Owen Chaponda and Merryl Ansah talk Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ in the West End: “It’s uplifting, it’s heartbreaking”

As the sun continues to shine high in the London savannah, a new circle of life unrolls on the stage of the Lyceum with the arrival of its new leads. Guillermo Nazara chats with the two actors now portraying the iconic roles of Simba and Nala, to discuss the most interesting facts about the record-breaking stage adaptation of Disney’s timeless animation classic.

How does it feel to be a part of one of the most successful and longest running shows in musical theatre history?

MA: To be honest, it’s a dream come true. The show is so well known, like you said, globally. You go anywhere and you say Lion King, and everyone instantly knows what you’re talking about. So to be a part of it… I still can’t fully comprehend it!

OC: Absolutely – I’m still sorting all of this show. To have been taking on this roles and be a part of such an incredible story, I think is just insane.

Do you feel that you have a big responsibility on your shoulders now that you have to play characters that so many people know and have grown up with?

OC: Yeah, for sure, I think there’s definitely a big responsibility, because you have especially a lot of kids that come in and this is the first show they’ve watched. So you want them to leave with a sense of magic, a sense of inspiration, a sense of belonging as well, and acceptance. And I feel like these roles are able to do that as they are such multifaceted roles. So it’s great to explore these parts and to portray these hours every single night. So I believe in what you asked, really – I think there’s definitely a responsibility.

MA: I think they’re such well-known characters as well, because people have such a deep connection to them. And I would say that people might have seen the show as children or watched the film – or whatever that may be. And then they returned to watch it later in life and they’re still themes that they’re dealing with to this day. So I think there’s a lot of care that goes into it in preparing for the character – and knowing how much it means is so many people.

What has been the process of preparing for your characters?

MA: That’s a super question! I think for us both (because we’ve been a part of the show before), we already had some kind of connection to it – and to playing these roles, because we both were able to understudy them. So I think having the time apart and now coming back to it, as we both had such different life experiences, we’ve gone on to do other things. So bringing in what we’ve learned from our career outside of the Lion King and taking that into this now, I think it’s going to be an interesting feat as well. Not only that, but physically as well as such physical roles. So being able to make sure that we’re, very, very fit. We step onstage and we’re not really leaving, it’s very constant. It’s very physical. So just making sure we’re in the best condition.

We’re talking about one of the flagship productions. Many people are expecting to see something very particular in The Lion King, but at the same time, as you very rightly pointed out, you’re bringing your own experiences to the portrayal of the roles. Acting wise, how do you manage to make the character your own?

OC: We’ve had a very supportive creative team and what they push for us to do is to bring our own selves into these characters. I think these characters are very relatable characters. So it’s very easy to kind of merge the two together. And I think the stories and the characters are very universal sort of assumptions that we go through in the show. Whether it is love, whether it is loss, whether it’s grief, we will bring our own experiences, from our backgrounds into these characters. And I think I’m having such a supportive team to allow us to do that, I think helps explore these characters in a way that’s a lot easier for us.

MA: I think, like you said, every person that plays the character, we’re all kind of held together by the same thread. We’ve all got the same lines, the same songs, but we each bring something unique and I think, thankfully, the creative team allow us to explore what we want to bring to the characters you know. So one person might play it more seriously, one person might find the humor in some moments and I think we’re definitely afforded the ability to be able to play around with what works for us specifically. So it’s not one like one shoe fits all kind of thing where we’re given artistic license.

Apart from the ones you’ve mentioned, do you find some of the other challenges in the show?

MA: For me I think the physicality definitely is the the main one, just because of how much goes into it. You’re doing the show eight times a week with no letup, so you need to make sure you’re in the best shape to be able to deliver the best performance. Because for some people, it’s their first time watching the show, so you don’t want to ever be flat. It might be your seventh show of the week, but it’s someone’s first show. So to me the biggest challenges are to be able to deliver that top performance, being able to keep in the right mindset and keeping them shape is.

OC: Absolutely. These shows are very, very demanding. You need to hydrate. Drinking a lot of water is something I’m bad at. So I think just getting used to drinking as much water as you can, and just kind of making sure that your voices are in some form so you can actually deliver these beautiful songs every single night. And also being mentally able to do it. I mean, the show talks about a lot of subjects, in terms of love, loss and grief and triumph. So being able to be in those shoes and deliver that and portray everything I think can be challenging as well. So just obviously making sure that your mental spaces and your mental health is good.

You mentioned before the relatability of the characters and the show. What do you share in common with them?

OC: I’d say for me, I’d say symbols, playfulness. Yeah, I can be very cheeky. So I’d say symbols, playfulness, for sure. His willingness to come back to the community and make sure that his community is well fed. And I think for me, I can relate a lot to that. Especially, , just having a community around me personally, my life and because my family stuff who just support me a lot. So making sure they they’re in a good place, well, think I can definitely relate to somewhere in that sense.

MA: I’d say for me, she’s very headstrong. She knows what she wants. She is a bit of a go getter. And I think I can be that way as well. And she’s also she’s very responsible, which I think she doesn’t really get to show too much of her goofy side, which I think I also have. So you know, we’re similar and different.

As we mentioned before, the show has been around for over 20 years now. What do you think is the key of its success? Because it’s not only in London, it’s all over the world.

MA: I think it’s because of how it’s been reimagined for the stage. I think a lot of people come because they know the story. They might have seen the film. But when you step into that theater, and you see all the animals come through, you see the costumes, you see the choreography, you hear the music – some of which isn’t in the films. I think that’s what really is striking and what grabs people and what makes people return as well. It’s got quite a loyal fan base, probably because of how strikingly different it is from the from the film.

OC: I think it’s also the detail that has gone into, you know, making the show, as spectacular as it is when it comes to you know, the puppets, the scene views, the masks, the choreography… Just the authenticity of the show I believe is such a powerful movement that they’ve had. And I think it’s been such a constant thing throughout the years to be as authentic as they can. So I think having that and driving with that force I think makes the show us because it is incredibly successful as it has been for the last one years.

If you had to give me one single reason to see this show in particular, which one would it be?

OC: I’d say the music. Yeah, it’s the opening number.

MA: Yeah, the music. It’s uplifting. It’s heartbreaking. It’s all of those things. Yeah, absolutely.

All pictures credit to Disney.

The Lion King plays at London’s Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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