The cast assembled near the rehearsal piano. As key veterans perfectly built a goose-bumpy vocal chorus of African chants into “The Circle of Life,” the newbies smiled and looked at each other sheepishly, like church parishioners faking it from the hymn book.
But it was all good. Monday was the first day of rehearsals for “The Lion King,” and the 56 cast members and almost as many crew members had just stood up to introduce themselves.
They came from all over the world, from South Africa to “a small town in Arkansas you never heard of.” Actors are not a shy breed, and some made funny first impressions, such as a guy who said he was “from a little apartment in New York. I live here in a bigger place.”
This was quite a production in itself compared with the first coming together for “The Producers” a couple of years ago, with the cast exchanging pleasantries in the lobby outside their rehearsal room in a classroom building at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Monday’s launch, in an industrial park near the Silverton, was filmed with professional video equipment against carefully-arranged prop and costume pieces from the show. The cast received a welcoming speech from none other Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical, who flew in just for the occasion before jetting off again to deal with the launching of “Mary Poppins” in Chicago.
Schumacher gave a quick history lesson on the evolution of “The Lion King” from 1994 animated movie to Broadway musical three years later. Schumacher recalled that he told Disney president Michael Eisner he didn’t think the film could be adapted to stage. But “Beauty and the Beast” had just opened on Broadway so the answer was: “I’m not asking, I’m telling you, ‘Go do it.” I don’t care how you do it, just do it.’”
The solution turned out to be the novel concept of turning the actors into puppeteers, with the audience seeing both the real actor’s face and the familiar movie animals at the same time. “It’s that back and forth between the two that really brings it to life,” Schumacher told them.
He also urged the cast to get to know the nine South African performers. “From them you will learn a great deal about the soul of ‘The Lion King.’”
Mandalay Bay President Bill Hornbuckle was introduced as “your insane friend (who) has stuck his neck out so far to make this thing happen, we all must keep cotton padding around.”
Schumacher’s executive vice president, David Schrader, said the musical comes with something of a “guarantee” to ticket-buyers because it’s “something they know is going to deliver.” Previews begin May 5 at Mandalay Bay, with an official opening May 15.
(Pictured above: Buyi Zama-Rafiki fronts the sing-along.)
(Pictured Left: Thomas Schumacher)