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Tune Thursday: Broadway's "Lion King" balances spectacle with intimate storytelling

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Tune Thursday: Broadway's "Lion King" balances spectacle with intimate storytelling

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It's often been said that one part (To be specific, the right role in the right show at the right time) can make your career on Broadway.

Well, when it comes to Nathaniel Stampley -- the veteran performer who's now playing the part of Mufasa in the Broadway production of "The Lion King" -- Nathaniel literally owes the life that he has today to winning a spot in the first road company of this long-running Disney Theatrical production.

"That one audition opened so many doors for me," Stampley explained. "I met my wife because we were performing together in that show. I got to travel the world. I got to star on Broadway and even became a father. All because I was lucky enough to land a part in the first road company of 'The Lion King."

 (L to R) Nathaniel Stampley (Mufasa), Tshidi Manye (Rafiki) and Jean Michelle Greier
(Sarabi) in Disney's "The Lion King." This production is celebrating its 10th anniversary
on Broadway at the Minskoff Theatre.
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

Mind you, that almost didn't happen. You see, Nathaniel's callback for this Disney Theatrical Production was scheduled for the early part of September of 2001. To be specific, these auditions were being held in NYC just days after 9/11 happened.

"And you have to remember that -- right after the Towers fell -- that the FAA had stopped all commercial air traffic in the U.S. for a few days so that they complete their investigation," Stampley continued. "So there I was, stuck in Chicago. Unable to get down to New York to attend that callback. And I just had to get to that audition, because I knew that being in 'The Lion King' was going to be very important for me. That it could be the break that I was looking for."

Luckily, Natheniel's father came through him. Mr. Stampley offered to drive up from his home in Detroit to Chicago. Then -- together -- father and son would take that 14-hour-trip down to NYC. Doing the whole drive in one straight shot.

Because of his father's sacrifice, Nathaniel actually made it to the "Lion King" callback with just minutes to spare. And now ... To find himself playing the part of Mufasa, a father who puts his own life on the line in order to save his son ... Well, that irony isn't lost on Stampley.

"For all the pomp and spectacle that there is in 'The Lion King,' my absolute favorite moment in this show is when Mufasa and Young Simba are standing alone on stage," Nathaniel said. "Mufasa has just sent Zazu and Young Nala away. And it looks like the King is going to punish his son for disobeying his orders and visiting that Elephant's Graveyard. But -- instead -- Mufasa takes off his crown and talks about how frightened he was that he almost lost Simba. It's not what the audience is expecting. And it's probably the most intimate moment in the show."

To Stampley's way of thinking, it's this scene that really reveals what "The Lion King" is all about. Those all-important lessons that parents hand down to their children about the sacrifices that we sometimes have to make in life.

"You know, I didn't actually become a father until I'd been playing Mufasa for a while," Nathaniel continue. "And I find that -- since the birth of my daughter, Ayana -- that that scene between Mufasa and Young Simba means so much more to me now. Becoming a father, seeing how tiny & fragile my daughter is, I realize that I'm not always going to be here to protect her. Which is why it's so important for me now to try & pass along those life lessons. So that Ayana will grow to become a good person and then pass along those same lessons to her own children one day."

And that tenderness that Stampley feels for his daughter, coupled with the sacrifice that Nathaniel's Dad made in order to make sure that his son made it into NYC in time to attend those 'Lion King' callbacks ... That all informs his performance as Mufasa. Particularly in that scene where the King and his son are standing alone together on stage, looking up into the night sky.

Nathaniel Stampley as Mufasa in Disney's "The Lion King"
Copyright 2007 Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus

"There are nights when we're doing that scene where the house goes completely quiet," Natheniel marvels. "Where nobody talks, nobody breathes. 1700 people get caught up in this very tender moment between father and son."

People sometimes forget that about Disney's "The Lion King." That -- because of Julie Taymor's amazing stagecraft -- they think of this long-running show as just being a spectacle that's loaded with puppets and elaborate costumes. And don't get me wrong. There is a lot of that stuff in this Tony Award-winning musical.

But in its heart of hearts, "The Lion King" is this intimate show about relationships. The friends who get us through the tough times. The sacrifices that our parents make. Those lessons that get passed down from father to son.

And Nathaniel Stampley tries to hammer home that idea every night as he stands onstage at the Minskoff Theatre. Particularly when Mufasa directs Young Simba's attention up toward the stars. Where -- legends has it -- the great kings of the past look down from the night sky and watch over us all.

Speaking of star-filled nights ... The stage version of Disney's "The Lion King" will be celebrated its 10th anniversary on Broadway later this month with a gala performance which will be on Sunday, November 11th. If you'd like to learn more around this long-running musical, maybe pick up a few tickets for an upcoming performance, I suggest that you click on this link.

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