The process of doing Lion King was very high profile. A lot of people pay attention to what Disney does. Record companies and music industry people were paying attention to me in Lion King, and I started to get offers right away.” – Jason Raize, ZoogDisney chat
Jason Raize, born July 20, 1975, grew up as Jason Rothenberg in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. One of three adopted children, Jason knew nothing about his birth parents or ethnicity. “Because I have an interesting ethnic look, people would always ask me what I was,” he said on his official site. “But I didn’t have an answer for them. It was really, really difficult, at first. But in my life, it became ‘You know what? I’m not going to be labeled.’ “
Sadly, Jason lost his first adoptive mother when he was three; four years later, his nine-year-old brother died from lung cancer. His father’s second wife adopted the children a year after they had lost their first mother. Jason and his sister grew up on the family’s 160-acre estate in the Catskills with little exposure to pop culture, including music and television. Jason spent much of his time outside or reading science fiction and fantasy novels.
When Jason was 15, his mother enrolled him in Shakespeare in the Valley, a summer workshop for teens in the Catskills led by playwright/director Nancy Fales Garrett. Jason played Orlando in As You Like It and Feste in Twelfth Night, and he credited Ms. Garrett with sparking his interest in theater.
[Nancy] encouraged me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. The experience of a child to rise to a challenge … I can still remember the feeling … having someone challenge you, rising to it! Using the tools within yourself to accomplish something and to be so rewarded within yourself. Doesn’t matter what others say. You just had so much fun. I thank her every single day for that.” – Jason
After his parents divorced, Jason moved with his father to Oneonta, New York, where he began to discover pop culture and to become more involved with theater. He performed in high school plays and with the town’s Orpheus Theatre, where his credits included West Side Story (Chino), Annie, The King and I, and Gypsy.
My parents were supportive even though they knew nothing about performing arts. We didn’t go to theatre growing up. My first experience was performing, but even though they didn’t know much about it, when you see that light turn on in your kid’s head . . . [I] didn’t get excited about anything until I started performing. My parents saw that and said, ‘Great!’ – Jason
Jason moved to New York after high school and briefly attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy on a scholarship. He also received a scholarship to the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School in Colorado.
Jason’s official website detailed his teachers throughout his teenage years:
- Acting: R. Moreland, J.L. Vivier (1992 – 1995), Nancy Garrett, and Lannie Harrison (1989 – 1991);
- Voice: Jacklyn Schneider (1993 – 1995), Victoria Rickard (1990 – 1993), and Anthony Ciucci (1987 – 1990); and
- Dance: Cindy Thole, Glenn Eddy (ballet), Rose Rado, and Fern Tresvan (jazz).
Photos 1-3 are headshots that appeared in various playbills and publicity. Photos 3-6 appeared on Jason’s official website.
Jason’s early theater credits include performing in the 1994 summer season at the Bucks County Playhouse and touring with Jesus Christ Superstar (as Pontius Pilate) and Miss Saigon. He had been cast as a swing in a national tour of The King and I starring Hayley Mills when auditions for The Lion King began.
Though Jason wanted to audition for Simba, the casting director for The Lion King was also working on The King and I and felt allowing Jason to audition would be a conflict of interest. In response, Jason showed up at an open call for the role of Simba, knowing that they couldn’t turn him away. He auditioned with Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” then spent three weeks going to callbacks before director Julie Taymor offered him the role.
When The Lion King opened at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre on November 13, 1997, it was like nothing seen on Broadway before. Rather than simply staging the animated film, Julie Taymor brought the African jungle to life with creative puppets, intricate masks, and beautiful costumes. The show became one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1990s, and garnered six Tony Awards including Best Musical. The success of the show meant a whirlwind of attention for the 22-year-old Jason. He performed on the television shows The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Good Morning America, and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and was profiled in a cover story for InTheater magazine.
“It’s been amazing and it turned into the biggest show that we could ever have imagined. We never thought it would be that big.” – Jason
Card from Minneapolis opening appeared on Jason’s official site. Other images were part of The Lion King‘s Stagebill.
Shortly after his debut in The Lion King, Jason signed a deal with Universal Records for his first solo album. Director John Avildsen cast Jason in the film Street Dreams (which never went into production). In fall 1998, he appeared on the compilation album The Paul Simon Album: Broadway Sings the Best of Paul Simon singing the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sounds of Silence.”
Jason also performed at numerous events and benefits, including the opening of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in June 1999, the Rita Hayworth Gala benefiting the Alzheimer’s Association in October 1999, and the Maccabi Games Opening Ceremonies in August 2000.
Photos above appeared on Jason’s official website.
December 1999 saw the release of Jason’s first single, “Taste the Tears”; his single “You Win Again” followed in June 2000. Also in June 2000, he and Jessica Simpson headlined a Disney Channel concert special that continued to air throughout the summer. His full solo album has never been released.
Jason performed his last show in The Lion King on August 20, 2000.
In 2001, Jason performed the leading role of Joe in the York Theatre Company‘s Musicals in Mufti concert production of Carmen Jones and starred as Jamal in the made-for-TV film The Kitchen produced by Independent Television Service (ITVS) for PBS. In the fall, his television series Keeping it Wild with Jason Raize debuted on CBS. Stemming from Jason’s desire to promote partnerships between environmental and entertainment communities, the show sent Jason to exotic locations to meet with wildlife experts and learn about animals in their natural habitats.
Jason provided the voice of Denahi in the Disney animated feature Brother Bear, released in 2003.
On May 3, 1999, Jason produced a benefit for the American Red Cross‘s efforts to provide aid to victims of the war in Kosovo. That October, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) appointed Jason a Goodwill Ambassador based upon his use of his creative talents to promote saving the environment and preserving endangered species.
Death and Memorial
Tragically, Jason ended his own life on February 3, 2004, in Yass, Australia.
A memorial service open to the public took place on April 8, 2004, at the New Amsterdam Theatre, where Jason had thrilled crowds as Simba for nearly three years. The service included speeches by Jason’s sister Lisa and Disney Theatricals’ President Thomas Schumacher, a performance by Jason’s Lion King co-star Heather Headley, a slide show and home movies from Jason’s younger days, clips of Jason performing in Lion King and on television, and a traditional South African celebration of passing into the next world led by cast members of The Lion King.
The Orpheus Theatre, where Jason once performed in Oneonta, offers two Jason Rothenberg Raize Scholarships each year that help youth with financial need attend Orpheus’s Summer Musical Theatre Workshops.
In May 2020, members of The Lion King‘s original cast and creative team released a socially-distanced performance of “He Lives in You” (featuring Jason’s original vocals) which was presented “In Loving Memory of Jason Raize.”
For a list of sources used to write this biography, please visit About This Site.