LAST WEEKEND, fans took to the Lyceum Theatre to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Lion King on West End.
The much-loved story, debuted at the London theatre on October 19 1999, and has entertained over 16 million theatregoers and remains the West End’s best-selling stage production and the sixth longest-running West End musical of all time.
To mark the occasion, we sat down with The Lion King stars Shaun Escoffery who plays Mufasa and Gugwana Dlamini who plays Rafiki, to talk theatre, diversity and what makes the production so different from the films.
Q: What was your first memory with the Lion King?
Shaun: I remember watching the animated version years ago and I was moved by it and thought it was wonderful. The story is amazing and then years later I auditioned for the part of Mufasa and it all came together My first experience of awe, excitement but also overall the enormity of the task ahead.
Gugwana: When I watched the movie I was really blown away by what I saw and I was hoping they would do the musical. When that happened it was very exciting to be apart of it and to be in a West End production. That memory of watching the animation in 1994 and being a part of the choir in South Africa is something I hold dear.
Q: Where did your love of musicals begin?
G: For me, it started in South Africa when I first did a musical at 16/17 years old.
S: I wanted to get into music and the question people often ask me “what’s the difference between making music and theatre acting?”. My honest answer was that it comes from the same place and so when I transitioned into musical theatre the love of performing and singing was exactly the same. So I never had an idea that I wanted to get into musical theatre per say but I realised how much I did fall in love with it and how much I still love it now
Q: What attracted you to the role of Rafiki and Mufasa?
S: When I auditioned for Mufasa, the character terrified me and that’s what I love. I want to get into roles were I have to really challenge myself and Mufasa is a character where just on the outside looking in people imagine him in a certain way when in reality Mufasa is a very intricate character.
He’s a warrior, he’s a king,he’s regal and historic but he has this traditional African thing going on inside where he wants everything to be a certain way, he’s all about tradition and peace in the pridelands. Encompassing all of those aspects, he’s a father, a husband and a humble warrior but he’s very fierce so it’s mixing all of these elements into one character that really intrigued me. Even after 11 years i’m still piecing this character together and that’s what keeps me interested.
G: Rafiki is a spiritual leader and the most trusted character in the community and personally i’m a spiritual person so it doesn’t remove me from what I believe in and what I am. When i’m telling the story for me, i’m not getting it just for the fun of it, I’m telling it because i believe it and hoping it’ll change someone else’s life.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever get to the stage where you’ve figured out the character of Mufasa?
S: Not really. With Mufasa, there’s a side of him he doesn’t show that is locked away and he brings it out when he needs to. Mufasa has this immense eruption of power that he keeps under control but I’m always trying to siphon that out.
Q: What are some of the highlights of working on this production that people wouldn’t necessarily know?
S: It’s working with people. This is a family and behind the scenes we’re very tight. It’s an intimate team and a sense of community and so there’s been wonderful highlights – people getting married, birthdays etc – but also we have a thing that happens every year the autism friendly performance and The Lion King was one of the first shows to do that. When we meet children afterwards who are able to attend the show and express themselves freely without judgement and just seeing the jubilation in their eyes has been a highlight.
G: Also it’s the sense that this is a show that brings people from different countries together. I’m from South Africa and we have people from different countries and cultures come together for this one production, which is beautiful.
Q: Can you relate to your respective characters, or see elements of yourself in them?
G: I do definitely relate to my character. Rafiki is a spiritual leader and I connect to her deeper as i’m a spiritual person.
S: Mufasa is a father so there’s a protective aspect that comes with that character. I’ve been deep into martial arts all my life so there’s that warrior that I recognise and adopted throughout the years.
Q: The Lion King has is loved by so many and is intergenerational. What do you think it is about the story that relates to people regardless of age, race, gender, location etc?
S: First of all, the story is biblical, Shakespearean and relates with everyone. We’re talking about love, we’re talking about redemption, loss, hope and this is a story that resonates with the young and old,rich and poor, black and white – it goes across the board. Then you have the costumes, pageantry, music, the African culture which is so rich and it draws people in. It’s a 3D experience which makes you feel a part of it and the more you delve into it the more it takes you away.
R: It’s a journey which touches everyone. You could be coming to the show feeling down but by the time you leave the theatre you’ll feel differently because it’s such a beautiful story not just for children but for adults too.
Q: It’s also extremely diverse – which The Lion King always has been. Are you hopeful for the future of London theatre and that the diversity exhibited in The Lion King trickles through to more productions?
S: 100%, we’ve been at the forefront of that and it’s taken some of the finest talent from all over the world and that is represented on stage. It just shows that when different cultures come together and it’s done beautifully its powerful and wonderful.
Q: What would you say to encourage people to see The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre?
R: It’s a beautiful story that will change your view and you’ll enjoy the music, the imagery and of course it’s one of the shows you can come and watch multiple times because you’ll take away something new from it. Once you see it, you’ll want to come back.
S: Its a timeless story running for 20 years and it’s moving forward and still pushing boundaries, breaking box office records – it’s an amazing piece. Also the difference between the animation and the live action remake is that its 3D and you feel apart of the performance and draws you in – its inspirational.