TAMPA — Life on the road is hard enough for any theater troupe. For a touring Broadway production, it's a huge machine.
Disney's The Lion King, which opens Wednesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, is bigger than most shows. About 40 semitrailer trucks carry the equipment and costumes around the country, two for the set alone. Each new venue creates a unique set of challenges, said Michael Morales, a Tampa native and stage manager for the production.
"We need to put a finished product up in every city," he said. "But the physical circumstances change. How to balance the two?" Morales, 33 doesn't mind. In fact, it's his favorite part of the high-stress dream career.
Which side of the stage is the loading dock on? It matters, because everything that's on the far side of the stage will have to be unloaded first. Sometimes the loading dock isn't even on the same level. Everything gets moved, bit by bit, in an elevator.
What about dressing room space?
"We may have 100 dressing rooms, like at the Straz Center, no problem," Morales said. "But you go into an old vaudeville house that has five dressing rooms — how do you fit 55 actors into a limited number of dressing rooms? So everything that goes on behind the scenes is a challenge."
Some of those details get worked out months in advance, others on a moment's notice.
Canvassing every inch of each new space is Morales, who as stage manager must coordinate crews, handle complex schedules and call places for actors before the show starts. He's also forced to be a neatnik — not a natural talent, he said — because there isn't room to hoard so much as an extra stapler.
"We can't buy in bulk," Morales said. "When we run out of ink, we have to have one (backup cartridge) of ink. We have to make sure that everything has its place, and everything goes back to its place. To the basics of even our desk items, we have to be very organized. When it comes down to closing in a city, we have to make sure everything fits in our boxes."
Morales grew up in South Tampa and performed in community theater as a teenager. Then a theater teacher at Plant High encouraged him to check out stage managing. Morales went to the University of Central Florida and caught all of the touring productions as they came through Orlando. He wore a headset and shadowed stage managers until he got a feel for how the job is done.
He got a job stage managing Jesus Christ Superstar in 2006 and has stayed with the career ever since. Along the way, Morales married his wife, Katrina, whose parents live in Valrico. The couple moved from Tampa to Denver four years ago.
Morales must corral dozens of actors who live in hotels and can run late like the rest of us. But when an actor is nowhere to be seen, what do you do?
"If they're not here 15 minutes before the show, we scratch them and put on an understudy," Morales said. "All of those understudies have been rehearsed and directed and will put on just as good a performance as our main cast member. Sometimes that gives us a little bit of a heartbeat when our actors are late or maybe stuck in traffic."
With all of its lavish costumes, huge puppets and props, The Lion King has a larger fleet of trucks than most productions. This run at the Straz Center is the longest running Broadway show of the season. A week before the end of the run, two semis will lug an additional copy of the set to the next city. Having two sets allows the company to set up faster.
The Lion King, Morales said, has "not only changed the landscape of musical theater but it's such a design achievement.
"It's just amazing to be backstage and be in the presence of these designs and these costumes. … This show is a musical theater centerpiece, and to be able to work on it the way that we do is such an honor."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.