The Lion King: King of the Musicals


Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ is not only a much loved animated film, it’s also been one of the most successful musicals of the last two decades.

Graeme Watson travelled to Melbourne to watch the show and meet the cast who have been stunning audiences in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne since the show returned to Australia in 2013.

This November the show finally comes to Perth, sharing the story of Simba and his friends Timon and Pumba, his romantic attraction to Nala, the battle between his father Mufasa and his evil uncle Scar and all the songs that you probably already know the words too.

In 1997, three years after the film hit out screens, ‘The Lion King’ opened on Broadway with the cast of lions, warthogs, meerkats and giraffes brought to life by an innovative mix of puppetry, performance and shadow play. Director Julie Taymor who has made many stylish films, operas and theatrical wonders.

The show cleverly mixes songs by Tim Rice and Elton John with African music to create an engrossing soundscape. The real wonder is the creativity of the costumes and rapidly changing set, which is filled by a cast of talented performers who bring the show to life.

The musical an amazing production and it’s no surprise it’s the highest earning musical of all time. The show is still running on Broadway, 18 years after its debut.

It’s hard to think of the power struggle between the mighty King Mufasa and his scheming brother Scar without thinking of the deep booming voice of James Earl Jones and regal tones of Jeremy Irons.

For Rob Collins who makes the part of Mufasa in the musical version of the show, it’s not something he has ever tried to aspire to. Collins recounts that one of the first reviews from show’s Sydney run mentioned that he didn’t sound like the unmistakable voice of Jones, who also voiced Star Wars’ Darth Vader.

“But nobody sounds like James Earl Jones,’ Collins laughs, “It didn’t deter how I approached the role. We had a wonderful director in rehearsals, John Stefaniuk, who encouraged us to make the role our own.”


Josh Quong Tart, who brings Scar to life in the production said he thought of it the same way as any other famous role.

“It’s funny that whole thing of feeling pressured to play things like someone played in the film.” said Quong Tart, who many audience members will recognise from his roles in ‘All Saints’ and ‘Home Away’.

“If that’s your modus operandi you’d try and recreate what David Garrick in the 18th century when he did ‘Richard III’. It’s only because it’s within a generation’s reach of our memories. In 20 years or 50 years’ time it’ll just become a character, rather than an actor’s performance.” Quong Tart said.

The actor said he’s just tried to play it with truth, and make his own discoveries as to who Scar is, and he’s deliberately avoided re-watching the film.

Quong Tart said for an actor Scar is an incredibly satisfying role and he enjoys the duality of the role requiring him to use his own face at some points, while in other scenes the focus in more on the puppetry face of his character.

“It’s a really satisfying experience and that why Julie [Taymor] has done such an amazing job with this, because as an actor you can be satisfied on so many levels. There’s times when it’s about expressions, times when it’s about your voice and times when you’re just a silhouette” Quong Tart said.

Scar’s posse of henchmen are the trouble making trio of hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, played by Ruvarashe Ngwenya, Will Centurion and André Jewson. Off stage the three performers constantly giggle and make jokes about each other.

Jewson said it takes a lot of energy to be a hyena. While some of the characters costumes are surprisingly light, their outfits are quite heavy, giving the performers quite a work out during the show.

“It’s a little like performing in a quilt”, Jewson declared

Ngwenya says being a hyena is all about having the right attitude, she shares that when she saw the animated movie as a child she was quite scared of the hyenas, but now she has a great time playing one.

“You got to have a personality and be into having fun, that’s the main thing.” Ngwenya said. Mastering the mix of puppetry and movement is something that took the trio quite some time to master.

“When I think back to our rehearsal period it was like doing a million things at one, trying to carry your legs, trying to talk, move, and sing, project, all of it.” Ngwenya said, “But now that we do it every day you don’t even think about it.”

“It takes a lot of coordination” Jewson added.

One the part of the show where the trio’s coordination skills are really required is when they team up to play the part of an elephant is the show’s ‘Circle of Life’ opening. The show’s energetic opening not only gets the audience excited right at the start of the show, it also energises the performers.

“If your ever having a tired day, you know where it’s all a bit much, looking out the audience and seeing the faces of children and grandparents light up with absolute wonderment reminds you what this show is all about” Jewson said.

Providing a mountain of comic relief throughout the show is the character of Zazu, the red billed hornbill who advises King Mufasa, and later serves under his evil brother Scar when he takes control.

Lion King Las Vegas

Performer Cameron Goodall admits that since taking on the role he has become obsessed with looking a birds of kids and incorporating their movements into his work.

“I’m very lucky because there are birds everywhere, I get to see birds out on the street, while he’s based on an African hornbill, the authenticity of that isn’t central to the show so I observe birds everywhere.”

Taking on the puppetry heavy role was something Goodall found daunting at first.  He’d only previously done a little bit of puppetry.

“I got the job as an actor rather than a puppeteer, and the first phase of rehearsal was all about understanding the text and the relationships, but not really using the puppet. So I got the puppet quite late, it’s like learning to play an instrument by beginning with the theory.” Goodall said.

The banter between Zazu and the usurper Scar creates some of the biggest laughs during the show, especially when the duo deliver some unexpected conversations.

What is clear about the cast of this show is that after more than a year together in the production they’re a tight knit group of friends who have been on an exceptional journey.

The close friendships that they share transfer on to the stage, giving their performances an extra dimension of reality, even when they are playing all assortment of creatures.

The Lion King will be at the Crown Theatre from November 18th, tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,