in that audience, he pretty quickly told himself, “I have to be in this show.” A short time later, he was cast and has been with the production, off and on, ever since. “You’re always learning something new and it’s never dull,” he said recently.

He’s played Timon, Zazu and Pumbaa on Broadway and is currently starring as Pumbaa in the National Tour, which is now playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre. In this interview, he chats about playing the lovable Pumbaa and the difficulties of wearing a 50lb costume, Julie Taymor, keeping healthy while on tour and the craziest thing that’s happened to him on stage. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.

Pumbaa is this iconic and loved character. When you first come out on stage, it’s got to be such a huge rush with the applause. No pre-show coffee is needed, I would think.

John E. Brady: No. No. I always said it’s one of the best entrances a character can have. You’re just running and screaming and there’s just a really high energy. It’s a lot of fun, so there’s no real warm-up on stage because it just… It’s such an exciting entrance and the audience is so responsive. They’ve either loved the play before, they love either of the movies or love all of the sequels, so they obviously know who Timon and Pumbaa are. It’s great. It’s amazing.

Have you watched all the movies?

John E. Brady: I have a 22-year-old, so anything after like 2008, no, but before that, I’ve seen all of them many, many times.

Did that color anything for you in your performance?

John E. Brady: No, because the play or the live performance is so different than the movie. The way that Julie Taymor interpreted and brought the movie to life in such a unique way that you couldn’t really.

I want to ask you about the costume, because it looks to me, massive.

John E. Brady: It’s massive.

It looks like you have to operate everything with your arms.

John E. Brady: Well, I started out in the play in June 1997 was when I hired, I was first on stage in March of 1998 and I started as the understudy of Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu. They’re three very different and diverse ways of puppetry, right? Zazu is very much like a muppet. You manipulate the mouth with a trigger. You hold him in your hands in front of you. Timon is more Bunraku, which is a full-size puppet that’s attached to your body, that the hands are manipulated with sticks and triggers. And Pumbaa is a costume puppet, which means that you’re inside the puppet itself, manipulating the mouth with your arms, hands, fingers much like Big Bird would be. So, it’s a costume really. And it’s very heavy. It’s 50lbs, 25 in the front, 25 in the back about and it balances really easily on your shoulders.

I always tell people that the hardest puppet for me was Zazu because you’re holding it in front of him. It just messes your center of balance. You know, you’re constantly using your fingers and your hand to manipulate things. And it’s really hard on your shoulders and your hands.

Timon, it throws off your center of balance because it’s attached to you by a harness onto your chest which brings you forward, which means all your back muscles throughout the whole thing are pulling the thing up and it’s attached to your feet so you’re Basically stretching the puppet as well. So, that’s really hard on your back and your hands because the hand manipulates his head.

With Pumbaa, he’s the easiest because as long as you keep a center of balance on your shoulders and you’re not leaning too far forward or too far back, it’s really just using your large muscles in your shoulders. It’s much easier on your body. It just is. You know, you’re not using the little muscles in your fingers and tendons. You’re using your arms just going up and down. Now, there’s a three-act play going on inside his head because there’s the tongue, there’s the eyes, there’s the nose that all have to be manipulated with the hands that are inside the head. But again, they’re bigger muscles and it does wear and tear on your body.

When you’re backstage, can you like sit down and rest or are you standing up the whole time?

John E. Brady: Some actors do. When I was on the Broadway, I requested a very soft stool that was basically custom built to my height so that I could stand, and it wouldn’t hurt. But here everything has to travel, and a cushion isn’t an option because it would tear in the moving. And they’re all standard sized stools so I don’t sit in the show in the puppet. I rest the head on top of the stool for a little bit of a break, but I don’t sit, no.

Do you have to have some people help you get into it?

John E. Brady: I have a designated dresser. I’m not much in the first act, so I don’t enter until almost 36 minutes into the first act. And the wig is very… It’s big and bulky and I can’t put that on myself either.

I share a dresser with the hyenas. When they’re on stage, I’m not on stage. And each town we go to is a local person, so I’m basically retraining somebody every three weeks to help me get in and out of the puppet.

It’s heavy and it’s awkward. It’s not an easy thing to put on and off so yes, it’s a team effort. As a matter of fact, all of the puppets are a team effort, not so much Zazu, but you can’t really get into the Timon puppet by yourself, I wouldn’t be able to do it. So, it’s absolutely a team effort.

And that’s part of the fun of it too, right? Offstage, I’m meeting new people all the time and we’re figuring out how we are gonna do this show together. It’s Team Pumbaa. I can’t do it without ’em.

When you first auditioned for the show, did you have any experience in puppetry or costumes like this?

John E. Brady: No. Julie’s an interesting person. She wanted actors first. That was her, “I just want good actors. And I want good dancers and I want good singers and after that we’ll work on whatever skills you have to acquire.”

Early on though, they didn’t have two of everything. They only had one of everything. So, I never got to rehearse with puppets unless I was called for rehearsal. I never had any real time. And in the very, very beginning, they were rehearsing with the principal people, not the understudies as much. So, I basically built my own puppets to practice with. I built my own Zazu, I built my own Timon. I didn’t build my own Pumbaa, but I would walk around as if I had it on.

But yeah, I had to learn this. Basically I had to learn it by myself. So no, I had no puppetry skills and they still don’t hire anybody with puppets. You’re thrown in the deep end very quickly with the puppets.

I would imagine working with Pumbaa, you’re concentrating on the acting part and then simultaneously working all of the moving parts. Its got to be a bit nerve-wracking.

John E. Brady: But that’s fun. That’s part of the challenge of this show is trying to act as if you’re acting with another person but through the puppet. Moving the eyes, making the snout goes like it’s sniffing, manipulating the head so that it looks like it’s alive. That’s all part of the challenge. And it’s an impossible one, right? You’re never gonna be able to do it but the process of trying to make that puppet come alive is, to me fascinating and difficult.

Sometimes it hamstrings you as an actor because there are some things you can do as a person that you can’t do with the puppet. You’re constantly trying to find new ways to bring the thing alive.

When you first got the part, could you imagine that you would be with the show for this long now or have association with it?

John E. Brady: I saw the show at the invited dress and I just said, ‘I have to be in this show. I’m perfect for this show. [chuckle]I have to do Timon. I have to do Zazu.’

Not so much Pumbaa. Tom Alan Robbins is a friend of mine who was the original Pumbaa, he’s a big guy and I just never saw myself in that role. It has since evolved into anybody, short, fat, big, small, they’ve had all likes play this part. And that was a real lesson too. It’s like, don’t assume because you’re not the actor who did it to begin with or his type that you couldn’t do it.

I consider myself an excellent Pumbaa and that was another lesson, right? Don’t put yourself in a box. So yeah, when I saw the show, I said, ‘I have to be in it.’

Again, it’s this long process of, you’re always learning something new and it’s never dull. It’s never a complete process. I’ve loved being in this show and I’ve had opportunities to do other Broadway shows but the challenge of this show is what makes it so much fun.

When you’re traveling to all these cities, how do you keep your voice healthy?

John E. Brady: I would tell up and coming actors that warm-ups and vocal rest when you’re not in the show, and taking care of your body is of utmost importance, particularly when you’re on the road, or in buses, airports, hotel rooms. You don’t have the comforts or the equipment that you would have in your own apartment or your own home. Saying that, I’m maybe not the best heeder of my own advice.

I stretch my body. Yes, I do that every night only because you have to, you just have to, you have to keep your body in shape, and you have to stretch otherwise you’re gonna get injured. You never know when something’s gonna happen.

For example, I fell the other night. Timon throws a blue fish and I go and try and catch it. Well, the throw was way behind me so as I was backing up, I caught the edge of my shoe on the lip of one of the tracks and fell over backwards and totally destroyed the puppet. And it sort of wrecked my back a little and it’s taking longer for it to heal because I’m going out on stage every night with that 50lbs puppet on. It was almost a month ago that it happened, but it’s still nagging me. So, you have to keep your body in shape if you want to do it.

I was going to ask you what the craziest thing was that’s ever happened to you on stage, but falling backwards in your Pumbaa costume might be it.

John E. Brady: Oh, no. Oh, no that’s not even in the top 10. There’s just so many stories of stuff that happens.

Just the other night, as a result of me falling, I weakened the metal spine on Pumbaa and it snapped right before I went on stage, like 30 seconds before my first entrance. I couldn’t go out on stage with my back broken because it looked like Pumbaa was dead. [laughter]So we quickly got out of the puppet and we had about 10 seconds to decide if we were gonna stop the show or come up with another solution. And so, I just grabbed the head without the back and went out on stage with just the head. [laughter]

I had nothing behind me, which is really difficult when you’re farting and there’s nothing to fart through. So, I was like sticking out my butt and of course the cast is always so lovely when things like that happen, they don’t make fun of you at all.

For more info and tickets, check out Broadway San Diego.

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