“It’s gonna be King Simba’s finest fling; oh I just can’t wait to be king!”
Twenty kids belt out the perky, catchy tune from “The Lion King,” waving their arms and tapping their feet – 20 little Simbas on the Serengeti, ready to rule the pride.
“Awesome! Shake it up! You are not nervous! You are going to have so much fun,” said Kierstyn Sharrow, who was directing a group audition for a pilot of a children’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical at the Harlem School of the Arts.
The school is one of the first two in the country to work with the Disney Theatrical Group to produce “The Lion King Kids,” for children from third to eighth grade, and “The Lion King Junior,” for middle school students. The first full production will debut at the Harlem school in March 2013.
“It’s our goal to take as many kids in the show as possible. We are looking for kids with passion,” said Aubrey Lynch, director of dance and musical theater at the Harlem School of the Arts. Lynch was the dance captain and associate choreographer in the original Broadway production.
“The Lion King,” he said, had a profound effect on him personally. “My father used to play South African folk songs in the house for me when I was a kid. So hearing the music sung live with South Africans was really, really powerful.”
And that is why he thinks “The Lion King” is particularly important for children in Harlem.
“Performing is the therapy for the masses,” he said. “It is especially true in Harlem, which is a community sometimes neglected. Art is a way to remind kids that they are important, they are beautiful, they are powerful and that they have a place in the world.”
Leonay Sheperd, a 9-year-old who appeared in a workshop of “The Lion King” at the school last winter, would barely speak back then, Lynch said, but was greatly changed by her experience with “The Lion King.”
“I really enjoyed it. From it I knew that I want to sing and dance,” said Leonay, who has made it into the second round of auditions for “Matilda The Musical,” a show based on the Roald Dahl story that opens on Broadway in March.
This is exactly the change that Lynch wishes more children could experience.
One of them is Mia Butter, 8, who auditioned for the Harlem School of the Art’s “The Lion King” production. “I have seen ‘The Lion King’ millions of times,” she said. “Every time I saw photos of kids on the stage I would think, ‘Hmm. What would it be like if I were one of them?’”
“The Lion King,” which opened in 1997 and is now Broadway’s fifth longest-running musical of all time, continues to tour the world. Much of the success of the Elton John-Tim Rice musical stems from the visionary costumes, masks and life-size puppets co-designed by Julie Taymor, who also directed. The show won six Tony’s, including best musical.
Though it will be difficult to replicate the intricate puppets and sets of Broadway, but students at the Harlem School of the Arts will help design the set, costumes and possibly even puppets and masks. The school, which opened almost 50 years ago, offers after-school instruction in the arts, so students offer a myriad of talents.
Some students will also play the music . The youngsters will take classes in South African culture to better understand the musical’s characters and certain lyrics that are in Zulu. Professionals involved in the Broadway show will also visit with students.
Last winter, the school had a workshop to test the script and score from Disney with over 150 children, ages 8 to 13. This time around, only 98 youngsters showed up, most from elementary schools. All of them got through the audition and will participate in the musical, except a 4-year-old girl who gave a great audition but didn’t qualify because she was too young.
Lynch said the production still needs about 20 more students for “The Lion King Junior.”
“There are kids five blocks away who want to perform but they are not coming to the audition. It drives me crazy,” he said. Most parents and kids in Harlem are unaware of the show, he said, despite fliers and posters.
So to expose more residents to “The Lion King” and to theatre, the school plans to perform its production in the building’s lobby. “We are going to work with designers and kids to transfer this space into a theatrical venue,” said Rachel Lee, the production manager of “The Lion King” at the Harlem School of the Arts.
“It’s not about ‘The Lion King.’ It’s about the school,” said Lynch.”I really hope the musical could help the school to grow.”