The most-anticipated musical of the year finally returns to the stage

From left, Dashaun Young, Futhi Mhlongo, Amanda Kunene and Anthony Lawrence held an online press conference on Wednesday to discuss behind-the-scenes of the musical "The Lion King." [S&CO]

It was only days before Korea saw its one millionth Covid-19 case, that the legendary Zulu lyric rang across the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul filled with hundreds of audience members for opening night on Jan. 28.

Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba
Sithi uhm ingonyama

Interpreted, the lyric reads “The King is coming, father.”

And indeed, he has.

Racking up six Tony awards including Best Musical after it first opened on Broadway in 1997, the “The Lion King” has never left Manhattan to this day, making it the third longest running show on Broadway after “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago.” It is also the highest-grossing Broadway musical.

But “The Lion King” is more than a typical long-standing 90s Broadway musical.

The simplest way to put it would be to say that there is still no show like it after 25 years.

Centered on one of the world’s most familiar Disney narratives, director Julie Taymor approaches the telling of the tale with poetic flair, sophistication and art forms from cultures across Asia, Africa and the West.

Returning to Korea after seeing explosive popularity in 2019, the international tour team’s production of “The Lion King” is the country’s most anticipated overseas production of the year, according to local major e-commerce and ticket booking company Interpark.

Those lucky enough to get tickets for the first week of performances filled the hall of the Seoul Arts Center with masks covering their faces and lined up in an orderly fashion in front of theater doors as staff checked the vaccination status of each of the audience members.

Futhi Mhlongo acting a scene in "The Lion King" as the oracular mandrill Rafiki in the 2022 international tour team's production of "The Lion King" in Seoul. [S&CO]

The production’s trip to Korea was no easy feat.

The show had been pushed back twice — once in January due to Covid-related flight delays then again in February when a staff member tested positive.

All staff and cast of the show have been cleared of Covid-19 since then.

So there was a certain liberation and joy when unbridled applause (cheers are prohibited now due to Covid-19) broke out in the audience after the show’s defining opening sequence “The Circle of Life.”

“Whatever country we go to, being there on opening night and seeing the audience react to ‘The Circle of Life’ [...] is pretty amazing,” Anthony Lawrence who plays the antagonist Scar told reporters during an online press conference on Wednesday. It is his first time performing as Scar in Korea.

Lawrence is the only cast member who is able to witness “The Circle of Life” off stage.

“It’s a joyous and an incredible scene. I will never forget the first time I saw the number during opening night. It was very hard not to cry,” said Lawrence.

But the actor said he also uses the time to get into character, who makes a very conscious choice not to attend the celebration of the birth of baby Simba who is in line to be King after Mufasa, the current king of Pride Rock.

“When Mufasa and Sarabi [Mufasa’s wife] walk up the rock with baby Simba, there is a moment that I know Mufasa can see me and I deliberately turn away just so he knows that Scar is not there,” said Lawrence. “I have this image that Scar is fully aware of the ceremony.”

International tour team during the opening number "The Circle of Life" of "The Lion King" in Seoul. [S&CO]

And from there, the power-hungry lion kicks off the famous narrative as he plots a scheme to get rid of Mufasa and Simba, and become king of Pride Rock.

The story has been told through various mediums like the 1994 Disney’s animation and 2019 Disney movie, but what the musical version does best is portraying the dramatic soul of the story.

As Dashaun Young, who plays Simba, jokingly said during the press conference, “it’s a show that can move even a stone to have feelings.”

Amanda Kunene in the role of Simba’s friend and fierce lioness Nala pointed out that all the actors focused a lot on displaying authentic, honest emotions that could come through their costumes and masks. It is Kunene’s second time in Korea. She used to be the understudy of the role Nala. Now she is a main cast member.

“I tried to focus on incorporating my human qualities — linking in the presence and physicality of the mask that is attached on my head,” said Kunene.

She describes this as the phenomenon of the “double event.”

According the director Taymor, a “double event” occurs when the audience sees both the actor and the mask or the puppet on stage then recognizes the two as one through their imaginations.

“So the audience sees not only animals but also humans experiencing these emotions,” said Lawrence.

“For Scar, in the animation, you see the lion being very miserable, bitter and angry. But these are all adjectives that humans relate to. We’ve all felt them [...] It’s a very real human story with very real human emotions.”

Young, who has played Simba on Broadway, the West End and also in Korea two years ago, says he feels closer to the coming-of-age lion now more than ever.

“When I was young, I had to pull from experiences that I haven’t had yet. But now that I am older, and have gone through love and emotions that Simba goes through, I feel closer to the character,” said Young.

Amanda Kunene as Nala and Dashaun Young as Simba during a scene in the 2022 international tour team's production of "The Lion King" in Seoul. [S&CO]

The topic of masks and puppets could not go undiscussed as the cast members at the press conference seem to agree that Scar’s mask is the coolest one in the show because the actor has the ability to move the mask unlike many others who wear it on top of their heads.

“A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that that I am controlling the mask throughout the whole show,” said Lawrence.

“I have two controllers in my hand that are linked to my mask through Bluetooth. With it, I can move the mask up and down or bring the mask forward and move it in different angles depending on what I want the mask to do,” said Lawrence.

Anthony Lawrence as Scar during the 2022 international tour team's production of "The Lion King" in Seoul. [S&CO]

In addition to masks, the music written by international singer-songwriter Elton John, prolific lyricist Tim Rice and Grammy Award winner from Soweto, South Africa, Lebo M, coalesces various genres such as western pop and Zulu folk music to create a universal sing-along score.

Some of the show’s most indicative lyrics are sung in different African dialects like the first line in “The Circle of Life” or “Hakuna Matata.”

“Just the rhythm [of the song] and the way I sing or say my lines connects the audience with me. This is an amazing feeling,” said Futhi Mhlongo who plays the oracular mandrill Rafiki.

“It makes me feel honored to be part of a show that can communicate through music only.”

Mhlongo is a South African herself who sings and speaks in various African dialects throughout the show including Swahili, Zulu and Xhosa. She has played the role of Rafiki for 14 years now but it is her first time performing for a Korean audience.

Stretching beyond barriers of language, “The Lion King” certainly reached the Korean audiences as many were quick to express their enthusiasm about the show on social media.

“It gives me such joy to receive messages through social media just before going on stage and seeing audiences who are excited to get tickets and tag you on social media,” said Kunene.

“It really lifts my spirits up to not only perform but to know that we are impacting so many lives with what we do every single day [...] It is very humbling.”

Lawrence pointed out the artistic skills of his fans, saying “they’ve managed to take Scar and make him cute!”

“The Lion King” runs through March 18 at Seoul Arts Center and will run from April 1 to May 6 at Dream Theatre in Busan.