The first day of rehearsals for the Las Vegas cast of Disney’s The Lion King coming to Mandalay Bay in early May began as “all nerves,” according to Disney chief Thomas Schumacher. “They had never performed it altogether, but by the end of the day, there was a whole new dynamic and a whole new energy.
“The first day ended with the entire cast singing ‘Circle of Life,’ and there was something about the chemistry that had even me tearing up and the cast crying. They were just standing around a piano and singing their guts out. There’s just something about it that reinforces the reason the show even exists. It was deeply moving!
“Now I know already that when we perform the show for the first time in Vegas, it will be thrilling, deeply emotional and visually stunning!”
Thomas told me that he’d recruited the cast of “top draw people” from the Broadway and touring casts -- and even other The Lion King shows around the world. “Some of the kids we have were even born after the movie originally came out,” he laughed.
“We’ve got a few local Vegas people in the cast. We’ve got some people who have been with The Lion King for a decade, and we’ve got some first-timers. … We have South African nationals -- I think we have nine in the Vegas cast.
“It’s been a big cultural shock for them moving to Vegas directly from South Africa. We didn’t even have time to educate them as to what to expect on the Strip! Their influences, however, are really important to the show and the story.
“I had dinner with the King of the Zulus when we were staging The Lion King for the first time in South Africa, and they gave us the first celebration chant. In Australia, we tried to recruit the Aborigines, but their cultural differences didn’t resonate. But the Maori tribes from New Zealand proved to be very interested, and they got into a haku war chant.
“So the South Africans in the Vegas troupe led the first day’s chanting. It was thrilling to watch them connect and have everybody joining in. That’s really what it’s all about. The Lion King has had a tremendous influence on their lives back in South Africa, and their actors in all of our worldwide companies have been able to send their salaries back to help build schools and buy homes.”
Thomas explained what he builds from the first day of rehearsals: “It’s of huge importance. It’s not making a movie, and it definitely isn’t a day at the office for regular people. It’s getting everybody all together on a yacht they can’t get off and starting out on a journey.
“You can’t stage The Lion King. It is brought to life as an emotional experience. Physically, it is a very different and difficult production to stage, but you are looking for the emotional energy to erupt in order to project the essence and soul of The Lion King. I am so proud that we got that by the end of the first-day rehearsals. There were two specific moments of spontaneity from the ensemble when, as they read the script, they rediscovered the show’s meaning. That’s when I said, ‘We’ve got it -- this is it!’ They are really a sexy group of people with incredible energy and magnetism.
“Even Alton White, who has performed the show 500, 600 times, read it again alongside somebody who had never read it, and it ended up with everybody saying ‘that was fantastic.’ It’s a very tricky thing to arrive at that transition of crossing the fine line between school and moving into summer camp. The cast may walk in thinking they know it, but that first day they relearn it as a whole new group of people wrapped up as total strangers. So they start at the very beginning, but, by the end of that day, they have become the tightest, closest family you can imagine.”
The creative executive force behind The Lion King phenomenon was so relieved after the crucial day, he took off after the first rehearsal. “I felt so good, so comfortable with the cast. I will return for run-throughs when we move out of the studio and onto the stage. Then I’ll travel back and forth from New York for the first night of previews and the full-blown premiere opening,” Thomas told me. “I’m already that confident and secure. The circle of life is an extraordinary experience, and when our cast reached that on the first day of rehearsals, I knew we’d achieved the magic again, maybe better than ever before.
“We’re in really good hands. Kissy Simmons, who starred in our original Broadway success as Simba, has come back for the Vegas production. We have one actor who has been in six productions of The Lion King around the world. We have an actor who has been in both the Australian and China productions. We have some from the previous London cast. We have enormous depth of experience from our South African contingent. It makes it all unbelievably charming.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better combination of people. This is the best ensemble group we have ever assembled. I believe some of us are even daring to think already that the Vegas cast could produce the best show yet!”
Thomas wanted me to listen to the CD of the Japanese production of The Lion King. “They nailed it, too. There’s something extraordinarily magical about this story and its music and songs. It has more meaning and relevance than ever before. Maybe it’s the times we live in, the struggles everybody is facing. But even the Tokyo LP, performed in translation, sounds as South African as any production we staged there or elsewhere in the world.”
I noted that it was impossible in show business to have everything 100 percent perfect, and I asked him what one thing he couldn’t control and that would always worry him! He laughed and then admitted that his biggest problem was always having to “replenish the stock of children in the Disney shows.”
“I can’t control the fact that kids always grow up. That’s just a never-ending, ongoing process and difficult because they start with us before they even get drama classes at school. We have to train the kids and provide acting classes. They often don’t last very long because they grow up so quickly. I’ve actually had children go back and forth from The Little Mermaid onto Mary Poppins and into The Lion King. But after that, I lose them, so it’s the one constant search that never ends to replenish the supply! Little Mermaid at this moment has a Flounder who was a former Simba!”
The Lion King first opened on Broadway in November 1997 and has been seen by nearly 50 million people worldwide. There are The Lion King productions in England, Holland, Germany, South Africa, Australia, China, Japan and France. The show with music and lyrics by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice has won more than 70 major international awards. It won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, eight Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.
Las Vegas cast members include Thom Sesma, who’ll play the evil Scar; Alton White as the lion king Mufasa; and Marvette Williams as Sarabi. Buyi Zama of South Africa will play Rafiki (she has performed in all seven productions including the national tour and in South Africa); Kissy Simmons as the lioness Nala; and Clifton Oliver as Mufasa’s son Simba. Duane Ervin and Elijah Johnson will alternate performances as Young Simba, and Young Nala will be alternated between Jade Nelson and Ruby Crawford.
Previews at Mandalay Bay begin May 5 and run through May 14, with the star-studded gala premiere set for May 15. Vegas Deluxe will have full photo reports and coverage throughout!