Heart of a Lion

Associated Press
As published in the Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)
November 13, 1997

Scott Irby-Ranniar and Jason outside the New Amsterdam Theatre

AP photo of Scott Irby-Ranniar and Jason, November 13, 1997

Animation in Action: Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ goes to Broadway

NEW YORK (AP) – “The Lion King” might find its look in the stage wizardry of director-designer Julie Taymor, but its heart and humanity must reside in the two young performers with amazing voices who play Simba, the title character.

It’s Simba who makes the journey from childhood to maturity, dealing with his father’s death and his own responsibility in facing the future.

At age 11, Scott Irby-Ranniar, who portrays the younger Simba, is a theater veteran.

“The Lion King,” which opens on Broadway today at the New Amsterdam Theater, is not his first big-time venture, although it certainly will run longer than his last one. He had a role in “Whistle Down the Wind,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that collapsed in Washington last season and never made it to Broadway.

“It wasn’t very hard to settle on Scott,” Taymor said. “He is totally intuitive. Scott walked in and he had the part.”

The wide-eyed Irby-Ranniar appears decidedly nonchalant, stretched out on cushions in the wood-paneled lower lobby of the New Amsterdam Theater.

“The hardest part is finding a way to make it new every night – and trying not to get bored,” said Irby-Ranniar, a computer buff and expert skateboarder who would rather be surfing the Internet than just about anything else.

The first thing Irby-Ranniar ever did on stage was a school production of “The Wiz” in which he played the Lord High Underling. Now a student at Manhattan East and Harbor Performing Arts school, he has worked in show business all his young life.

Taymor is equally enthusiastic about Jason Raize, 22, the older Simba who changes from callow youth to aware adult. Raize was chosen after a series of grueling auditions for Taymor and choreographer Garth Fagan.

At the time Raize was working on the national tour of “The King and I” starring Hayley Mills.

The competition was fierce because the musical required “triple-threat work – singing, dancing and acting – that you don’t get to such an extent in other shows,” Raize said. “It was more the sense of who can take the challenge and not be daunted by the task.”

Raize, from Oneonta, N.Y., worked there while in high school at the Orpheus Theater, a semiprofessional troupe. He came to New York with his best friend, Jill, because she wanted to be in the theater. He stayed; she eventually left the business. And Raize rarely has been out of work since then, doing a variety of shows including the recent “Jesus Christ Superstar” tour with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson.

He calls his stint in “The Lion King” an extraordinary six-month journey that began last May with rehearsals in New York before moving on to an out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis.

How does Raize compare the stage production with the movie?

“There never was much talk about the film,” he said. “It was a personal choice whether to watch it or not. I went back to look at some scenes because Simba has been changed a lot. There are expanded scenes and new songs not in the movie.

“I went back to look at where we had put in larger moments of character development – to see the gaps that Julie has filled in. She has done a terrific job of creating a richer, even more rewarding work.”