InterviewWhy The Lion King Casts Actors Differently From Any Other Broadway ShowIt’s not just the puppetry—Disney’s longest-running musical searches for performers with abilities that no other Broadway show needs.
Casting director Mark Brandon has been working with The Lion King on Broadway for so long, he can’t even remember exactly how many years. “I’ve been with it for 20-something years, since the very beginning,” he says. Brandon (along with Jay Binder of Jay Binder Casting) was responsible for assembling the original 1997 Broadway cast. The show has taken Brandon around the world, to Brazil, Australia, and China; he also casts the national tour. “The thing that keeps me going are the actors,” he enthuses, “and working with the actors because that's what makes the story special.”
And the actors in The Lion King are a special breed. Onstage, they operate puppets, walk on stilts, sing in the South African language of Zulu, and rock fabulous head pieces. “I always say to people, ‘Think of these characters as people, not animals, and what the puppets and the masks do is help tell the stories through the animal,’” explains Brandon.
The Lion King is currently the highest-grossing show playing globally. Though it’s known for innovative puppetry and masks, courtesy of director Julie Taymor, those aren’t necessary skills when auditioning. “Very few people who come in are strong actors and already have puppetry skills,” says Brandon. Instead, new actors will usually have at least two training sessions with their mask or puppet before they go into their final callback. “First they come in to sing and read, and they do everything without puppets or masks,” he says. “Then if we're interested in them as we go forward, then we have individual masks and puppet session with them.”
Because The Lion King has separate singing and dancing choruses like the musicals and revues of yesteryear, those who audition don’t necessarily have to be triple threats. Instead, he’s looking for dancers with modern ballet training and singers who have a dynamic range. “Everything is rooted in Africa and African music so we use very little vibrato,” he notes. “It's different from your usual musical theatre singers.” In fact, the onstage chorus of singers usually boasts vocalists from South Africa; Lebo M, who arranged the music, is from Johannesburg, and the musical contains phrases from six African languages.
Because the skill set required for Lion King is different from traditional Broadway, Brandon has cast actors with a range of stage experience, from “excellently trained singers who can do this style” to those “who are a little bit more raw or inexperienced.”
As he continues to cast the nearly 20-year-old show, Brandon never looks for recreations of the original performances. “I say, ‘This is what the song is about, I know that you can connect to this, you just have to find your story. I don't want to hear Simba's story, I want to hear your story,’” he explains. “That's what makes it special and unique. That's what keeps me going and keeps it fresh, because every person that walks through the door is different and tells their own story. And that's what I encourage everybody to do.”
Back to the Prideland Brandon isn’t the only person who’s been involved with casting Lion King for over a decade. Lion King associate director John Stefaniuk has worked on the show for 15 years across 12 countries, directing and helping to cast it on every continent except Antarctica. Notably, he directed the South African production of The Lion King in 2007, and goes back there every year to cast more actors for productions around the globe. He explains why below:
Fun fact: “At any given times, there’s seven to eight productions globally around the world and each show will have seven to nine South Africans in them, sometimes more. Germany has quite a huge contingent, there's about 20 South Africans in the German production.”
The South African connection: “Any time a character feels something guttural, anytime a character wants to express something that's in their true heart or nature, it's always in South African…. It's the heartbeat of the whole piece, it's who they are is African, and the birth of humanity is Africa.”
Memorable casting story: For the Johannesburg production in 2007 of The Lion King: “We had an African man who was black, playing Timon, and a white man, who was Afrikaan playing Pumbaa. And it was such a beautiful comment on society that there they were, these two [animals] who should be enemies but they haven't been. They've been wandering through the jungle for so many years as the best of friends. It was such a comment without being a comment, I thought it was an amazing thing.”