by Marc Warren
Published in Afro-American Newspaper (Baltimore, MD, and Washington, DC)
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 Baltimore reporter.
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 elevator.
Actor Jason Raize, who portrays the older Simba, is one of the first performers to come down the corridor.
Bare-chested and covered from the waist down with an African-designed wrap, the young actor sings an undistinguishable tune at a high pitch while waiting for the elevator.
A few seconds later, actor Samuel E. Wright who plays Mufasa, enters the backstage area and greets me with a smile and a “How are you?”
While 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.
But 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.
Jason 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 welcoming smile.
Trying 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 spot.
Dressed 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 two-and-one-half-hour performance.
When 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.”
Before 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.”
Now 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.
Raize 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.
The young actor’s love for theater blossomed during a summer theater workshop instructed by New York drama teacher Nancy Fales-Garrett.
While 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.
The first role Raize perform was ‘Orlando’ in “As You Like It.” The following summer, he played Feste from “Twelfth Night.”
Raize says that Fales-Garrett “opened up a whole new world.”
This new experience unleashed a very shy and quiet teenager, who spent most of his childhood on a mountain with very little friends.
Because he was not allowed to watch TV, Raize spent his leisure time reading and walking in the woods.
When he was in the 10th grade, his parents divorced. He moved with his father to the city of Oneonta, where his life turned upside down.
“My 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.”
Raize 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.”
“That 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.”
After 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 “Phantom.”
From 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.
Raize 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.
“Recording affords an artistic integrity from yourself that no other medium can 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 that.”
SAMUEL E. WRIGHT
In the 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 autograph.
Wright graciously takes the Stagebill from a young girl and politely asks her to spell her name.
After 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 Jason Raize.
The walls and mirrors he shares with Raize are adorned with photographs and pictures of lions.
Wright offers me a comfortable seat on a chair and asks If I could bear with him while he quickly eats his meal in between answers.
It’s 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.”
Wright 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 impossible.
“I 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.”
He 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 this.”
Sometimes the all the fun of performing in “The Lion King” makes Wright feel a bit guilty at times.
“I get 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.’
He 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 there.”
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 stage.
At the young and impressionable age of four, Wright got his first taste of acting and its influence on audiences.
One 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.
Like most children his age, Wright was restless sitting in the car. He bounced back and forth while chattering at the top of his lungs. But the silence and the emotions of the people around him and others in the surrounding cars stunned the youngster.
“I 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.
Whatever he was saying was making them cry. So I thought, ah! That’s what I want to do. I want to affect people’s lives.”
But at 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 going.”
As time passed, Wright decided that he didn’t want to be a preacher, but an actor instead.
Wright 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 college.”
This is 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 Little Mermaid.”
Wright also plans to work on the upcoming Disney claymation film, “Dinosaurs.”
Besides 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.
“We’ve got a lot of students,” says Wright. “They’re very good. They’ve won Best Play this year, so we’re doing alright.
“I’m 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.”
With that everyone in the dressing room breaks out in laughter. We leave the actor in peace to finish off his meal.
Disney’s The Lion King is appearing at Manhattan’s New 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) 307-4100.