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Disney's The Lion King on Broadway Remains a 'Four-Paws-Up' Blockbuster

December 20, 2011 - by Griffin Miller

On October 15, 1997, The Lion King opened the doors to its first Broadway preview. It was not just a moment theatrical dreams are built upon, but a pivotal moment in which the already beloved story of Simba, the cub who would be king (in the animated 1994 Disney hit and a half), officially staked its claim on the Great White Way.

From the show’s inaugural chords, marked by baboon shaman Rafiki’s hypnotic chant “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” (“Here comes a lion”) juxtaposed on a golden South African savanna daybreak, audiences were spellbound. Within seconds, the visual ante quadrupled with the arrival of bounding animals in the wild: birds soaring, gazelles leaping, zebras, lions, giraffes, and on and on... a brilliantly abstract menagerie that beckoned theatregoers to enter the “Circle of Life.” And once the scene zeroed in on the hub of the leonine stamping grounds known as The Pridelands, they were sold.

No wonder, by opening night, the production was already a word-of-mouth success. The Lion King legacy was assured, and eventually confirmed, by six 1998 Tony Awards (including Best Musical). Fourteen years (and counting) later, the musical (not surprisingly) remains one of Broadway’s hottest tickets.

With characters like Zazu (the hornbill who serves as the king’s major domo), Timon (the fast-talking meerkat), Pumbaa (a portly, congenial warthog), and Nala (Simba’s childhood friend/adult love interest) -- all introduced in the film of the same name -- the stage at The Minskoff Theatre transforms to a place where friendship and loyalty flourish.

Still, the relationship that resonates the most is the one between Simba and his father, Mufasa, the regal and wise King of Beasts played in the current Broadway company by Alton Fitzgerald White.

White, who originated the role on the first national tour and the recently launched Las Vegas production, says his take on Mufasa -- a character who dies in Act I and returns briefly in spirit form in Act II -- has changed considerably over the past ten years.

“Originally I thought Mufasa didn’t have much to do, but I have since realized he’s not only important, but a pervasive character throughout the show,” observes the veteran actor, adding, “When I started playing the part in my 30s it was more about wanting to show off, to have more musical numbers and time onstage. Now that I’m in my 40s I see it differently. I’ve learned to go deeper; to show authority while at the same time tapping into what my character has to say. His words to Simba are chosen very carefully.”

White’s observation comes to vivid light during the scene in which Mufasa tells his son, “...[T]he great kings of the past look down on us... so whenever you feel alone, just remember those kings will always be there to guide you. And so will I.” It’s this touching observation with its poignant sentiment that emerges as the key ancestral through line of the show that is echoed in the song “They Live in You.”

Alton Fitzgerald White in Broadway's The Lion KingIt’s also one of the reasons the show has multi-generational appeal and qualities that make it the perfect family show, despite what kids would call “the scary parts.”

In fact, White has found that parents frequently use the traditional post-show stage door visits as an opportunity to reassure younger children that Mufasa -- or at least the actor who embodies him -- is alive. “It’s important to remember that for all the fantasy in the show, it also deals with real issues and violence,” he says, “and kids do get sucked into the storyline and violence of Mufasa’s death and Simba almost dying at the hands of the hyenas. Seeing me in person gives them a sense of relief.”

Over his decade with the show, White estimates he’s played father to 15 to 20 Young Simbas, the first wave of which are now slipping into adulthood. “It’s thrilling to see these kids as they grow up,” he says of the actors -- ranging in age from nine to 12 -- he’s worked with. When asked if any have returned to the show as the grown-up Simba, he acknowledges that while it hasn’t occurred yet, “I suspect that some of them will be moving into the older role pretty soon.”

The Lion King is playing at the Minskoff Theatre, 200 W. 45th St. For tickets, call 866-870-2717 or click here.

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