Hakuna Matata

'The Lion King' brings Broadway to the masses during an extended Tucson run

Nathaniel Stampley is the king of the jungle, and he is a just and noble king, so he thinks you should be warned about a few things before you visit his realm.

Stampley's domain is the theatrical version of The Lion King, a story that started out as an animated Disney movie but is now in its ninth year as a live Broadway show. It's also been showing in London for a very long time, and in Hamburg and in Tokyo, and two companies are currently touring it around the United States. One of them--Stampley's--will settle into the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall for a substantial run Aug. 17-Sept. 24.

Stampley plays Mufasa, the story's initial lion king, who is killed and usurped by his brother, who in turn is brought to justice and replaced by Mufasa's son, the story's ultimate lion king. But right now, it's Stampley who is lounging on his jungle throne. Actually, he's sitting on a hotel bed between shows in Houston, on the phone to tell the Tucson multitudes what they should and should not expect when they come to witness the end of his reign.

"It is very different from the film," he says of the live musical. "From the opening number, you realize this is going to be somewhat like the film, but entirely different. We are people on a stage, so we can't exactly re-create the animated film."

This is not a bad thing. The Lion King makes full use of the theater's potential for spectacle, not by crashing a huge chandelier or having a helicopter land amid singing and dancing Vietnamese crowds, but by populating the stage with actors in oversized animal masks (small part Disney, great part African) and large puppets, operated by visible technicians who become part of the fantasy animals. The show also bulks up the movie score; in addition to the original Elton John/Tim Rice songs, the Broadway version includes three newer Elton John songs and a great amount of more authentically African-sounding material by other composers.

Director Julie Taymor oversaw much that was best about The Lion King, and she and the rest of the original creative and technical teams were rewarded with just about every honor short of the Heisman Trophy.

All well and good, but there's another important point that Stampley wants you to know: He is not James Earl Jones.

"The most difficult thing about this role for me is people automatically have the voice of James Earl Jones in their head from the film," he says. "And then the role was created by Samuel Wright on Broadway. I have to try to make it my own version of Mufasa. The biggest challenge for me is not re-creating what someone else did, but living in that tradition while creating something that is mine."

Stampley, a classically trained baritone who appeared in The Color Purple on Broadway and Ragtime on tour, has had plenty of time to create Mufasa in his own image. He played the character for a year in London, then nearly a year and a half in the first national tour, and now he's been on this tour about three months so far. But it's not something he'd yearned to do from the time the Broadway show opened. In fact, when his agent got him an audition, he hadn't even seen the thing, and didn't make it to a performance until the day of his first tryout.

"I immediately fell in love with the show, and I knew it was something I could do," he says. "The story line was very powerful, and also just the pure visual stimulus of the show is quite invigorating. I really wanted to be a part of that."

Now, about that visual stimulus--doesn't it bother Stampley that people are looking at the heavy costumes and the masks and the puppets and the riot of color and motion on stage, and forgetting maybe that there's a real man with a face portraying Mufasa? "No, it doesn't," he says. "I think the story line is strong enough that you could take away many of the visual aspects of the show, and it would still work. But those elements do heighten the story and help us tell the story better, so I don't view them as a hindrance. And there's so much happening on stage that a lot of people want to come back, because they feel they've missed something the first time." In other words, it's good box office. A wise king is always attentive to his treasury.

What motivates Stampley to come out and do the show night after night, eight shows a week over the course of several years, is that he and the company are taking the production to the masses instead of insisting that the masses make an expensive pilgrimage to Broadway.

"For some people, it's their first show ever, but it's one they really wanted to see," he says. "Everywhere we go, people are very excited to see us. When you're welcomed that way, you feel great, and it's wonderful to share the story with them."