Lions, giraffes and monkeys brought Julie Taymor a roaring stage hit but a new “musical for grownups” adds a sweary penguin and some humping pandas to The Lion King’s menagerie. Created by composer and comedian Vikki Stone, #zoologicalsociety is sung by the animals who are observed by “upright furless watchers” day to day in a zoo. (“Why do they come?” they wonder. “We’re honestly not that much fun!”)

The concept album, released online this month, features Jason Manford as a depressed monkey, Arthur Darvill and Louise Dearman as the bashfully mating pandas, Tyrone Huntley as an exasperated lion, and Natasha Barnes and Stone herself as gossipy giraffes. There’s a military chorus of meerkats, a raucous simian duet and a tearjerking showstopper with Lucie Jones playing a pregnant penguin whose mate has cleared off. The musical is a digital commission by the Royal & Derngate theatre in Northampton and the album was always intended to be released before the show is fully staged. (That production may well now be delayed by the coronavirus outbreak that has closed theatres around the world.)

‘My grandma would pop me in front of My Fair Lady and hope for the best’ … Vikki Stone

‘My grandma would pop me in front of My Fair Lady and hope for the best’ … Vikki Stone

Stone tells me she grew up watching old musicals at her grandmother’s house. “She’d pop me in front of My Fair Lady and hope for the best,” she says with a laugh. Stone’s career has already encompassed solo fringe comedy shows, classical compositions and a dastardly panto turn, wearing a giant purple A on her head, as Abanazer in the Lyric Hammersmith’s Aladdin in 2016. This year, she is writing a new version of Aladdin for the Lyric.

Stone is the composer and lyricist of #zoologicalsociety and co-wrote the book with Katie Mulgrew. She was interested in creating a show about communities and had considered setting a musical in one house, through successive decades’ of occupants, but that idea was eclipsed by her zoo musical. Stone found herself studying not just the animals but also the visitors on the first of several research trips she made to London Zoo.

The behaviour of some of her characters is borne out by her research: such as Manford’s miserable monkey, Alan, who rejects his pal’s suggestions to “chew on your own tail”, “have a massive piss” or “show the crowd your asshole”. “Monkeys are more likely to be depressed in captivity if they can see people looking at them,” says Stone. The pandas’ song, One Day a Year, creates mirth and melancholy from the animals’ narrow annual fertility window. “They struggle,” explains Stone. “If they don’t see other pandas mating they have no idea how to do it – which is why they’re shown panda porn. Before they’re fertile, they are shown videos of other pandas mating. Otherwise they don’t know what to do.” But the song will also strike a chord for listeners who are struggling to conceive and feel under pressure. “I’m of an age where lots of my friends are trying and people are going through IVF. I wanted to show that you are still whole if you don’t manage it.”

Giraffes may not scientifically be proven to be monstrous gossips but Stone decided that, in a zoo, they’d be the ones sticking their necks into everyone else’s business. “They have a good view – but they don’t have any facts,” says Stone. “They come across as nice, they don’t mean any harm, but what they talk about is quite toxic.” One of the musical’s standout tracks is the plaintive The Something Else, which is about experiencing anxiety but not having the words to express it. (Likened in the song to feeling “homesick but you’re already home”.) It also reflects those animals in captivity who “never knew where they came from or what might have been. There’s this lingering feeling that there could be something else but they don’t know what it is.”

Watch the video for Marvin (contains strong language)

The album, and an accompanying video for the song Marvin, comes with colourful illustrations by Tim Wheatley. Its release is obviously a joyous moment for Stone but has come at a testing time for the theatre industry, with venues closed and performers facing months of cancellations. Before the shutdown took hold, Stone was already having gigs cancelled. Her fiance is a musician and they have found themselves suddenly out of work. The last couple of weeks have felt, she says, like grieving. “I cried. Of course you would! I’d never catastrophised about both of us losing our jobs. You think: I’ll always blag something. That’s the nature of the business, hustling. Then suddenly there is nothing to hustle.”

But right now there is a panto for her to plot, as well as another musical to develop, entitled Southbound, with its newly resonant storyline about a society that has fallen apart due to a virus. And there is the #zoologicalsociety to keep up with, before Brian the exasperated lion and his friends swap the cage for the stage.



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