Lion King on Broadway is a roaring success with its fans, both new and old. Sitting down with a few of its most prominent cast members makes it clear that the storyline is supported by actors dedicated to the story and characters.
First were the actors L. Steven Taylor and Tshidi Manye, who play Mufasa and Rafiki, respectively. Certainly very different looking without the headdresses, they were delighted to answer questions about their characters and the show itself.
So I wanted to ask first off because the Lion King seems to be a story about lions, and a monarchy, heir to the throne- so why do you think this continues to appeal to people in a country where kings and thrones don’t seem to ever come into play?
Taylor: Ah, this is good. I would say aside from those things, there’s somebody that- everybody who watches the Lion King- everyone who watches the show there’s somebody to relate to- everyone’s been Simba at one point. There are a lot of people, lot of parents who bring their kids obviously, who can relate to a Mufasa and Sarabi, who are just trying their best to teach their kids these lessons that they don’t quite get. So I think that there are, in addition to the things you said, I think there are universal themes that everybody can relate to. I think that’s why the show is the phenomenon that it is-I think that that’s why people can see it so many times, because at different points in their lives they’ve been those different types of people, so I think it’s all of those things.
Right. So, Rafiki has this language that keeps coming up throughout the musical. At times it seems comedic, at times-like at first when you ask the audience do you understand and of course the audience has no idea what’s going on. So what language is that and why do you think the language is incorporated so much?
Manye: The show has got five different languages. Four of them are from Africa, and then one’s English. I think because of where the show is coming from- the show is coming from Africa, to relate to the culture. It’s like what Steven just said. It’s in everyday life, it’s something that we know about, so we’re speaking the language in the clicks, and that sends some kind of uniqueness into that. Because people are like- they come and they’re like Wow, when I come. What are you saying? Is it you, or is it a tape? You know, that makes me happy, because people think we are not- what is it- a real language, that has existed in Africa, in South Africa.
Awesome, what languages?
Manye: Zulu. We have Zulu, we have Xhosa, Sotho. those three languages.
Yeah, because throughout the musical I thought that was amazing. Now you were talking about how everyday scenes keep coming into play, and there’s this sort of weird dynamic between Scar and Mufasa. We see it in the movie, and we see it much more in the musical. Scar mentions in Act 2 that he was neglected as a child- so how do you think that plays into the dynamic between the two brothers?
Taylor: Scar is a famous antagonist. I mean, who doesn’t like a villain? But I think that in order for Mufasa to be who he is, I think that Scar has to be that kind of bitter, put-upon character. So the dynamic between them, you know, Mufasa, Mufasa represents balance and Scar is everything opposite that. So when you bring those two things together, obviously there’s going to be conflict. And Garrett Sachs who plays Scar in the show, he’s fantastic, he’s great to play off of, and really fun to hate onstage, so makes my job easy.
Taylor: Mufasa doesn’t hate him.
Brotherly rivalry. I wanted to also ask-what you think- the dynamic between Mufasa and Simba- we see how he is supposed to punish Simba, but it doesn’t quite ever come to fruition. Do you think that affects why Simba can’t quite ascend to the throne, sort of, when that whole thing happens with Mufasa dying? Do you think Mufasa failed as a parent to bring Simba to the place he is, and it’s only when he speaks to Simba after death that Simba can?
Taylor: Well, Scar, obviously plays a big role in that, but yeah, I think parents in general, we teach our kids lessons. I have a fourteen-year-old, and I teach him these lessons, and he’ll still go and do the opposite, sometimes, of what I say to do. And yet as a parent, you can’t help but think you’ve failed your child a little bit. So I think that probably Mufasa does feel a little bit like he’s failed Simba, but I think the important thing is that ultimately that they do always gravitate back to those fundamentals- which is what essentially Rafiki then- and it does, it takes a village, that’s what our show is about, it takes a village- it can’t be just on Mufasa’s shoulders. It has to be the community which kind of continues to instills these things in Simba so that he can arise to be the person he’s supposed to be.
Manye: And he was young. I feel he was betrayed. It is one of those things where when you talk to a kid and say, even though your dad, your parents are telling you to do this, someone bad will always come and say what are they telling you to do? And kids are like sponges- they absorb very fast. So in as much as you say Mufasa fails, you know, like he didn’t do a great job, it’s got somebody that is trying to twist that, which is Scar. I’ve always felt that.
And one last thing for the character Rafiki. It seems that for most of the musical that Rafiki is sort of a comedic character- swinging in on vines, stuff like that, so what do you think makes Rafiki such an especially poignant character? Because in a way, she’s one of the most serious characters, and funny at the same time.
Manye: Sometimes when you have a child, like Steven said, there comes a time when you want a point to go across, you can’t be serious. There’s time to play, and there’s time for you to understand when I say don’t do this, don’t do it. With Rafiki, she’s a shaman, she’s a clairvoyant, so she sees these things before they even happen. So sometimes she tries to go and prevent them, and you try to figure out how to make this child understand that what I’m saying. Sometimes you want to play with it, but then you have to stand and say this is what I want from you. Let’s do it.
All cast members involved seemed thoroughly excited about not just the plot of the show, but how it connects back to the culture of Africa as a continent and what it’s like to live and interact with family when there are often so many expectations, things to which many can relate, Africa or no.