How Do You Keep a Hyena Clean? 'Lion King' Costumer Tells All

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How do you keep a hyena clean?

Very carefully, laughs Gregory Young, wardrobe supervisor for the 350 costumes that travel with the tour of The Lion King, which plays Hartford’s Bushnell Aug. 1-19. 

Half the costumes can be washed, he says, but for the unique fabrics and materials of the other costumes designed by director Julie Taylor, he turns to a local dry cleaner, French Cleaners of West Hartford. (And because the tour has played Hartford several times before, the cleaner is well versed in his costume challenges.)

“This is the most unique show I’ve worked on,” Young says. “With other shows you deal with pants, shirts, ties and dresses — unless you get into rhinestones and sequins and stuff like that.”

But keeping a warthog and meerkat fresh is something else entirely.

There are 20 to 30 pieces from the show’s principals that need dry cleaning, and 50 from ensemble. That includes the Lioness, the Bird Lady and, most problematic, the jungle plant people with their blooming, multi-pleated pod dresses. Scar’s leather pieces need special care, too. And as for the hyenas, because they are so padded, “they sweat a lot.” Enough said.

One trick of the trade, he says: If things turn a bit funky in between cleanings, “we spray the costumes with alcohol to keep them fresh until we can send it out to be dry cleaned.”

And when cleaning isn’t enough — everything fades with time and repeated washings — new costumes are being created for the many tours and Broadway show. “Five to six costume shops in New York are contracted to re-do outfits when they have to be completely replaced.”

Does cleaning come into play when costumes are first envisioned? In the beginning the designers are given leeway to design the way they want, he says, but if it turns into a hit they have to change fabrics that are more manageable for maintenance for a long run. The show is in its 21st year.

On the plus side, puppets don’t sweat — or have unions — so their maintenance is handled by its own special department.

“It all keeps you on your toes,” Young says of his traveling challenges. “You have to keep the show looking fresh the way it did on opening night so people coming to the show 20 years later are getting that same experience.”