For the next 3 weeks, royalty arrives in East Lansing: Disney’s The Lion King ascends to the throne at the Wharton Center, where it's nice to get the first word in. For The Lion King, South African actress Mukelisiwe Goba gets to use her original language, Zulu, to announce that the Lion is on its way.
"Yeah, 'Here comes the Lion.' Nants ingonyama bagithi baba. 'Here comes the Lion.'" confirms Mukelisiwe Goba on the translation of The Lion King's famous opening number.
[Music from the opening number of Disney's The Lion King, "The Circle of Life."]
"Yeah, it's not easy." says Goba. "I think that's why they always bring a South African to the show, so that we can teach other people how to pronounce. It doens't feel nice when you hear something then like 'Uhh, you don't have to say that.' But, hey, but when we have actually people who know how to say that, it's good!"
While Mukelisiwe Goba has been part of various casts of The Lion King over the past 6 years, her castmate Tony Freeman has been doing it for 18. 11 of which as the puppet Zazu, which took lots of training to perfect. "I thought they were, like, going to bring in somebody from Jim Henson Puppets and teach me how to do the puppets." recalls Freeman. "I walked into our first day on Broadway. They had a row of mirrors set up, they handed me the puppet and said 'Make it look like it's alive.' and I was like 'That's my training?! Make it look like it's alive?!' And you just practice for hours in front of a mirror, so every expression on that puppet has to be memorized by our arm and our hand. So that without even looking at it, we know what the expression is on his face, so that we can look at who we're talking to."
[Sample of Zazu singing "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" from The Lion King.]
But, of course, sometimes with wires mistakes happen as Mukelisiwe reminds Tony. "No, you should ask that Tony, because it happened to you guys with you in your scene with Mufasa."
"Oh yeah!" says Tony, as Mukelisiwe starts giggling during the retelling. "I was on as Scar and I'm supposed to kill Scar and our wires got tangled with each other, so as he started falling off the cliff, he started pulling me with him. You know, we have crew guys there to protect us, of course, and they stopped it. And here we're both just dangling in mid-air waiting to be rescued, but, you know, that's live theatre…"
While The Lion King will be in residency at the Wharton Center now through July 29th, a special sensory-friendly matinee has been scheduled for Saturday July 21st. This marks the first main stage Broadway tour to incorporate the sensory friendly experience at the Wharton Center.
"This is very special perofrmance for us." says Freeman. "We only do this once a year, or once every two years. They used to call it the Autism-Friendly Performance, because people all along the spectrum would come and see it. But now, so many people are interested in seeing the show that now they're just calling it sensory friendly. It's challenging for the actors because it can get very loud. ‘Cause you have some people with Tourette’s, you have some people that, you know, that just get really loud in their responses to what they’re seeing, so the actors have to stay really focused. The lights don't go completely down."
"Yes. That's another thing," adds Goba, "we can see them, like, moving around, but that's okay."
"But it means so much to the kids and their parents." continues Freeman. "You know, that they can bring their children to see a live show, which they normally would feel like 'I don't want to annoy everyone around me.' So, it's a chance to bring your child to the theatre, and just feel comfortable and enjoy the show. So we love, we LOVE doing it."
"Oh yeah." says Goba. "I wish we can do think, like, maybe twice a month. It's really nice."
Freeman adds "It's really beautiful."
Mukelisiwe Goba is Rafiki and Tony Freeman will be a few characters in Disney’s The Lion King at the Wharton Center now through July 29th. Tickets and more info at Wharton Center.com
Note: A previous version of this story featured a headline which contained a word that might be mischaracterized as a generalization of those with ASD-needs. Since the sensory-friendly production on July 21st serves audience members with ASD and those with other needs, we have removed the term. - Jamie