'The Jungle Book' at Goodman Theatre: When Mary met Walt (and Rudyard)

Indeed, Schumacher says that one of the main reasons that he gave a green light to "The Jungle Book," aside from a wish to work with Zimmerman, was the huge international demand for the property. "'Jungle Book' comes up most often when we talk to our partners in Europe," Schumacher said. "They are the ones who always say, 'Jungle Book,' 'Jungle Book,' 'Jungle Book.'"

What those partners will get, assuming "The Jungle Book" moves on, is Zimmerman's combination of the movie (both the score, along with additional songs) and some elements taken directly from Kipling. Zimmerman suggested that her original notion of "going back to the Kipling" had become less central as she realized the sheer force of the Sherman brothers' score.

"Those songs are like a dragnet," she said. "They are irrefutable. They carry so much moral and tone."

That said, the merging of the cartoon and the Kipling, and, of course, the nature of the reconstructed whole, clearly will determine whether this show works.

What some of her critics seem not to have acknowledged is that Zimmerman clearly is at pains to locate "The Jungle Book" in a more specifically Indian cultural milieu, far more so than the Disney cartoon, arguably far more so than Kipling himself. The production team, which includes a multiethnic cast, has used some of that Disney money to visit India. The music director and arranger, Doug Peck, is adding Indian musicians to the score (musicians will play both in the pit and on the stage), and he says he wants a "50-50" split between Anglo-American and Indian song stylings. The costume designs reflect a riff, really, on Indian styles of dress. The production will feature the songs in the movie (including Terry Gilkyson's "The Bare Necessities") as well as two or three songs originally written for "The Jungle Book 2," a straight-to-DVD sequel, and one (with rewritten lyrics) that was composed for, but cut from, "The Aristocats," another Disney movie with a Sherman brothers score, made shortly after "The Jungle Book." Throughout the score, the songs (both familiar and otherwise) will be fused with Indian musical forms. Noting the rhythmic similarities between swing and some traditional Indian forms, Peck said the cultural blending has gone amazingly well.

"They'll hear a clarinet wail, accompanied by a sitar," said Sherman, who seems genuinely delighted by the way his old music is now being used. King Louie will be played by Andre De Shields, an actor well aware of the complexity of his task.

Schumacher, a highly skilled producer and a maestro when it comes to managing expectations, plays down the idea that this is a pre-Broadway tryout as well as a co-production between the Goodman and the Huntington Theatre in Boston (which just won the regional-theater Tony; the show travels east after Chicago).

"We are Disney Theatricals, not Disney Broadway," Schumacher said, "and this show does not need Broadway to be a hit."

For sure, Schumacher's formidable producing operation now plays at so many levels, in so many countries, it has innumerable ways it could exploit Zimmerman's production, ranging from going straight to Europe to merely licensing the new property to other producers.

"Once we see the show," Schumacher said, "we will know what we have."

Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre, described the relationship with Disney as no different from other enhancement deals the theater has made with commercial producers. The Goodman will remain a financial participant.

So what are the chances of Broadway?

"The Jungle Book" is one of Disney's most important properties, and for sure, its biggest theatrical hits have at least paid their regards to Broadway. And thus, while Schumacher has many irons in the fire (including an upcoming staging of "Aladdin"), those involved in "The Jungle Book" are nonetheless working on a high-stakes project. Zimmerman is no stranger to major projects like operas at the Metropolitan Opera House, nor to Broadway, where her production of "Metamorphoses" was a big hit. And this is not her first musical: She staged "Candide," after all.

But "The Jungle Book" is Zimmerman's first foray into the distinct, duplicable and, potentially, massively lucrative world of popular musicals, where royalties from a hit on the scale of "The Lion King" or "Wicked" can make a writer-director like Zimmerman tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. For Peck, the highly respected young musical director charged with adapting, shaping and adding to the famous musical score, "The Jungle Book" offers the chance to change a mostly Chicago career into an international career.

"My contract for this show is 95 pages long," the somewhat bemused and genial Peck said. "I'm used to two or three pages." But he was not complaining. He understands the opportunity. For Disney, the show represents, after years of discussions and debates, a chance to finally figure out a way to make one of its most valuable properties into a stage musical.

And for Kipling? Well, no checks will be forthcoming. But perhaps Zimmerman will demonstrate that she understands what was going on inside his head better than either his defenders or his critics, and thus will do the chap some good.

"The Jungle Book" is at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., June 21 to Aug. 4; tickets ($27-$125) at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org