“The Lion King” is a feat of someone’s extraordinary imagination: yours.
You can’t just sit there in the theater and expect “The Lion King” to happen. Not even after all these years: 17 since the musical opened on Broadway, 20 since the release of the animated film. No, you have to make it happen — by seeing fur where there’s only skin, by picturing a sprawling savanna on an indoor stage, by visualizing a lion in the space between the costume’s mask and tail. Somehow, there is still this glimmer of magic, of discovery, to a show that’s nearly old enough to buy itself a beer. Maybe the secret to this enduring spark is that the audience is required to supply some of that spark themselves.
Right in time for the big 2-0 anniversary, “The Lion King” is at the Kennedy Center for the D.C. leg of its national tour. Company members shared some of their best (and most mortifying) memories of being in the show. We’ve got weddings, births, graduations, fart jokes gone awry — really the whole circle of life, just like you’d expect.
“Between the Broadway show and the tour, this is my 12th year [with ‘The Lion King’]. I’ve been in 4,200 performances. I’m the longest-playing Pumba ever.
“When I auditioned, I’d been working on the fourth season of “The Sopranos.” And I booked this, literally, in the room. They said: ‘Put in your notice. You start in two weeks.’ It was a good audition, [but] I wasn’t paying attention to the signs. They asked me to sing again, to read again, and more is always better. I don’t think that happens like that very often. My first day of rehearsal was April 1st, and until I got there, part of me thought this whole thing was just an elaborate hoax.
“Near the end up the show, Pumba is getting chased by the hyenas, and I rear up in the puppet, and a French horn makes a huge fart sound. Pumba is big with the fart jokes. And one night, instead of the French horn playing, the sound engineer must have hit a different cue because we hear the voice-over of Mufasa, saying, ‘Remember...’ That is one of my favorite things that ever went wrong.
Q. Do you ever think, ‘If I have to hear ‘Hakuna Matata’ one more time, my brain will explode?
“I never get sick of the songs. But when Muzak comes on in an elevator, I’m hyperaware.”
“I’m from South Africa. I started as Rafiki in Toronto for four years, then I came to New York for 10 years, and then I joined the tour. [To get this part], I auditioned once a year for three years. It was one of those auditions when they have thousands of people in a hall and they’ll only select eight of you. You think, ‘There’s no way.’ [But] I thought I had an advantage, because when they did the animated movie, I was on the recording. All the songs with [that chorus] — like ‘Circle of Life’— I was one of those people.
“The good thing about this role is that I can relate to it. We have a lot of, you call them ‘mediums’ here, and we call them sangomas. And I get to speak my language in the show.
“It’s always nerve-racking [to do that opening] call — the fear of having to stand there and open the show. . . . You always have to be your best.
“In South Africa . . . when the king was celebrating something, people had a horn at certain corners to say, ‘There’s going to be a ceremony’ or, ‘There’s going to be a meeting.’ So they’d send a message. Now, as I’m doing the call, that’s what I’m doing: I’m calling to the community to say, ‘The king is calling us to come to a celebration for the prince, Simba.’ So it’s an invitation to everyone to say, ‘Come celebrate the birth of a prince.’
“There’s something about when that curtain goes up, you see these adults like little kids. You see them pointing and crying.”
“In high school, I was in a beginning choir class, and they did a ‘Lion King’ medley. That was before I’d even seen the movie. Once I did finally get the VHS, I watched it a thousand times. . . . [And now] I’ve been in the show nine years.
Q. Is it a lot of pressure to be the character whose voice is supposed to make everyone cry? It’s a big deal to hear Mufasa go ‘REMEMBER.’
“That is probably one of my favorite things about the end of the show, having that responsibility. . . . People tear up and cry when they hear Mufasa’s voice. They think of their own parents. I like carrying that responsibility.
“This didn’t happen to me, but I witnessed the Mufasa understudy — the part where Mufasa is up on Pride Rock and he’s showing Simba the kingdom, that majestic moment. And he’s supposed to say, ‘Look, everything the light touches is our kingdom.’ And instead he said, ‘Look at all the little children on the safari.’ Uh, yeah, there are no children in ‘The Lion King,’ except baby lions.”
Q. Is it hard to climb Pride Rock? Do people ever fall?
“It’s not exerting, physically, but it’s definitely a challenge balance-wise. And our costumes are so big and cumbersome. That’s a large part of the rehearsal process: navigating that, making the stairs smooth and not like you’re about to fall off.”
“I first saw this show as the animated feature. I was already playing the ethnic flute part in ‘Miss Saigon.’ I got a call from another flute player to try out for this new show. . . . [When I saw ‘The Lion King’], I thought it was the most beautiful flute part I’d ever heard.
“I play 15 different instruments, 15 different flutes. It’s a very descriptive part, because those instruments represent character in the story. Scar is a toyo from Ecuador, and it’s a very large hand pipe. Another very large flute, for Mufasa, is the bansuri. It’s horizontal, and Scar’s is vertical. There’s a panpipe for Simba as a cub, a big one for when he’s a teen. Rafiki has her own flute from Ireland. I have another for when they’re in the Pride Lands, another for the jungle, another representing the ancestors.
“You hear Mufasa’s flute and the ancestor flute, and the music is foreshadowing what’s going to happen, because Mufasa is going to become one of the ancestors.”
Q. Do you ever wish you could trade places with the two drummers who sit on either side of the stage, in full view of the audience? No one can see you during the show.
“I happen to think I have the best seat in the house. Where we are, we’re right in the middle of the audience and the actors. I wonder if the cast can appreciate what I can hear from people in the audience.”
Q. What’s it like in the pit?
“It’s a very dark environment. It’s encased in black, and you have one little band light. But sonically, you’re in the middle of this ocean of beautiful sound.”
“I worked as a singer, a dancer and then an actress. . . . I auditioned for ‘The Lion King’ in Hamburg, but I’m a white, Caucasian, blond woman. I’m all wrong for it. So they offered me a manager position, and 12 years later, here I am.
“I [did the show] first in Hamburg and then in London. The other two productions were set down, so there was a higher level of hydraulics and extra stuff. This is probably the least luxurious production, so it makes our job much harder. We have to be better storytellers.”
“I joined 10 years ago, in 2004. Two thousand people auditioned, and two of us were hired.
“I met my wife [Portia Magwaza] on this show. She’s in the ensemble, too. She came a year after me.”
Q. Did you have any ‘Lion King’ stuff at your wedding?
“No, we didn’t. But we went home to be married. We’re both from South Africa.”
Q. Do you ever get bored with being in the same show for so long?
“That’s the weird thing: I should be tired of it, but I’m not. One thing that keeps me going is, I love music, I love singing. So to do that every night? To get paid for what you love? And you get love after every song from the audience. You don’t get that in a cubicle.
“The most surprising thing is, the show is a life lesson. I didn’t realize that until I had my son. Now I think about the presentation of Simba; when I went back to work [after my son was born], I got so emotional during that scene. That’s my son. He will carry my name.”
“The audition began like a typical audition. But then there was this last, unusual step, [when] I had a jam session with the puppet.
“I’m brand new. I’ve just had a couple of weeks rehearsing with the director and the puppet. [My first show] is July 6.
“I have moments where things start to connect. When it happens, it is thrilling. . . . Where I’m heading, I think, is that the puppet leads me where I need to go, not me manipulating him.
“Even though it’s beautifully made and awfully light, I’m building muscles I didn’t know I had. Essentially, there are five mechanisms: The left hand is on his body. The right hand is attached to his head. And the left hand also flaps the wings. The right hand does the articulation of the big beak and the fluttering eyelids.
“One of his little feet, the last couple of days, kept getting caught in his wing. And the puppets are delicate. Yesterday, my first breakage happened. I snapped a string. But the puppetmasters told me it happens all the time. It’s a rite of passage.”
“On May 26, I went back home to Atlanta, my old high school, and I graduated with my class, and I got to walk across the stage with my class. I started with the show about a year ago, and it was the summer of my junior year. I’ve been on the road a year, and I did senior year online. I got to go back for senior night and prom. I didn’t miss the big stuff, just going to class.
“Everybody [in the cast] calls me ‘baby girl.’ They treat me like an equal.
“I had never seen the show live before I found out I was Nala. When I was a kid, I watched ‘The Lion King’ hundreds of times. Whenever you had a sleepover, people wanted to watch ‘The Lion King.’ I grew up on it.
“They had an open audition in Atlanta, and I went to that. I was extremely nervous. They were calling for ages 18-30-something, and I was 17 at the time. But I was like, ‘What the heck.’ My parents and I went anyway. I was really, really nervous. It’s ‘The Lion King.’ It’s huge! I rehearsed for hours. I’d never done anything like it before.
“Once you get into the tour . . . you make a family of ‘The Lion King.’ It’s just like traveling with a big family. People look out for each other. We have roll call for when people are driving. We check on each other.
Q. How did you learn to move like a lion?
“The physicality is something you’re always working on. I know when I first started, I had rehearsals for five weeks. That’s when I started working on moving like a cat. Sometimes when I’m performing, I look at how the other actors playing lions move.”
The Lion King Through Aug. 17 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. About 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Tickets $40-$190, subject to change. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
Goldstein is a freelance writer.