PLAYBILL BACKSTAGE by Starla Smith: Laughing with the Hyenas of Lion King

News   PLAYBILL BACKSTAGE by Starla Smith: Laughing with the Hyenas of Lion King
Backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Clockwise from top: Kevin Cahoon in character as "Ed"; Stanley Wayne Mathis as "Banzai"; Cahoon again, turning into a hyena; Tracy Nicole Chapman as "Shenzi"; and (center) all three.
Photo by Photos by Starla Smith

Backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Clockwise from top: Kevin Cahoon in character as "Ed"; Stanley Wayne Mathis as "Banzai"; Cahoon again, turning into a hyena; Tracy Nicole Chapman as "Shenzi"; and (center) all three.


Just three actors sitting around without masks and makeup, talking with Playbill Backstage about what it means to play hyenas in the celebrated Tony-nominated Disney musical, The Lion King.

It was an hour or so before this trio of hyena hierarchy marches forth into the aisles of the New Amsterdam Theatre to do their "standups" as three legs of a mama elephant in the opening number of the show. Every performance when the "Circle of Light" ends, the three head hyenas rush backstage, step out of the elephant legs and don the makeup and trappings for their menacing entrance as the dreaded scavengers of the desert. But for now, they're hibernating in a small, narrow dressing room, with a clothes rack on one end facing a mirrored corner crowded with treasured snapshots.

Kevin Cahoon -- maniacal "Ed" to his audiences -- was comfortably jackknifed on the countertop, while his cohorts, Tracy Nicole Chapman, the hyena leader "Shenzi," and Stanley Wayne Mathis, her brutish deputy "Banzai," lounged in chairs. When you talk to them, you feel rather like a passenger on a playfully guided safari tour. She's the brain," said Mathis, pointing to Chapman. "I'm the brawn, and Ed just follows along."

"Shenzi," Chapman explained, "is tough but fun and what I'd call an intelligent hyena -- in a street-smart sort of way -- and very manipulative. She gets what she wants!

"Banzai is a wannabe leader, but he doesn't have what it takes," Mathis said. "He is very strong, very brutish, and knows that Shenzi is far more intelligent"

Kevin Cahoon offered a self analysis of his hyena psyche. "Ed is a mute, and I always say that Ed's mom tried to eat him at birth, and he suffers from serious inbreeding as well. Then he ran away from his family and hooked up with Shenzi and Banzai."

Without his mask, Cahoon resembled a young Ray Bolger with a slightly lopsided grin, so you can't resist asking for a sampling of hyena hysteria. After a couple of rounds of howling desert laughter, a lot of heeeee-heeeee-heeeee's in multiple pitches, you warm up to these strong-jawed mammals and query, "Do you think you hyenas are getting a bad rap?"

"I think so." Chapman answered first. "After all, we're doing what we have to do to survive in the food chain. We have to eat."

"We're part of the cycle," Cahoon added.

"The circle of life," Mathis stressed.

"Actually," Cahoon teased, "we'll eat an animal before they're dead. We're the only mammals that will do that,"

"Kevin!" chorused his colleagues.

"Well, we are hungry all the time," he continued undaunted by their protest, "You know, like -- `Dive In' "

If that's the case, then why would these three actors, or any actors, want to play the part of a despicable hyena, the persona non grata of the desert set?

"Actually," Cahoon added, "I thought it would be fun. I saw the movie, of course, and I thought these are comic roles, even though they're bad guys."

"Comic roles or even menacing roles are much more fun and interesting than heroes," Mathis said.

"Sometimes when we are laughing,' the kids in the audience answer back. It's so cute. Chapman said.

"Absolutely." Cahoon and Mathis agreed. "Throughout the whole performance, the kids are pretty much with us -- in a show that lasts two hours and 40 minutes."

During this time, these three lead a pack of singing and laughing hyenas, all of whom are down on all fours, leaning on a pair of half crutches, while wearing a multilayered costume with several parts.

Mathis: "Oh gosh, the harness is one part."

Chapman: "The mask is another."

Cahoon: "You have the headgear."

Mathis: "The body suit and . . ."

Cahoon: ". . . the combat suit and the gloves."

Chapman: "That's a lot of layers."

Cahoon: "It's a lot of hot buttons and fasteners."

Chapman: "Right! When we come off stage, we grab our water and our fans."

"Then there are the legs," Mathis continued.

"Which are quite heavy, Cahoon said. "You have to clamp the legs together and work the head with the your right hand. The left hand is for the legs. You can use both legs, but when you have to speak and sing, or your mouth has to move, you have to clamp the legs together."

"When you're using both legs, it's a mask; when you're using one leg," explained Mathis, "it's a puppet.

"Recently the show won the Genie Award for being `ground-breaking.' Not only is it groundbreaking. It's backbreaking -- back, hip, knees." he said, laughing. "You have to be very meticulous about taking care of your body in this show. I go to the gym three times a week to strengthen body parts."

"I've built neck muscles I didn't realize I had," Cahoon said.

"Yes!" Mathis said. "Before this show, my neck was a size 15. But when I did St. Louis Woman at the 'Encores!' Series at City Center, they measured me. Now it's a 16 -- because of what we're doing."

"You need to be fit," Chapman said, "and give it time, because when you first try on the mask . . . "

". . . you get a little phobic," Mathis finished. "My first fitting lasted an hour and a half. I just had to close my eyes and go to the islands."

After lobbing around down on all fours during eight shows a week for a total of over 213 hours, what do actors who play hyenas do on their days off?

"Sleep!" cheered all three.

"This show, " Chapman said, "has just been an incredible experience, just working with different cultures, the South African cast, and the various styles of music. Also, the family values that the show portrays. I love the message about remembering where you came from."

"Just knowing that Julie Taymor was directing, and that Garth Fagan was the choreographer," Mathis said quietly, "every day in the rehearsal we felt like children. They would bring in a new headpiece or a new costume or stilts or something, we would just be like "Oh my god, oh look at this!"

"I'm 26 years old," said Cahoon. "I'll never be in another show that is this artistically and commercially successful.

"So," he paused playfully, "if I can just talk Disney into it, there's gonna to be a Saturday morning cartoon, there's going be a sitcom on ABC . . . there's gonna be Lion King, Part 2, and maybe even a kickline at Radio City. You know, I think there's endless possibilities to this hyena gig."

-- By Starla Smith

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