The Lion King is a Disney story we’re all familiar with. Yet no matter how many decades have gone by, the tale remains a beloved one that has resonated with audiences and generations over the years. The stage production celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and returns to our shores this month for a run that will extend until late August.
We sat down with some of the diverse cast — actors portraying the main characters — to find out about their experiences with and memories of the animated flick-turned-musical.
There’s Jonathan Andrew Hume, reappearing to reprise his role of Simba after his last turn here in 2011; South African up-and-comer Noxolo Dlamini as Nala; Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile playing Mufasa, direct from London’s West End production; and UK music theater performer Antony Lawrence as Scar.
Of course, we couldn’t help but ask about their first impressions of Singapore as well.
Tell us about your first memory of The Lion King.
Noxolo Dlamini (ND): The first time I watched it in nursery school, I think I cried. It was a beautiful story. My first encounter with The Lion King musical was when my friend told me about the audition. I was like, they have a musical? And I really wanted to be a part of it.
Jonathan Andrew Hume (JAH): My first experience with The Lion King was also with the animated feature. I watched it as a kid, and I absolutely loved it. I remember my brother and I watching it – he was five years younger than me. Towards the end, when Timon and Pumbaa are distracting the hyenas and they sing the “Hula Song”, that was my brother’s and my favorite — and we would love that so much, just rewind, rewind, rewind.
When the musical came out in London in 2001, my mom took me to see the show, and I remember watching the show and being completely blown away by it. I think I was about 15 or 16, and my mom said to me [about Simba], “that could be you”. I said, I’m too old for young Simba! And she said, no, no, big Simba.
I didn’t believe it, but my mom set it in stone and this is what happened. I’m still wowed by the magnificence of it. It’s a beautiful piece. It’s 20 years the show has been out, and it still amazes people to this day, so I think it’s quite special.
How has The Lion King impacted you?
Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile (MEK): I’ve got different lessons that I learned from the show. I find it more important to make moments count with my family, because playing a character that loses it all quite early on, it makes you want to invest more in the time that you have. So it’s just enriched my relationships with my friends and my family.
Antony Lawrence (AL): It’s a story of family and love and humanity. You come and watch the show, and it’s animals you’re watching, but they’re so human in the storyline. It’s such a relatable story – so many moments within the story that you, as an audience member, will remember from your past. It’s also a story about love, meeting someone for the first time and falling in love. It’s a story about not running from your past.
One of the best pieces of text from the show is when Rafiki is speaking to Simba, just before ‘He Lives in You’. It’s about how you can’t run from your past, but you can learn from it. The past does hurt, but you learn. And I think everyone can learn from the past and move forward. I think that’s so moving.
JAH: The show means so much to me. What’s beautiful about The Lion King, especially with this international production, is everybody’s away from home. So we’ve become a family so tight knit that we rely on each other and it just feels like home.
What’s the hardest part of your role?
MEK: I think being a father. I don’t have life experience with it, but finding that care and that love… it’s not hard, but it’s a challenge for me to portray that in a truthful and honest manner.
AL: One of the hardest things right from the beginning of the show, it’s working as an actor and with the puppet. We wear these masks, and they’re mechanical, so we’re able to move about. It was learning how to do this double event to keep acting with your face, but also this [gestures to mask] needs to be alive as well. There’s so much emotion within the mask that you get to play with, and that’s one of the best and most unique things about the show.
How well do you relate to your character?
AL: Well, obviously Scar has a brother. I don’t have a brother, I have a sister. Scar hates his brother, tries to kill him. I hate my sister, tried to kill her. [laughs] One thing I do really relate to Scar is that I’m a younger sibling. Scar has had a very hard childhood, knowing that he’s never going to be king, he wasn’t his father’s favorite son, because this man [gestures to MEK] is the priority. And actually with my older sister, she got everything first, and I wanted it and was jealous in the same way that he’s jealous. Scar’s very manipulative and he likes playing games with people. I loved winding my sister up and playing little games with her.
MEK: How I relate to my character, from my own personal life, is my father. My father’s quite a strong man, and he’s quite sturdy. He’s like the captain of the ship at home, so I look at him and I draw all those experiences from him. I was, I wouldn’t say irresponsible, but just young and playful, so my father had to sweep in and save the day a lot of the time.
Looking at him, I’m able to draw experiences and remember the actions that he had towards me. But that disappointment he felt, that I made him feel that way, that helps me when Simba’s running around, getting into all sorts of trouble, to be able to tap into those emotions and find my father figure. Find the king within me and try to take control of the situation.
JAH: Our journeys are shared in a way. I went in, knowing that my mom said I should be Simba, with that passion. My journey has, in a way, mirrored Simba’s in the show. There’s been pitfalls, highs and lows, but I’m just pushing through it.
If given a chance, what other role in the production would you play?
AL: Whenever I do a show, I always think, what does one character get to do that I don’t do? Do they get to fly or do something really cool? Simba gets to go on a rope swing, that could be fun to try.
MEK: I’d like to play Scar, actually. Scar’s a bass. Scar sings very low, and as a bass myself, I’d like to play Scar, to go through that whole journey starting off quite crazy and going into evil and maniacal. But also at the same time being very charming and funny.
How do you keep your actions fresh when you’re doing so many performances?
AL: We’re in The Lion King, it’s one of the best shows – it’s so easy to do! I still can’t believe I’m doing it. It’s never boring at all. The story arcs of the characters are so great. Scar starts in a place, and where he ends up, scene by scene, bits of him come away to when he falls more and more into the maniacal as his world is falling apart around him.
MEK: Yeah, it’s so fun to be on that stage. Every time I go on stage, I get goosebumps. I want to make the story good for the audience, and I know a lot of people are seeing it for the first time, and they have this memory of seeing it on TV, and they love the story. So you have a great responsibility to give them a product that’s going to mimic what they saw – not just that, but revitalize and reawaken those emotions they had. So for me it’s more about what the audience takes away. I do it for them and for the fellow actors as well.
AL: That’s the thing. We react to each other, because acting is reacting. That’s the great thing about live theater.
MEK: That’s the great thing about good actors! [laughs]
Any routines you follow when you’re touring?
AL: Yeah, it’s kind of like being an athlete. In order to run eight shows a week, it’s a real test of endurance. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. I have a strict warm up and cool down I do. And every day — good eating, rest. It’s been very disciplined. It’d be easy to go off and party, but the responsibility is, I want to walk out on stage, knowing I can give 100% every single time.
EK: …Maybe just the occasional party on Sunday [laughs].
How’s Singapore treating you so far?
AL: We’ve not been here that long. The time we’ve had here so far, we’ve been pretty much in the theater, so I’m really excited. I’ve been looking forward to coming to Singapore ever since I took the job.
EK: It’s very hectic [laughs]. I love it! Just looking at pictures online, I was like, oh my god, that’s where I’m going to be? It’s very green for a technological city.
JAH: I love Singapore. I was here during the show in 2011 and I missed it so much. When they called and said the show’s going back to Singapore, I said, please take me! So yeah, it’s fantastic!
Oh ‘Lao Pa Sat’, how I’ve missed you! A perfect way to celebrate our first preview! Prawn, chicken and beef satay 😋 • I❤️SG!#HumeInSingapore #LionKingSG #LionKingInternational pic.twitter.com/YHoZfEeGqB
— Jonathan Andrew Hume (@MrHume) June 27, 2018
The Lion King is on from now till Aug 26 at Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands. $65-$230.