The Lion King has been inspiring audience members non-stop from all around the globe over the past several years, consistently marked as a “must see” show since its Broadway debut in 1997. As a long running heartbeat, pumping life into the contemporary theatre world, the classic tale in its stage form is incredible. The show is vibrant, charming, timeless, well produced—and it’s Hip Hop.
While that last one may surprise some, the culture exemplified on Broadway is right in line with Hip Hop culture. From its live music components and traditional African roots to its overall spirit, the Lion King is Hip Hop whether the toughest critics like it or not.
The Lion King’s successes on Broadway lie in the ways in which each detailed element comes together each night once the curtains open and steals the audience away into its magic world. The costumes, props, stage designs, music, interactivity, subtle improvisations, and the incredibly talented cast all stand united, generating a beautiful display of creativity truly unique to its execution of a distinctively special interpretation of the Lion King we all know and love thanks to Disney.
The Lion King on Broadway should be added it to anyone’s New York City bucket list. The show indubitably has moments that can make any adult and child alike walk away smiling with a natural ease.
Tshidi Manye (Rafiki), L. Steven Taylor (Mufasa), Jelani Remy (Adult Simba), Chantel Riley (Adult Nala) took some time to break down the ways the vibe we associate with Hip Hop is woven unassumingly, but undeniably, into the Lion King’s feel-good story.
TheSource: In what ways has the hip-hop genre inspired you as an individual, and does the Lion King feel Hip Hop to you?
L. Steven Taylor/Mufasa: I grew up listening to Hip Hop and that definitely kind of inspired my love for music. In our show, even though it’s musical theater, there are definitely Hip Hop-inspired numbers, such as the scenes with the dancing hyenas, for example. It’s interesting to see how a show like the Lion King can be transcendent with Hip Hop culture, as well. I think the two play off of similar themes. It’s embedded in us as African-Americans, as well, so I think it comes out on stage and in our performance, both automatically and authentically.
Jelani Remy/Simba: I think the thing about Hip Hop music is that it has so much soul and heart behind it. That’s what the Lion King is all about. The Lion King is a story of heart and soul—period—so to be able to tell that story and put my soul and my heart into it each performance, it’s all intertwined into one beautiful message.
Chantel Riley/Nala: I love listening to Hip Hop before a show or before working out, or before anything really, because it gets me so hype. Even trap music gets me so pumped and ready for the day, I love it. I’ve definitely had “Panda” on repeat – don’t hate! We all love all types of music and so much of it comes down to how music helps us to get energized before a performance and in our day-to-day lives.
What makes one performance feel memorable or stand out, especially considering that the show is long-running?
Jelani Remy/Simba: We do the show eight times a week, and you do the math, that is a lot of performances. All we have as artists is what we bring each day. Prince’s passing has been a big thing for our entire cast, for a recent example, so to be able to put on shows for him has brought it to another level. The day he passed away, we all dedicated our show to him. It was a little more vulnerable and a little more open, as we paid tribute to someone who paved the way for us. Additionally, we have so much fun with the show because it gives us freedom to explore our different crafts—singing, dancing, acting—and when you love what you do, it’s not work.
Chantel Riley/Nala: Definitely, I would have to agree about Prince inspiring our performances lately. It’s great to know someone who has left such a legacy and such a mark on everyone in the cast because everyone has their own experiences of him. It’s also great when there’s family in the audience. I mean, we always give our 100 percent, but sometimes when you know that someone you love and adore is there watching, you push just a little bit harder, so they can enjoy your performance even more.
L. Steven Taylor/Mufasa: Live theatre as an art form itself does that for you automatically. Each show is different on its own accord; each audience is a little bit different. For me personally, the majority of my scenes are with the young actors so the two young Simbas who rotate in and out of the show have a completely different take on how they each play the character, so that helps keep it fresh and exciting. Also, knowing there are people in the audience who have never seen the show before is an exciting thing to think about as we go through telling this beautiful story each night.
Tshidi Manye/Rafiki: When the curtain goes up and the show starts, not only do you see kids excited to see what was happening on stage, you see adults crying and that motivates you also. It makes you want to say, ‘Look at what we are doing, we’re blessing somebody!’ And that makes it really exciting each time.
How do you combat the pressures of always having to have such a high quality performance? I know everyone has off days, so I’m curious how you push through that pressure and those challenges.
Tshidi Manye/Rafiki: Everyone has, like you said, an off day, especially if you’ve been doing the show for a long time, your body needs to sit down sometimes and recharge. Day offs are important because once you come back to the show after taking some time to rest, you can give the best that you’ve been giving for days again, while still being truthful to the story and able to deliver it really well.
L. Steven Taylor/Mufasa: I think when you have tough days or down days, this show itself is just a really positive and inspirational story and that helps. For me, if I focus on exactly what the story is saying and delivering that message, I always feel better after the show regardless of what’s happened over the course of my day. Being able to tell a story like the Lion King, it absolutely puts me in a completely different mood.
How do you keep your body and mind so healthy?
Jelani Remy/Simba: We take a lot of classes. I like to tumble, I like to do yoga and I do choreography on the side, as well, so it’s nice to challenge your body and have fun with it because you do get sort of acclimated to the show, so it’s nice to challenge yourself outside of it as well, and then infuse it into the show.
Chantel Riley/Nala: Being able to do martial arts on the side, I’m able to incorporate that into the show. I take Kung Fu at Bo Law Kung Fu fives days a week, so it takes up a lot of time, but I love it and it helps me to become stronger to better be able to perform each week.
Tshidi Manye/Rafiki: We don’t stop exercising; we have to keep our bodies in shape. Some of us take vocal classes. You have to make sure your body and voice stays sharp because it’s the sole instrument you’re working with. When you keep moving constantly also, it’s easier for you to do the show.
What is some advice that you have to people just starting out in their acting/singing/dancing career?
Jelani Remy/Simba: Be open and fearless and learn from everyone you meet. Another quote I live by is, if you stay ready, you never have to get ready. That means always being ahead of the game. [Laughs]
Chantel Riley/Nala: Sometimes we can be so scared to just try something new. So I’d say step out on good faith and let it happen—you’ll be surprised at how well things can work out.