Happy Anniversary to the North American tour of Disney’s The Lion King, which on April 27, celebrates twenty years of traveling across the United States.
The tour launched in April 2002 at the Buell Theatre in Denver, CO, and has since played over 9,000 performances during 227 engagements in 93 cities to an audience of more than 21 million theatergoers. (For more fun facts from tour, click through the gallery below.)
“The allegory of The Lion King is more relevant today than ever, a testament to the extraordinary creative power of Julie Taymor and her remarkable team of collaborators—from the creators and songwriters of the movie to the theatre artists who brought the story to the stage,” said Thomas Schumacher, President and Producer Disney Theatrical Productions. “The heart of this show is and always has been human – from stage managers to musicians to technical crew and actors. What I cherish most is that this simple but poignant tale, which touches thousands every day across North America, is brought to life by a small group of dedicated and inspiring people. We salute them.”
The Lion King, based on the 1994 Disney animated film, opened on Broadway in 1997. The score features Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs from the Lion King animated film along with three new songs by John and Rice; additional musical material by South African Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor and Hans Zimmer; and music from "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," an album inspired by the original music in the film, written by Lebo M, Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer. The show’s director, costume designer, and mask co-designer, Julie Taymor, was the first woman to win a Tony Award for Direction of a Musical.
Playbill recently spoke with three members from the original tour cast, Alton Fitzgerald White, Kissy Simmons, and Josh Tower, along with current cast members Gerald Ramsey, Kayla Cyphers, and Darian Sanders about they're time on the road and what makes The Lion King so popular with audiences.
Read on to hear what The Simbas, Nalas, and Mufasas, past and present, had to say.
Original Tour Cast: Kissy Simmons
Current Tour Cast: Kayla Cyphers
On the Staying Power of The Lion King
Kissy Simmons: The Lion King is just such a spectacular show. Everyone loves it. “Circle of Life” happens, and as soon as you walk Bertha the Elephant down the aisle, that’s it, you got ‘em. Something I remember from when we were on tour, it was Super Bowl night, and there were a lot of dads out in the audience just ticked off that their wives had dragged them out see this show. Like who wants to see a whole bunch of cats running around on stage? And when the show started and the opening number is going on, you would see the shift. It's like “Oh my gosh, the birds! Oh! Oh!” It's kind of like they become children.
Kayla Cyphers: I think it's become a tradition for a lot of people, which is amazing to hear. A lot of people I talked to who have been in the audience are like “This is my third, fourth, fifth time, seeing it. I saw it, and then I brought my kids. I think that's really what's amazing, is this story is timeless. And people are to the point of wanting to bring generations after them to come and see it and experience it.
On the Character of Nala
Cyphers: Nala has played a huge part in showing me how to find my strength because she is such a strong character and you really have to dig deep to find that strength in every show. If you have one of those days, where you're like “Man I just feel like off today or I don't know if I can conquer the world,” once you get that costume on and you run up the ramp and you make your first entrance you're like, “Okay, I'm Nala.”
Simmons: I love Nala and everything about Nala. It was awesome just to be on stage and just have that permission to be ferocious and be slinky when you need to. And to push the guys around! Just having that strength of being allowed to be physical and to be strong and to really think.
On Nala’s Impact on the Audience
Cyphers: I see little Black girls in the front row of the show when I'm bowing. That is something that I will always remember...to just see their faces. And to remember that I was once in that place of seeing somebody like me on stage and thinking, “Wow. I can be that,” or “That's a strong woman, I want to be like that.” To see someone in the front row with their eyes wide and big and beautiful…that's why I do it.
Simmons: And also, the show has little girls in it playing Young Nala and that's always incredible because you know they're young and they're always looking up to the next, like “What am I going to be like when I grow up?” I always thought that that was great to have young girls in the cast to get to set an example for on and off stage.
I’m a mom now and I have a daughter who is a dancer and I constantly remind her, “Even when you don't think you matter…even when you're having a rough day, know that there's always someone looking at you.”
On the Touring Life
Cyphers: I feel, like every city has had something just unique to experience. I love to go out and eat and experiencing the food, especially like in the south. And experiencing the architecture in different cities…Richmond, Virginia—those old buildings that have been standing for a very, very long time and and just to feel that history. Oh my gosh, going to Memphis and going to the Civil Rights Museum was jaw dropping and something that I will never forget.
Simmons: When we were in Dallas, the theater was next to the state fairgrounds and I decided on Sunday night after the show that my husband and I would go and get on that slingshot ride because Monday we're off. I'm like, “I'm not gonna scream,” and we did it…and I hollered the entire way. I don't know when I would ever have done that ride, you know, but it was there. You end up doing a whole lot of spontaneous things just because you're there.
Original Tour Cast: Josh Tower
Current Tour Cast: Darian Sanders
On the staying power of The Lion King
Darian Sanders: It's the beauty and the magic of the story, but also that it's so relatable to so many generations. The music, the costumes, and everything are just so beautiful and elaborate, but then this story also gives this inspiring “you can do anything, be anything” feeling. Where you came from is setting a solid foundation to where you’re going, and where you’re going is limitless.
Josh Tower: For me, I think it’s the spirituality of the show that everyone can connect with. I think it really hooks people in. The story deals with redemption,— feeling like you're forgiven and asking for forgiveness. And [it deals with] the connection to family. All the good all the bad are all still part of me. That’s the one thing for me that I feel like connects all people—life, death, spirituality—a trust and belief in some sort of life after where your relatives and those who love you are still with you and always will be with you.
On What the Character of Simba Has Meant Personally
Sanders: This whole arching storyline that I'm telling each night—when I'm frustrated, when I'm excited, when I’m anxious, when I'm scared, when I'm broken—all of those things I have felt in my [personal] journey, and in my walk [in Faith], and that's where, at the end of the day, there's this portion that feels these ancestors are calling you back with these words…and it's like the Holy Spirit that's living within me is moving me to then understand that I have this power that's inside of me that I can do something that I didn't think that I could do. That’s where my strength is coming from.
Tower: I was adopted and I grew up without a father, so doing the show with Alton as my father and then switching to the Broadway company with Sam Wright, rest in peace, and sharing a dressing room with Sam—hearing stories and talking about those things that you talked about your with your dad. Alton and I are closer in age, but Sam was like really like a father figure to me.
On the Touring Life
Tower: When we were in Houston, we went to an astronaut's house—or some benefactor from NASA—and sat by this lake outside of Houston. And it was really incredible…this cast, a predominantly Black company, to just be together. We have this great picture, and there's people there who have passed on at very young ages…but there’s that one picture of the whole company, and just to know and understand where we all were and where we’ve come to now is just so beautiful. It was such a blessed time.
Sanders: It’s crazy because creating those memories is what we’re doing right now. I’m living in it right now, and I can imagine what that would be like in the future. When we first started in Cleveland, I remember when we walked into that room how electrifying it was, knowing that we hadn’t been performing for two years. Even now, six months later, before every show I pray with a group and it’s like, “Let’s not take this for granted.”
Original Tour Cast: Alton Fitzgerald White
Current Tour Cast: Gerald Ramsey
On the staying power of The Lion King
Alton Fitzgerald White: I think people see themselves in the story. People identify with Simba. Simba, to me, has one of the classic hero’s journeys that every human being has to take, dealing with love and loss and death and resilience. People see themselves in Mufasa when they tap into the wisdom, they see themselves in Scar with feeling embittered and feeling like life isn't being fair.
Gerald Ramsey: My first year on the road, I was so self-conscious and I really felt like they're going to send me home any day and then Tshidi Manye, who is [now] the Rafiki on Broadway, said to me, “Performance—telling stories through song and dance—it's in your blood. It's in your bones. That's how your people told stories. That's how my people tell stories. And that's all we're doing on stage.”
There's something about South African music…the drum beats, the chanting…it's soul music. Whether you know you speak Zulu or not, you feel it. I think that's a huge part of [the show’s] staying power.
On the character of Mufasa
Ramsey: Alton, I'm going to speak to you, man. What I've loved about you has been your talks on service. When I came into the role we had directors who were telling me “You’ve got to put your chest up, chin up, like you're the boss,” and that's never been a Samoan’s perception of leadership.
There's a saying in Samoan: O le ala i le pule o le tautua. The road to leadership is through service.
So, maybe a year in, when I finally believed they might keep me around, I started researching the Mufasas who came before me, and when I read about you, Alton, I thought, “There it is. My genealogical ancestry and my Mufasa ancestry are telling me ‘you're on the right path.’” It's about service. Mufasa doesn't have to tell people that he's the king—he shows that by serving people…onstage and offstage. Backstage has proven just as important to garnering the respect onstage.
White: I think Mufasa is the father a lot of people wish they’d had. I learned there's more to being a leader than just telling people what to do.
I found when I first started doing Mufasa it was difficult being in so few scenes. Mufasa is kind of isolated and has very little dialogue, but in doing it all those years I learned to make peace with the fact that what he has to say is important and his dialogue is carefully chosen. That's bled over into my personal life in not having to over-explain or overcompensate.
On the Touring Life
White: I got to go to my hometown which was amazing. I got to be the keynote speaker up at my high school’s graduation. I got to be a part of the [Cincinnati Reds] Opening Day Parade. So many childhood dreams came true.
Ramsey: My family finally got to come see me in San Jose. So, my mom and her sisters who raised us in Samoa…we never would have thought coming from my little island where we had to get water out of a well and we lived in a Samoan hut…to see one of our own on a Broadway stage. We were all crying. Pride Rock came around and right away I spotted my family, and they're crying and I'm crying.
White: While I was doing The Lion King in my hometown..my father passed away.
I had had a difficult relationship with my father, because my father was suffering from alcoholism. So, for my recovery, as the results of being a child of an alcoholic, I had set boundaries—I can pray for him from afar. But, I decided before the show that I would go see him after the show. I had done the show hundreds of times at this point, and I remember I got on the rock and as soon as the music started, I got emotional and started crying. I could barely get through “Circle of Life” and do the first scene, and then we get to “They Live In You” and I can barely make it to the song. And it was almost like I'd heard the lyrics for the first time, after having some of them so many times, I was like “What is wrong? What is wrong with me?”
So, I called my manager, and I said, “My father is in the hospital.” She said, “Go.” I get to the hospital and my mother and sister are there. A few minutes later, he started struggling and gasping for breath and we gather around the bed and say our goodbyes and I looked at the clock and realized that I would not have made it if I had waited till after the show.
I knew that’s why I was emotional…because he was calling me. It’s interesting having played this role and wanting the “perfect father” that my father was the one calling me during that show to go “I’m waiting for you to say goodbye.”
Thank you for reminding me of that, Gerald.
It was that was one of the most beautiful things ever happened to me.