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Interview: Ben Roseberry about Disney’s The Lion King

Back in ’97 one of the great Disney animated movies was swept off of the silver screen and brought to life on the Great White Way (after an out of town try out, of course). This is the show that made Julie Taymor a well known name due to the beautiful and innovative techniques she used to bring the savanna to real life. The show is still running on Broadway and has been produced all around the world. Ben Roseberry, who plays a number of characters on this tour including the laughable hyena Ed, was nice enough to chat with us so we could find out the ins and outs of living in the Lion King world (on the road).

We Asked: What was your first exposure to The Lion King? Did you watch the movie when you were younger, did you see the stage version a decade ago? What do you remember about that first experience with it?

I took my brother to see the film when it was first released in theaters.  I think we must have gone back at least 3 times.  I was 13 and he was 6.  We LOVED the film.  I first saw the stage production in 2003.  I had heard the cast recording and seen the Tony performance, but other than that, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I was in tears within the first 2 minutes.  No one tells you how amazing and overwhelming it is live.  The beautiful thing about it is that I saw this very tour, and now here I am performing with some of the same people that I saw 8 years ago!

We Asked: With such a well-known show based on a well-known movie, did you feel there was less freedom to discover your character? Was there a general sense of how the characters are “supposed” to be? Was the character development processes different than your previous experiences?

I was actually surprised by the amount of freedom that I had.  Most of my career is built upon creating roles in smaller shows.  Coming into this, I expected to be told what to do every second on stage.  That was not the case.  There certainly are specific moments that have to be hit, and they were very clear about that, but I was given a lot of freedom with “Ed”.  Maybe it’s because his lines consist of laughter and that’s it.  There’s a lot of room for improvisation there!  I certainly feel like I’ve brought a lot of myself to the role.

We Asked: Upon your first encounter with any Ed, did you feel a connection? Would you have cast yourself in this role? Is it within what you consider your type, or was it a surprise or a stretch?

When I saw the show, I LOVED it, but I didn’t see myself as anyone in the show.  When my agent called me with the audition, I didn’t think I was right for it at all.  It wasn’t until I got in the room and they started working with me that I saw my own potential within it.

We Asked: How is the cast trained to work with the costumes/puppets? Is that integrated into rehearsals from the beginning, or do you do some work without them and then build them in?

I had never done any puppetry before this, and I was introduced to my puppet very quickly in.  They don’t want you to become overwhelmed with too many things at once, so at first I was just given blocking without any puppetry.  Soon after, however, I was working hours on end in front of a mirror.  I spent a lot of time just working on the walk.  The hyenas have these front arm stilts so that we can walk and run on all fours.  The stilts can connect to form a crutch so that our right arm can control the puppet.  This may sound easy, but it’s not.  When all is said and done, you have about 35 extra pounds that you are running around on stage with, while hunched over.  The idea is to make the switch of walking with two arms to controlling the puppet as seamless as possible.  It gives the impression of walking and talking.  Also, remember that while these puppets are based on cartoon characters that can speak, they are wild animals.  I studied the movement of hyenas the get the walking and running and jumping as realistic as I could.  It’s an entire body experience, and it took the entire rehearsal process of 5 weeks to get to a place where I felt even slightly comfortable.

We Asked: Have you toured through Denver before? Do you take any special precautions due to the altitude or the dryness here? Were you expecting snow on the ground?

I have visited Denver before, but never performed here.  I knew what to expect as far as altitude and dryness, though.  We have toured in Calgary, which is high up in the Canadian Rockies, as well as Salt Lake City.  In both of those cities, we all experienced the same issues.  I love Denver.  The constant shining sun and clear blue skies are wonderful.  The snow doesn’t bother me at all.  I’m from NYC and we get snow there as well.  We just don’t have the amazing mountains in the background.

We Asked:  Our website offers his and hers perspectives on theater. What his and hers differences are there backstage? Do you notice any differences between the guys and girls on tour, in the way they bond, the way they get homesick, how they deal with the tour lifestyle?

Tour is in many ways like High School.  We travel with over 100 people (cast, crew and musicians combined) and cliques definitely form.  While I love and respect everyone on tour, I certainly have my close group of friends.  I’m not quite sure about the difference between guys and girls in this respect.  What I will say is that we really are like a giant family.  It shows on stage.  There are times when I truly feel like I can read my fellow actors’ minds on stage!

We Asked: What is your favorite moment to perform in the show? If a different one, what is your favorite moment to watch?

When I booked the show, there is a part of the show that my “track” does that they didn’t tell me about.  I am also responsible for the front left leg of the giant Elephant that comes down the aisle and runs up on stage in “The Circle of Life”.  It is heavy and cumbersome and awkward.  It is also the most amazing thing to look out and see children and adults alike being brought to tears of joy out of sheer amazement.  I live for it.  My favorite moment to watch is the moment in “He lives in you” when the face of Mufasa appears.  It breaks me down every time.



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