-- Return to Stage Press
|NEW YORK - It's a
typical Wednesday matinee for all but two
cast members of Disney's "The
Lion King." Not only will actors Jason
Raize and Samuel E. Wright be
unable to perform their weekly routine of
winding down after a somewhat
demanding matinee performance, the two
performers will have to devote
15 minutes of their precious free time to
reveal their lives to a
As the performers take their final
bows on stage, one by one, they
leave the stage and walk down a narrow
corridor that leads to a single
Jason Raize, who portrays the older
Simba, is one of the first
performers to come down the corridor.
young actor sings an undistinguishable
tune at a high pitch while
waiting for the elevator.
seconds later, actor Samuel E. Wright
who plays Mufasa, enters the
backstage area and greets me with a
smile and a "How are you?"
the complexity of Wright's Mufasa's
makeup denies him the luxury of
leaving the theater, Raize has the
privilege of running off to a
restaurant between performances to
grab a bite to eat.
today, the two actors have graciously
agreed to talk with me about
their lives and experience of being in
the most popular and creative
show on Broadway.
Raize and I walk across the empty and
massive of the New Amsterdam
Theatre, which only 30 minutes ago,
was filled with imaginative puppets
and over 40 performers decked out in
colorful costumes. As we survey
the theater for a convenient place to
chat, we notice director and
designer Julie Taymor sitting in a
seat, huddled together with three
unknown individuals discussing today's
performance. She glances up from
the conversation and acknowledges our
presence with a small and
not to interrupt the group's
discussion, and avoiding the frantic
ushers rushing to clean the aisles
before the evening performance, we
head towards the back of the theater,
where we find a quiet comfortable
in a colorful-striped, button-down
shirt and blue jeans, the
surprisingly energetic 22-year-old
takes a seat on a handsomely-carved
wooden bench. He shows no apparent
sign of exhaustion from the earlier
asked if he ever imagined he would be
starring in Disney's stage
adaptation of "The Lion King," Raize
shakes his head in disbelief and
answers with a blushing smile,
"Absolutely not. Not in my wildest
dreams. I think a lot of actors have
dreams to star in a show or carry
a show, or have a lead in a show
especially on Broadway. With this
particular project, there was no
inkling of a possibility for me."
Disney's "The Lion King" came along,
Raize worked in the ensemble of
the national touring company of "The
King and I" with actress Hayley
Mills. Previous to "The King and I,"
he appeared in the national
touring company of "Miss Saigon," as
Pontius Pilate in "Jesus Christ
Superstar" with Ted Neeley and Carl
Anderson, and in the title role of
Maury Yeston's "Phantom."
that "The Lion King" has settled in
its new home on Broadway in the
beautifully-restored New Amsterdam
Theatre, Raize has briefly given up
touring and has his feet planted
firmly on the ground.
can be best described as handsomely
exotic, or as one person put it
best, "eye candy." But beyond his good
looks and sweet charm, is an
extremely intelligent and ambitious
young man, whose vitality is fueled
by his undying passion for theater.
young actor's love for theater
blossomed during a summer theater
workshop instructed by New York drama
teacher Nancy Fales-Garrett.
vacationing in upstate New York in the
Catskills Mountains where Raize
lived, Fales-Garrett conducted summer
theater workshops focusing on the
works of William Shakespeare.
first role Raize perform was 'Orlando'
in "As You Like It." The
following summer, he played Feste from
says that Fales-Garrett "opened up a
whole new world."
new experience unleashed a very shy
and quiet teenager, who spent most
of his childhood on a mountain with
very little friends.
he was not allowed to watch TV, Raize
spent his leisure time reading
and walking in the woods.
was in the 10th grade, his parents
divorced. He moved with his father
to the city of Oneonta, where his life
turned upside down.
world sort of opened up like a
flower," says Raize. "It was amazing.
They had so much theater there and
semi-professional musical theatre,
as well as opera, summer stock and
some pretty well-known companies."
took advantage of his new
surroundings. There he met Broadway
choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes, who
cast the aspiring young actor as
'Chino' in "West Side Story."
experience awakened me to the fact
that was a professionalism about
theater," says Raize. "That there was
serious work to be done here.
Whereas Nancy Fales-Garrett opened
doors for me, Sammy Dallas Bayes
made me look inside."
graduating from high school, Raize
auditioned and was accepted at
Manhattan's American Music and
Dramatic Academy. His experience and
talented landed him the starring role
of the Phantom in Maury Yeston's
there, Raize went on to perform
numerous roles in national touring
companies. This year, he has finally
made it to Broadway and savoring
every precious moment.
sees his experience in "The Lion King"
as a stepping stone to a new
career in the recording industry. This
year he will begin work on a CD
that will be released sometime in the
fall. He says one of the
pleasures of working in the music
industry is it allows artists to make
their own decisions.
provide an artist," says Raize. "You
have fewer number of people making
decisions for you And you have more
input. And certainly when you are
on stage performing your own music,
that's you. And it's you and your
music that people get to watch you
perform. And that has good definite
appeal for me. I look forward to
backstage area, while still in makeup,
actor Samuel E. Wright waits for
his delivery of Chinese food. When the
stage door opens, several
children and an adult - who have been
waiting by the stage door outside
in the cold for nearly 45 minutes -
dart inside to ask the actor for an
graciously takes the Stagebill from a
young girl and politely asks her
to spell her name.
satisfying the requests of his young
adoring fan, Wright pays the
delivery person for his meal and takes
the elevator with me to the
dressing room he shares with colleague
walls and mirrors he shares with Raize
are adorned with photographs and
pictures of lions.
offers me a comfortable seat on a
chair and asks If I could bear with
him while he quickly eats his meal in
been nearly 20 years since the
accomplished actor has appeared on
Broadway. His last role on the Great
White Way earned him his first
Tony nomination for his performance in
the musical "The Tap Dance Kid."
says that the amount of time and
energy that it takes to do a Broadway
show, kept him away from the theater.
His home in upstate New York made
the possibility of appearing in
another Broadway production nearly
think this is a really young person's
gig," says Wright, "because it
keeps me away from home a lot. But I
was convinced by my agent, Julie
Taymor, and her concept of this whole
thing, that this was something I
really should do in my life."
adds, "basically, I feel like I've
been training for it all of my life.
And everything that I've done on
Broadway so far has kind of led me to
King" makes Wright feel a
bit guilty at times.
so much pleasure out of doing this
show and out of entertaining people
that sometimes I feel guilty,"
explains Wright. "I'm getting more out
of it than they're [audience] probably
getting out of it.'
adds, "this show has so much power and
talent in it. Just working with
Scotty [Scott Irby-Ranniar] alone is
so interesting because he's so
good. And he brings fantastic energy
to this show and to our stuff.
Every night I don't know what to
expect of him. So it's kind of fun out
Looking back at Wright's youth, one
might never imagine that someone
from a small town in South Carolina
before integration and the civil
right movement, would one day become a
major performer on the Broadway
young and impressionable age of four,
Wright got his first taste of
acting and its influence on audiences.
Thursday evening, the Wright family
packed up the family car and headed
for the local drive-in movie theater
to see the movie, "A Man Called
Peter." It was the only night that
blacks were allowed at the drive-in,
so much of the local black community
took advantage of the opportunity.
most children his age, Wright was
restless sitting in the car. He
bounced back and forth while
chattering at the top of his lungs.
the silence and the emotions of the
people around him and others in the
surrounding cars stunned the
remember being in car and watching
this huge screen and all of a
sudden, I looked over and everybody in
the car was crying," recalls
Wright. "I asked myself, why are they
all crying? I looked up at the
screen and there was this guy standing
behind a box, which later I
found out was a pulpit.
thought, ah! That's what I want
to do. I want to affect people's
that time, Wright thought he wanted to
become a preacher. So every
Sunday, he would stand in front of a
box to "get people's emotions
passed, Wright decided that he didn't
want to be a preacher, but an
recalls, "The little town that I came
from they all went, 'ha,ha,ha.
Who do you think you are, Sammy Davis,
Jr.? You're just a little
Southern kid from South Carolina.' But
it stuck with me. It stuck with
me through high school. It stuck with
me in my first couple of years of
not the first Disney project that
Wright has been involved in. He is
well-known for the voice of Sebastian
in the Disney animated film, "The
also plans to work on the upcoming
Disney claymation film, "Dinosaurs."
devoting much of his time to "The Lion
King," Wright spends his days
off in upstate New York at the Hudson
Valley Conservatory of Fine Arts,
a performing and visual arts school
that he help established.
got a lot of students," says Wright.
"They're very good. They've won
Best Play this year, so we're doing
enjoying life," he says with a smile.
"It couldn't be better. It's
weird that I say that because a 10-ton
weight could fall out of the
ceiling right now."
that everyone in the dressing room
breaks out in laughter. We leave the
actor in peace to finish off his meal.
The Lion King is appearing at
Amsterdam Theatre located at 214 W.
42nd St. Performances are held
Wednesday through Saturday, at 8 p.m.;
Wednesday and Saturday matinees
at 2 p.m.; Sunday performances at 1
& 6:30 p.m. Ticket range from
$25 to $75. For tickets, call (212)