Julie Taymor’s internationally celebrated stage adaptation of The Lion King opened on Broadway in 1997 and has since played in more than 100 cities in 20 countries on almost every continent (Antarctica doesn’t have any theatres) and has been seen by over 110 million people worldwide.
Unquestionably one of the most successful stage adaptations of all time, Taymor brought a vast array of disciplines to the performance, including ritualised puppetry, mask and movement. The Lion King was the first musical Taymor directed in commercial theatre, and she made Broadway history by becoming the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical.
Now touring the UK, The Lion King touring company features Stephenson Ardern-Sodje as Simba and Nokwanda Khuzwayo as Nala, who previously played the role in Germany and Brazil. Ireland’s Alan Mchale will be returning in a new role as Timon with Cardiff-born newcomer Owain Rhys Davies taking the role of Ed. They will join returning principals Matthew Forbes as Zazu, Jean-Luc Guizonne as Mufasa, Richard Hurst as Scar, Rebecca Omogbehin as Shenzi, Thandazile Soni as Rafiki, Carl Sanderson as Pumbaa and Simon Trinder as Banzai.
I caught up with Stephenson Ardern-Sodje who takes on the role of Simba in the UK and Ireland tour of The Lion King.
After two years of lockdown, how does it feel to be back on stage?
SAS: It’s unbelievable and I mean that in every sense of the word. I feel like there was definitely a time when I was in my house thinking, “Is theatre ever going to come back?” so to come back with a show the scale of The Lion King is such a gift. You go and see this show and you think, this is theatre. It’s operatic, it’s huge, but at the same time it has this lovely human quality to it. So, it’s a great show to come back with and I think the audiences feel that as well. We actually had amazing audiences in over Easter weekend – they feel like they’re ready to come back to the theatre and that makes our jobs a lot easier.
I assume you grew up watching The Lion King?
SAS: Yeah, I suppose I fit right into that age bracket. I saw the film growing up and everyone had Lion King bedsheets and lamps; there were all kinds of merch and toys so it’s one of those things that’s embedded in my brain. The first time I saw the stage show I was the age of young Simba. It was my first West End show and now it’s come full circle and I’m adult Simba and I get to see those young Simba’s in the audience. It really feels like something that’s been with me my whole life, it’s crazy! As a black performer, as a young black boy, that’s the pinnacle. A lot of people have asked if Simba is a dream role for me and I don’t know that it even was, because it’s something external to that, something removed. You just think, it’s The Lion King, it’s this beacon of the theatre that’s always been there and always will be. Now I get to be a part of that, which is amazing.
You touched on how the role is iconic for black performers, you’ve also understudied and performed the role of Alexander Hamilton. How do you approach playing a part that is so inspirational and aspirational for those young black children in the audience?
SAS: That’s a great question, I really like that! Something I find interesting about the show is that there are eleven productions worldwide. There are many different people doing the show every night in different languages, in different cultures, with ever so slightly different changes to the script or the staging depending on the theatre or the country so there’s a lot of potential pressure – a feeling like you’ve got this responsibility. It’s something that I think you could get very heady about, and I am quite a heady performer, so I think you have to divorce yourself from it and just be the Simba that you’re going to be. The way that I approach it is the same way that I approached Hamilton by just going to the text, looking at what’s on the page, at what you’ve been given to work with and letting the text serve the piece rather than thinking “Oh my God, I’m Simba! I have to do something extra special today”. Simba is the character that’s there in the script and the words will move people. We all have a connection to the story whether that’s having grown up with the film, or the younger generation who have this new version of the film or who saw the show when they were a kid. Everyone brings their own elements when they watch it so all I have to do is serve the piece up.
You’ve performed at The Globe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Tempest. The Lion King has been likened to Hamlet but with animals, do you feel that the script has that level of Shakespearean drama?
SAS: I really do, but I didn’t necessarily think that before I started the rehearsal process. Everybody involved, all the creatives, really believe it and take it very seriously. Nobody thinks it’s light and fluffy, that it’s “a Disney show” and that seriousness comes through in the final production. Something I love about Shakespeare is that all of his shows, his comedies and tragedies, have within them a multitude of genres and different characters who often appear to be in completely different genres. There’s the clown or the fool who can make fun of the piece, the tragic hero, the tyrant, the lovers, all these different archetypical characters exist in a narrative all of their own but they weave together to create something that feels like the summation of what a human life is. And we have Simba and Nala who are on this heroic journey, Scar the Tyrant who is in this intense Succession-esque battle for supremacy, and then you have Timon and Pumbaa who are making asides to the audience along with Zazu who has that similar levity, and it really shows a level of sophistication that does match that Shakespearean element that people credit it with.
The Lion King is a multi-award-winning show and won the first Tony for a female director…
SAS: Which is insane because it’s not as old as you think it is!
Absolutely! Do you feel people realise just how ground-breaking a show it was when it opened?
SAS: It was ground-breaking when it came out and they were pushing the boundaries. The level of detail and the scale is incredible. It takes one hundred and fifty people to put on a production of the show every night and we’re doing the exact same show on tour that you can see in the West End which not always the case with a touring production. When you come and see the show, although it’s been around for a while, it still has something so vibrant, something that you don’t find in a lot of other productions. There’s the puppets, the physicality, that it has modern pop and really beautiful African tribal music. That doesn’t exist in other shows and it still feels fresh. I hadn’t seen the show since I was a kid, so when I was cast, I got a ticket in the centre of the stalls and the moment that Rafiki came out and started the song, started Circle of Life, I started crying! It was like I was hearing it for the first time. I think there’s something so timeless about The Lion King and it has influenced and changed the landscape of musical theatre, but I still don’t think there’s a show out there that delivers what The Lion King delivers.
You had an unusual start into your career in musical theatre by chasing big West End roles before studying, tell me a little bit about that?
SAS: “Chasing” is funny. I’m a very back-footed guy; I think I’m very relaxed. I’ve always loved musical theatre and I’ve always loved the idea of performing. I’d done a little am-dram, I was in a band when I was a kid but I grew up in the West Midlands, my mum was a single parent and I never really could see any connection between the stuff that I was doing and the big West End performances - or any play that happened to come through as I never got to go to London to see the shows in the West End. I went to university to study English and moved to London and bit by bit ended up working in a TV production company behind the scenes where I started to meet people who were performers and that was a real eye-opener for me, realising that performers who were quite well known and really polished were just normal people who had worked hard in one area, which demystified it for me. Then in a confluence of things, I saw that Hamilton were having open auditions, so I sent in a video of me singing and rapping and got called in. Seven rounds of auditions later, they sent me twelve pieces from the show and gave me one week to learn them, so it was a real head-spinner and it was a backwards way of doing that. I knew so little about the industry that I didn’t know to be scared or that it would be unlikely to happen. Fortunately for me, they sent me to drama school and I did a year at the Royal Academy of Music and then I started in Hamilton. Playing Alexander Hamilton was the first role I ever played on stage.
That’s a hell of an apprenticeship!
SAS: Yeah, it really is! It was quite nice because after that, you think, “Well, I suppose anything’s easier than that!”
If you had to sell the show to someone who had never seen it, what would you say to make them buy a ticket?
SAS: The Lion King is the story of Simba, a young lion who is supposed to be taking on the mantle of King of The Savannah, and after tragedy strikes, he runs away from his destiny. He’s scared to take on his true role until the people in his life show him that there is more going on than he is prepared to acknowledge and that he has to return home to help his people. It sounds grand and fanciful but it’s a real story about human emotion and grief and loss and community coming together to thrive and find joy in the darkest of times. After two years of a pandemic, everyone can relate to that. That, along with Elton John bangers is something that nobody can resist.