This past weekend, Disney released its latest remake and it took home an almighty sum of £16.7 million during its first weekend of release at the UK box office alone! In case you’ve been sleeping under a (Pride) rock, we’re talking about The Lion King, which assembled an all-star voice cast to re-imagine the 1994 animated classic using the latest in CGI technology. That cast includes the likes of James Earl Jones as Mufasa (reprising the role from the original film), Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, and… oh… Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, serenading cinematic audiences worldwide with the new track “Spirit” and generating even more hype for this box office smash.
The film is visually stunning, sacrificing the vibrant colours of the original animation for the uber-naturalistic look of the Serengeti which almost renders it comparable to one of David Attenborough’s high-definition wildlife documentaries. It also perhaps introduces the story of Simba to a brand new generation of youngsters, who are growing up in this Pixar and DreamWorks CGI-dominated era, and adds yet another chapter in the ongoing franchise that was launched twenty five years ago.
Another chapter in this storied franchise is, of course, Julie Taymor‘s stage musical adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 1997 and swiftly crossed the pond to grace the Lyceum Theatre’s stage from 1999, following rave reviews and six Tony Award wins (including “Best Musical”). Fast forward almost twenty years and the West End production is still roaring (and raking it in at the box office), entertaining crowds, not only from all over the UK and Europe, but also from all over the world. Likewise the company of The Lion King has welcomed a plethora of actors with a diverse range of nationalities. Many are fittingly native to the African continent, but the West End’s current Simba, Nick Afoa, is actually a native New Zealander of Samoan and Croatian heritage, who got his first big break in musical theatre with the Australian production of The Lion King. Now, thanks to Disney Theatrical, Nick is living and working in London, carrying the flag as Simba eight shows a week, and feeling the love every night at the Lyceum.
In celebration of the release of the CGI version of “The Lion King,” we’ve paired Nick up with Broadway’s current Simba, Bradley Gibson, for this month’s edition of “5 Questions from Over the Pond,” so, without further ado, take it away, your Majesties…
1. Bradley: What kind of warm-up do you do? Vocally and physically. Do you have routines that you stick to?
Nick: When I get to the theatre, I do a mixture of stretches at low intensity, and exercises to warm the body up. I like to infuse movements from the show, beginner’s ballet and sports-related exercises to get the blood flowing. Vocally we all warm up as a cast, then I do an individual warm-up later after make-up. Throughout the week the warm-ups can vary depending on how the voice and body are feeling.
2. Bradley: How long does it take you to get into hair & make-up? And how does that facilitate your process of getting into character?
Nick: My process for make-up includes my first layer of coverage of my tatau (Samoan tattoo). I then warm up while it dries. It’s completed when the rest of the Masai-inspired paint is added. All in all, I’m in the make-up chair for about an hour.
3. Bradley: What do you snack on for energy during the show? Is there anything else you do to make sure that you keep your energy up?
Nick: The Simba role requires a lot of physicality and energy. I try to make sure I’ve got enough energy for the show and that I’m not too full to sing and jump, so I’ve usually eaten what I need before I get to the building. Hydration is super important, especially as I am a major sweater. Sugary snacks can also interfere with my voice so I avoid those, but I do have the odd cheat sweet when I’m desperate for some energy.
4. Bradley: What is your favorite part of the show every night? What’s your favorite part of playing Simba?
Nick: My favourite part of the show changes every night! There are so many magical moments in the story that constantly reinvigorate me in different ways. But there’s something about the final scene where Simba and Nala are looking over the kingdom, back where everything began and the finale is being sung by all the animals as they arrive at Pride Rock. Sometimes I’m reminded of my family and loved ones in that moment. But you can also feel a collective joy resonating in the theatre.
5a. Bradley: The show has been and is currently being performed all around the world. Is there anywhere else you would love to perform as Simba in the show?
Nick: I’ve been very grateful for all the Lion King families I have joined. Even more special that I’m a part of the London West End company in its 20th year celebrations. I would love a chance to one day perform alongside Gerald Ramsey. He currently graces the stage as Mufasa in the American tour. As the only other Samoan in any production of The Lion King, the opportunity we’ve had to represent the Pacific on this stage has been truly humbling.
5b. Bradley: What’s been the highlight of your time as Simba thus far?
Nick: As a debutant in theatre, I have come to see first-hand how powerful and influential art can be. Since playing Simba, especially here in London, I’ve seen and heard many different stories from around the world of how the show has affected people. I’m grateful that I’ve been a part of such a legacy. I have enjoyed the responsibility of being a caretaker of a story that was here before I played it and will continue long after I finish. Playing Simba has also brought a great life experience. The wonderful people I’ve met, travelling, finding long lost family. My parents always encouraged us to travel and go beyond the reef as they never had the chance to. I feel blessed that I could achieve some of the things they hoped I would through this opportunity.
5c. Bradley: What are you most looking forward to about the new adaptation of the movie? Is there a certain person you are excited to see play one of these iconic roles?
Nick: I have fond childhood memories of when I first watched the movie as a 10-year-old in Auckland, New Zealand. The opening scene when the first harmonies are sung after Rafiki’s Call, with Zazu flying through the canyons to the presentation of Simba, is so vivid in my mind. I’m excited to see Donald Glover portray Simba. I really respect his artistry and what he brings to life in his music.