“It’s a story that transcends culture and age”: An interview with The Lion King’s Nick Afoa and Janique Charles
It’s The Lion King’s 20th anniversary! Since opening in 1999, the beloved show has entertained over 16 million theatregoers. It remains the West End’s best-selling stage production and the sixth longest-running West End musical of all time.
The Upcoming had a chat with Nick Afoa (Simba) and Janique Charles (Nala) to find out what it’s like to perform in this iconic musical.
Did you watch The Lion King as a child?
Nick Afoa: I did, it was my favourite movie.
Janique Charles: Yes, of course. It was on repeat in my house!
What did you think of it?
NA: I just remember looking at the screen going, “Wow, what’s happening?”. That movie was the first of its kind coming out for people around my age and generation. You could ask most people in my country (New Zealand) what their favourite movie is and they would probably say The Lion King.
JC: I thought it was amazing. It was particularly heartbreaking when Simba was trying to move his dad around after he’d fallen off the rock. It just made me cry every time. Even now it makes me cry every time.
Has the show’s meaning changed for you as you’ve got older?
NA: The show’s theme has always been an integral part of me. Where I’m from there are really strong family values, and those things are really strong right through the show. My favourite scene is when Mufasa is speaking to his son and trying to teach him about the meaning of life. I remember when I first saw the scene in rehearsal and I was taken back to when I was a child when my mum was like, “You wait till your father gets home. He’s going to teach you a lesson and he’s going to tell you what you did wrong.” Every now and then when I get the chance, I will sit by the stage and make sure I can get a glimpse of that scene on that given night.
JC: I’ve been able to make connections between some parts of the story and my life. I play the character of adult Nala. She leaves her family – or her pride, as we call it – to find a solution to the issues that are going on in her homeland: injustice and just all-round bad weather by the bad guy, Scar. In my life, there was no particular tyrant looming over me, but I had to leave Trinidad, where I grew up, and come to the UK all on my own in 2016 in search of my dream, which is performing.
Do you remember your first taste of the stage?
NA: The first show I saw on stage was Wicked in Auckland. When I was asked to be in The Lion King, I was like, “I should actually go and see what this theatre thing’s about.” It blew me away. I didn’t expect to be moved like that. I remember sitting next to somebody who was in tears when Elphaba was singing Defying Gravity and I was like, “Wow.” This was about a month before I was going to rehearse for The Lion King, and I was sitting there thinking, “I’m about to do something like this! I hope people are going to be crying watching me!”
JC: I started singing when I was nine years old. My mum realised that I had talent when I was belting At Last by Etta James in my bedroom. I thought she was a bit angry at me, to be honest, but she said, “Ok, this is what you want to do,” and she sent me to vocal classes. The Lion King has been a saving grace because, although singing was my passion, it’s more practical to do something like law or medicine. Disney happened to come to the Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Barbados, when I was around 17, and they held auditions in Trinidad.
I auditioned and didn’t hear from them for at least three years afterwards, but when I did, I thought, “This is it, this is definitely for me.” I thought I would have to be a doctor, but that’s not what I wanted to do. I’m living my dream, so I’m just happy to be on stage every night.
Do you think theatre is important?
NA: I think theatre is very important. There are messages you can’t get across through any other outlet. The stage goes back thousands of years and it still exists today. Humans will always crave a raw connection, and that’s what I think theatre gives us. It transcends all levels like age, culture, gender. I’m grateful to be a part of it for this chapter of my life.
JC: Absolutely. Theatre means so much to the audience, and it’s definitely an experience that you can’t get by sitting at home watching TV or even going to the cinema. The theatre is such a real life experience. You get to see actors and performers doing what they enjoy doing: blood, sweat and tears in real time, in real life. You get the emotions as they are performing it. It’s something that nothing else can really measure up to.
What is it about The Lion King that makes it so successful and enduring?
NA: It hits you in the heart and it hits you in the soul. I think it’s also the way it’s brought to life, because it’s set in Africa and you’ve got these amazing animals played by human actors. You’ve got amazing music as well and you have a story that transcends culture and age. It’s a formula that’s going to be long-lasting. And here it is, 20 years later.
JC: The Lion King won six Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Set Design, and Best Costumes, because it really is spectacular. It has one of the best opening pieces in musical theatre: Circle of Life. People are enveloped in the show and the story from beginning to end.
The story just explores so many different human themes that apply to everyday life, regardless of what background you’re from. It explores the themes of love, heartbreak, feeling lost, spirituality – anything you can think of is in The Lion King. It takes you on an emotional rollercoaster.
What’s your favourite song in the show?
NA: I’m not going to say a song that I sing in the show, so I’m going to say Circle of Life for the message.
JC: I don’t want to be biased, but I sing the song Shadowland and it’s such an emotional song. It’s heartfelt, soft and quiet as Nala is describing the place where she grew up. It was once vibrant and lively and filled with laughter and caring and love, but she does not recognise it anymore and she calls it “shadowlands”. Imagine your house burned to the ground. It’s just going to bring you to tears, but she’s strong. Throughout her journey, she maintains that strength. For me, it’s such an empowering message as a young woman who’s come over to a foreign land to pursue her dreams, but for anybody it’s a song of empowerment and knowing that what you believe in is enough to carry you through.
Photos: Courtesy of The Lion King UK
In honour of its 20th anniversary, The Lion King has a gala performance in London on 19th October 2019 and is touring the UK and Ireland. For further information or to book tickets visit the show’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Lion King here: