It’s a musical that soars from the opening notes…rising sun…pockets of grass emerging from the ground anthropomorphized…gracefully stilted giraffes strolling the Pridelands…herds of gazelles vaulting in joyful sync…and the flowing silken lionesses leaping…and the birds twirling in blissful abandon…zebras…even the lumbering elephants are nuanced within their puppet frames…and then Pride Rock rises...towers…and King Mufasa raises the cub Simba skyward so he becomes the highest point…
Yet even as the “Circle of Life” surges upward, one character remains nefariously low. Scar: Simba’s uncle; Mufasa’s younger brother; and the most complex character in Disney’s The Lion King. Especially in the hands—or claw-like paws—of Stephen Carlile, an ultra-charming Brit who has endowed Scar with a delicious three-dimensional malevolence.
“You love to hate him and hate to love him. He’s ugly inside and out, and he’s constantly in pain from a bad back,” says Carlile, noting that one of Scar’s legs is noticeably wobbly. To compensate for the annoyance of movement, Carlile’s Scar often drapes himself languidly on a rock or crevice when conversing with other characters—all of whom he abhors.
“There’s this luscious moment when I get to say ‘I’m surrounded by idiots,’” he says in Scar’s velvety voice.
A graduate of Guildford School of Acting in Surrey, where he trained in musical theatre, he spent several years as a struggling actor playing quirky character roles. “I’d just take whatever came along, until I began to say no to low-budget productions and understudy roles.”
Seven months later he began his first Lion King venture: a two-year stint with the U.K. touring company.
Having been with the show off and on since then, Carlile remains fascinated by the cogs and wheels that keep it running smoothly and, of course, the many facets of Scar. “It seems so fresh every night—I sort of go out on stage and evolve,” he says, citing the various elements in play to keep the musical vibrant. “Directors are always there to tweak lines and tighten and update everything,” he notes, adding that for the show’s 20th anniversary in 2017, substantial updates were made to the production, including new choreography and a sound system “…so clear you can hear every instrument.”
Backstage at the Minskoff Theatre, racks of costumes and headpieces are everywhere, sort of an extended menagerie only the cast and costume crew can navigate. And, like most mega-musicals, there is a labyrinthine passageway to the dressing rooms. Carlile’s roommate in the homey space (more costumes, a cushy sofa, and a dressing table under which Carlile’s fluffy rescue dog Sugah is curled up asleep) is Cameron Pow, a fellow Brit who plays/operates Zazu, a large-beaked bird puppet who is the King’s loyal servant.
“One of my favorite moments is the ‘Madness of King Scar’ scene that I play with Zazu…we have so much fun with it,” says Carlile.
Fun aside, Carlile is extremely aware of the impact a show of Lion King’s caliber has on theatregoers.
“You have to think of the audience. Most of them have never seen a Broadway show. I try to see through their eyes. So what we do up on the stage is really a great responsibility,” he says. “I want to inspire the audience.”
On November 13th, the Broadway production of The Lion King will turn 22, adding another celebratory jewel to the King’s royal crown. With a total of nine productions running concurrently across the globe—and an overall scorecard of 100 cities in 20 countries—the Broadway edition has clearly launched a magnificent legacy. Cheers to this timeless “Circle of Life”!
The Lion King is playing at the Minskoff Theatre, 200 W. 45th St. For reservations call 866-870-2717 or visit disneyonbroadway.com.