Tshidi Manye was backstage at The Lion King, trying against all odds to keep it together, when someone tried to give her a hug. “Not now!” she insisted frantically. “Please, give it to me after the show!”
After over twenty years in the role of Rafiki, followed by a painful 18-month-long break, Manye was about to return to the stage for the first post-lockdown performance, which took place last Tuesday. She knew she couldn’t risk any temptation toward further emotion. She’d been on the brink of tears since she stepped into the dressing rooms at the Minskoff Theatre and faced a bustling backstage she hadn’t encountered since March 2020. “You would think that my whole floor was a florist’s shop,” she recalls. “I mean, it was flowers, flowers, flowers everywhere. And my throat—right away—just closed in. And I was like, oh, how am I going to do this?”
An unrestricted larynx was crucial for the task at hand. As Rafiki, Manye sings the show’s opening lines; that iconic “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” that, thanks to Disney’s reach and the musical’s unparalleled success, are now fairly endemic to popular culture. So she told her cast members to refrain from saying anything too sappy until she had finished the opening number.
In its 24 years on Broadway, The Lion King has been closed by labor strikes, natural disasters, and power failures, as well as the Sept. 11 attacks. The cast has performed amidst a host of national tragedies and triumphs, and the Minskoff’s lights have dimmed to pay tribute to various theater-community deaths.
But they’ve never gone dark for as long as the shutdown precipitated by the pandemic, nor has the task of drawing a crowd to the perennial favorite ever been as daunting. A few days before Sunday’s Tony Awards showed packed houses enjoying numbers from the nominated musicals Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge, and Tina, a masked and vaccinated audience filled the Minskoff, the mood ebullient.
Many in the crowd seemed to harbor some connection to the show. Old friends exchanged pitched greetings, suspiciously buff actor types hugged people holding flowers. Seats filled; audience chatter seemed to palpably increase in speed. The ushers appeared faintly dazed by all the bustle, handing out programs with glassy eyes. Multiple fedoras slid to the ground as the lights dimmed. Julie Taymor, the musical’s director, delivered an emotional curtain speech. She made the requisite mask-related joke, pointing out that just as the actors on stage in this production don masks, so too, now, must the audience. Everyone laughed. Taymor stepped off stage.
Watching The Lion King now is like stepping back in time – not just to March of 2020, but to the late 1990s. The cuts of the costumes, the cheery color scheme, the full symphonic sound contrast with the standard characteristics of newer, sleeker musicals. And something about the show’s cheesily sincere multiculturalism—the integration of Kabuki theatrical techniques, the combination of Zulu phrases with English ones—suggests an investment in post-racial ideals that has since curdled. Even the show’s history conjures a Broadway of another era, before the squeaky-clean Times Square replaced the grittier one. (When Disney’s then-president came to New York to tour the dilapidated theater that would become the Minskoff, he was allegedly propositioned by two prostitutes. Rudy Giuliani swore they’d be gone by opening night, along with the peep shows and pornographic cinemas stationed nearby.) For people who were raised on The Lion King as I was, just hearing the music can give you the fleeting suspicion that you have teleported to the Clinton era.
Part of the premise of live theater is that no two shows are exactly alike, but there’s a paradox in a production like this that runs, virtually unaltered, for decades. In this ritual is a promise of stagnation, a pledge that the show will not change, and therefore that time will not move forward. Come see The Lion King and you, too, may transport to a time of greater innocence, more elastic skin, and less grief.
This puts someone like Manye in an interesting position: she’s spent most of her adult life—eight shows a week, most weeks of most years—performing the same role in a pristinely preserved show, even as her own life moves forward. She tells me the story of the first time her young son came to see the show. When she approached him afterward, he was so frightened by her costume and makeup that he refused to believe he was speaking to his mother. His fear ebbed quickly, though. “‘My mom is in The Lion King!’” he’d soon brag to friends and teachers. That incredulous child is now 25, his lifespan only slightly longer than Manye’s tenure onstage.
Moments that have gone unchanged over the decades land differently now. During the pandemic, Manye returned to her native South Africa for a few months. She met two nieces she hadn’t had the chance to see in person yet, and she spent more time at home with her family than she had in the past 20 years—a small blessing amidst the chaos. But she also watched two close relatives contract COVID and pass away. She says she now finds new resonance in the mourning ritual her character leads after Mufasa dies, and in other moments of the show that deal with loss. From my perch in the audience, I was surprised to remember how much of The Lion King’s plot centers around mourning. Perhaps it took a pandemic forcing mass death into the global conscience to appreciate how pervasively Simba’s thoughts cycle back to his father’s death.
I saw The Lion King in 1999, when I was two years old. Until Tuesday’s performance, I had forgotten entirely that I’d watched it with my grandmother, who passed away this winter. I thought of her around the time Manye-as-Rafiki was telling Simba that his father was in fact still alive, directing him to look into a pool of water. The tinkling overtones of “They Live in You” began to play as the actor portraying Simba pretended to recognize his father in his own reflection. It was a simple lesson in genetics; a line in a children’s musical pointing out the obvious nature of lineage. But after a year of global and personal loss, the song jogged something subterranean in me, and I felt some vestige of grief bubble over.
Before all that—before the old moments that seemed new, before the requisite deaths and dances—Manye waited for the lights to dim. She staved off the tears, keeping her larynx loose, and prepared to belt as loudly as she was able. But for the first few measures of the song, the crowd cheered so stridently it was impossible to hear anything beyond white noise. Despite her powerful voice, despite the buildup of emotions she released into those opening notes, Manye didn’t stand a chance.
“In my mind, I was trying to say: ah, quiet down,” she recalls. “Listen. We are here. We have started.” But the crowd was too giddy, too adrenalized by the return of live theater. Most spectators watch The Lion King to escape their lives for a few hours, but in this moment, they were energetically present, and they had no interest in settling down. Manye tried to make herself heard over the roar, but quickly concluded it was better to save her voice and let the wave subside, she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to compete with that.”