For eighteen months, L. Steven Taylor has starred as "Mufasa" in the Broadway touring production of "The Lion King." Now in his ninth year with the production, Taylor is a valuable asset to the venerable and world-renowned show. Yet as successful as his stage acting career has been so far, it almost didn't happen.
Taylor fell in love with acting by accident in late youth while growing up in Indianapolis. An unexpected invitation to a stage performance of "Les Miserables" forever changed the young Taylor's expectations of what his life would become. As he sat in the audience, captivated by the power and majesty of the performance, Taylor toyed with the idea of becoming an actor. After each scene his resolve hardened. Finally, with the curtain dropped and the performance ended, the crowd erupting in applause and the idea of an acting career solidified, Taylor found he could only play a single refrain in his head: "I want to, I have to."
He would — act, that is. No, not as Jean Valjean (not yet, at least). But as Mufasa. And he does it extremely well.
Lion King Tour
Many people are familiar with "The Lion King," which was a popular Disney film in the early 1990s. Thanks to Taylor and myriad other tremendous actors like him, the live theatrical version has attained an impressive popularity as well.
"The Lion King" is only the second show in history to generate 21 worldwide productions to date, including five running 10 years or more. Altogether the musical has won more than 70 major arts awards, including six 1998 Tony awards. Translated into seven different languages (Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) and having been played in 19 countries on six continents, The Lion King’s worldwide gross exceeds that of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in box office history.
Taylor attributes this success to the multi-sensory experience the audience feels in the theater. The first experience of the live show, with its combination of costumes, puppets, technical elements, music and thematic storylines produced a "sensory overload" for him. In fact, in order to absorb the "fullness" of the show, he saw it three times. He advises first-time viewers to just "take it in" and not try to analyze it too much.
For those who have seen the production, Taylor doesn’t worry that the current tour production will lose its appeal for repeat viewers. "Everyone brings a new energy and interpretation to each performance," he says. "There are so many factors that keep each performance fresh." There are new cast members, new locations and new venues each year that contribute to the uniquely energetic performances. One year in Hawaii, for example, Taylor recalls that some of the townspeople prayed a blessing upon the show, affecting the subsequent performances in a uniquely spiritual manner.
Before moving into his current role, Taylor understudied for the parts of both Mufasa and Scar, which gave him full access to both sides of the drama. Now in second season playing Mufasa, he can reflect on how his understanding of the fatherly, sometimes imperious leonine character has changed his approach to the role.
"When I first started, I saw the younger king element in Mufasa," he says, referring to the attributes of power and glory. As Taylor grew into his character, however, he began to understand the true nature of the magnificent king, Mufasa’s fierce desire "to do right by the people who depend upon him." This prompted Taylor’s drive to be a true father — not just a king on stage, but to his own son at home.
"Being a king is not about the title, but the responsibility of doing the right thing and passing that on to the next generation."
Taylor adroitly observes that "Mufasa represents balance." This is why his costume contains the sun as well as linear, parallel lines. On the other hand, Scar, Mufasa’s troubled, devious brother, personifies instability. Accordingly, his costume's design elements are jagged, awkward and out of place.
Simba, the decisive character in this archetypal triptych, must then choose whether he will be alone like Scar or embrace responsibility like his own father. Ultimately, Taylor says Simba learns from Mufasa that he will "never [be] alone if he looks in the right place."
Taylor's passion for "The Lion King" has meshed with his own life experience, and speaking about it he becomes philosophical.
"We don’t get it all right away, but hopefully aren’t too scarred during the learning process," he muses. "Both good and bad experiences help us become who we are. We need to learn, not to identify with our scars."
Playing Mufasa has taught Taylor not to let his past scars determine his future. "There are other choices that need to be made," he says. "There are other paths to take."
"The Lion King" sustains success because it is demonstrably more than a theatrical production, and Mufasa goes beyond just a character. For Taylor, it is a philosophy of life writ onto the Broadway stage, helping us understand how we impact the people who depend on us for guidance.
Broadway in Cincinnati presents "Disney’s The Lion King" March 31-April 26 at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.621.ARTS or visit www.BroadwayInCincinnati.com.