“Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!”
That’s the evocative cry by Lebo M. which opens the 1994 animated film The Lion King. It’s Zulu for “Here comes a lion, Father” - and several lions have arrived back at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre in Singapore.
The Lion King stage musical premiered in 1997 and took the world by storm. It has gone on to become the world’s top-grossing musical, and when it first came to Singapore in 2011, enjoyed a record-breaking eight-month-long run.
The show features an eclectic blend of music, incorporating the expanded film score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, songs by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., director Julie Taymor and Robert Elhai.
Even more than its sound, it is the look of The Lion King that has captivated theatre-going audiences around the world. Taymor approached translating the animated film to the stage with a specific vision, incorporating puppetry inspired by traditional Balinese, Javanese and Japanese dance and theatre. Technical innovations were married with a variety of cultural inspirations, creating a unique theatrical presentation.
Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King tells the story of Simba, who suffers a tragic loss in his childhood and must return to rescue the kingdom he has fled, where his evil uncle Scar now rules.
The 2018 international tour presented by The Michael Cassel group in association with Disney Theatrical Productions enjoyed a run in Manila before transferring to Singapore. There’s an emphasis on ‘international’ – cast members from 19 countries including South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Australia, and the United Kingdom comprise the ensemble.
This iteration of the show began with casting and rehearsals in South Africa, with the participation of co-composer Lebo M and the show’s original director Taymor.
“It’s been quite an adventure, a lot of milestones, too many to remember,” Lebo said wistfully.
When Lebo M. was brought into the studio by Hans Zimmer to sing a demo, the animated film didn’t even have an official title yet. What could’ve been just another gig for the South African singer wound up changing his life. “It turns out that the demo I did, 'Nants ingonyama', what you hear around the world for the last 25 years is exactly what it was when we did the demo. Two takes.”
It’s clear that even after all this time, Lebo M. is deeply attached to the show. “It keeps you very busy, keeps you fresh, you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing for 22 years,” he remarked, adding that “when you have a project like this, it’s very hard to do something else.”
Michael Cassel and Lebo M.
Australian producer Michael Cassel also has a history with the show – he was responsible for setting up Disney Theatrical in Australia at age 21 in 2002. “It’s where I learned how to be a producer,” Cassel said of The Lion King. Cassel promises that the experience that audiences watching the show in Singapore will get is exactly the same as what they can expect from a Broadway or West End production of The Lion King. “It’s the same show. There are no changes, no compromises, no reductions to the show,” Cassel declared. He added that interest in the Singapore season has already “exceeded expectations”.
At the press call, the opening number “Circle of Life” was performed. It’s a truly overwhelming piece in which audiences first witness the various types of puppetry and movement used to bring animals from cheetahs to elephants to life. Right out the gate, the show’s magic embraces the audience.
“I love watching the reaction of the audience during “Circle of Life”. I’ve seen grown men cry,” dance captain Theresa Nguyen commented.
The show is a physically intensive one that requires its performers to be skilled in multiple disciplines. “We have some of the best dancers in this company, so I was very fortunate to start with highly technical, highly trained and very strong performers,” Nguyen said of the ensemble. “It’s a real challenge to put on a puppet on your head, or a cheetah on your back, or to carry heavy shields and dance and tell a story.”
For Jonathan Andrew Hume, who plays Simba, returning to Singapore with The Lion King holds a special significance. Hume joined the ensemble of the show in the West End in 2001, and worked his way up to audition for the role of Simba in 2010. In 2011, he starred as Simba when the show came to Singapore.
“To be able to come back to Singapore to do the show which is so special to me, it was my crowning of being Simba, I really feel like I’m coming home,” Hume said. Things have come full circle for him – a circle of life, if you will.
Speaking about the international cast and crew, Hume said “We rely on each other, we support each other and we respect each other – not just onstage, but offstage. That kind of relationship only breeds a beautiful performance that you see every single day on the show.”
Noxolo Dlamini and Jonathan Andrew Hume
Noxolo Dlamini stars opposite Hume as Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest. This writer asked about her reaction to Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which recently brought cultural elements from across the African continent to mass audiences.
“Watching Black Panther was absolutely incredible because I’m from South Africa and it was lovely to see me being represented in a Hollywood film, and The Lion King is just the same,” Dlamini observed. “It’s beautiful because we love to share our culture, and I think with any culture all around the world, it’s so beautiful to see people appreciate your culture.”
The many demands of the roles require the cast to be in peak physical condition. “I try to eat well. Singapore has such good food and I love good food, but I also need to remember that I have a job to do,” Dlamini quipped with a laugh. “It’s just remembering that I need to keep in shape and I need that corset to fit me over the next three months,” she said, adding “I do it for Nala.”
The father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba is at the emotional core of the show. Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, who plays Mufasa, drew on his personal background for his interpretation of the role. “I come from a very spiritual family and tradition myself, as a Zulu man. I believe in my ancestors as well. It helps to have that connection when Mufasa has to impart his life lessons and his traditions and his spirituality to Young Simba.”
Even out of costume during our interview, Khanyile projects the ideal blend of regalness and warmth. Speaking about how Mufasa must be both a king and a father, Khanyile mused “it’s a balance that he has to find. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know he’s running out of time, but he has a sense that he has to get this message across to [Simba] now. He has to take the mask off at certain points and be a father and just not be the king at all, and there’s a different Mufasa that comes out in that instance.”
Antony Lawrence and Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile
Khanyile takes the expectations audiences will have of him in his stride. “Everyone remembers the first time they saw The Lion King, and when Mufasa dies, how they felt,” he said. “Having that as something that I am entrusted with to give to an audience eight times a week is a huge responsibility.” Rather than being daunted by it, Khanyile is empowered by the expectations. “I know that I have to do the best and I know that I have to enjoy it, because if I’m enjoying it, then the audience gets to enjoy the character as well,” he explained.
English actor Antony Lawrence plays Scar, the villain of the piece – or, as this writer likes to refer to the character, ‘Clawdius’. Lawrence identified Scar as marking a turning point in the chronology of Disney villains, who had earlier mostly been cackling witches. “He has his scary moments, but then he’s incredibly funny and incredibly sarcastic and he’s witty and he’s charming,” Lawrence observed. “He’s not just evil, there are all these other layers to him.”
Scar derives pleasure from manipulating others so he can get a rise out of them. “He loves winding Zazu up, he loves winding Mufasa up,” Lawrence said. “If he makes his brother snap, all of a sudden the king’s not acting very king-like, and he made that happen.”
For a show with so many moving parts, there are bound to be the occasional snags, but Lawrence and his castmates roll with the punches. “If something happens, the important thing is to stay in character and use it in a way,” he reasoned. “My mask can sometimes be a bit temperamental and if it moves by itself, I just go with it.”
Zazu, the king’s majordomo, represents the colonial presence in Africa and is a caricature of a stuffy English butler. Australian actor André Jewson portrays the supercilious hornbill. He recalled being “blown away by the inventiveness and beauty of the production” when he first saw The Lion King during a family holiday to Sydney. Dressed in a bowler hat and tails, sporting white and blue facepaint and manipulating a Zazu puppet, Jewson sticks out from the rest of the cast, and that’s by design.
“He’s very erect, he’s like a butler or even a waiter – the arm [held out in front of him] is like a waiter in a posh restaurant with a white napkin over the arm,” Jewson said as he demonstrated the Zazu puppet for the press. Jewson summed up Zazu’s traits as “twitchiness, reminiscent of fight, of flight, bird characteristics melded with this posh Englishman.” Jewson said that acting with the puppet felt awkward for the first month of rehearsal, but after that point, it all became muscle memory.
The puppets were designed by Taymor and Michael Curry – Curry recently devised the Sven reindeer costume for Disney Theatrical’s latest Broadway musical, Frozen. A core concept of the presentation of the Lion King musical is the ‘double event’ – the actors operating the puppets are not hidden, so the expressions and movements of the actors, in addition to the way they manipulate the puppets, informs the character.
Tim Lucas Tan and Doc Zorthian
Tim Lucas Tan is the head of the puppet department. He was inspired to get into modelmaking by the Star Wars films, and is a part of the Singapore-based animatronics effects and specialty costume studio Core Crew FX. “A lot of the stuff that was used the make the puppets was cutting-edge technology that’s now the norm,” Tan said. The puppet department is on high alert during the show to ensure everything is shipshape. “This show runs at a particular speed and pace,” Tan noted. “Should anything happen, we need to get it fixed on the side and get it to work.”
Production supervisor Doc Zorthian was the original stage manager for The Lion King on Broadway in 1997 and has been a fixture of the show ever since. “Everything is so unique. Everything is designed so specifically, and yet it’s like a simple stroke,” Zorthian enthused. “You don’t really realise how powerful the details are, and when the details are missing, it loses such an impact.”
Over 20 years on, Zorthian still finds the magic in the routine. “We’ll rehearse it and rehearse it, but that first preview when there’s an audience in the auditorium for the first time, I still get chills,” he said. “There’s an energy in the room and your body just tingles. I’m still trying to figure out what it is, but it’s so electric and so exciting. People really react to it.”
Before The Lion King returns to the big screen in 2019, in the form of a photo-realistic CGI remake directed by Jon Favreau, audiences in Singapore can venture into the Pridelands at the MBS Theatre. The Lion King is now playing until 23 September 2018. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/lionking0918 for tickets.