Interview with Janique Charles, The Lion King's newest Nala
London's newest Nala in Disney's The Lion King, Janique Charles has a unique background for a West End star. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago she is making her West End début in a leading role having previously performed in the UK tour of the show which enjoyed a sit-down season in Basel, Switzerland. Journeying to London to take on this new challenge, she's excited at joining one of London's most successful shows in a demanding and iconic role.
“It feels incredible, it feels like a dream come true” she comments as we meet between rehearsals with the West End company. “I've seen so many shows and just sitting in the audience watching them do their thing, it's amazing and I feel like I'm going to be part of that, the whole scene, it's incredible.”
Taking over the role in such a well-loved production may be a daunting task but Janique brings her experience of having already starred in the show around the UK.
“The Lion King is in its 18th year now, to be part of the legacy is a privilege and is humbling at the same time, I feel really proud to be part of it. I had three auditions and each one was a little more gruelling than the other one. Everyone in the room was so supportive because they want you to do well.”
As a show that invites such a personal affiliation with the brand Janique describes how her love of Disney from such a young age has helped add to the excitement of the role.
“I grew up on Disney” she laughs. “I grew up on Disney channel and all the Disney movies. I would run around my house singing Disney songs – I always wanted to be part of that, I don't know why. It just made me happy. My favourites would be between 'The Lion King' and 'The Little Mermaid'. The songs were all in English so it was easy to remember. I would make up my own gibberish trying to sing “The Circle of Life”, but it was definitely my favourite.”
As a stage musical the show is known around the world for its innovative design and puppetry created by director Julie Taymor. The opening scene continues to delight audiences and still survives as one of the most impressive opening sequences of any modern musical.
“The Circle of Life gets me every time” Janique explains. “The first time I saw the show it was incredible to watch. You're just completely enveloped in the story and this new world. I cried seeing the animals coming down the aisles, it's just so overwhelming. Seeing all the puppets and the people in the puppets, it's incredible. I feel like my senses can't make sense of it all at the same time, every time my mum comes to see the show she cries!”
That overwhelming appeal continues to bring audiences back to the musical time and time again, and it's something that Janique is particularly proud of.
“The show is timeless. Whether you've seen it five years ago, ten years ago, it still applies to every age group and generation, it evokes something in every person. There's so much to see – it's so beautifully designed. The music is so beautifully written, it's amazing to listen to the characters. It's tear-jerking, it pulls on your heart strings, you can't help but be emotional. Anything that evokes so much emotion will definitely have a lasting impact on you.”
In terms of the character of Nala there are particular parallels between her journey within the show and Janique's personal journey of leaving her home to pursue her dream.
“Nala goes after what she wants and she's not afraid to take risks” she explains. “She's not afraid to go off on her own for a cause and I feel like in my life I've had to leave my family. I've travelled thousands and thousands of miles away from home to pursue a dream. I think I mirror that in my life with Nala and her life and story.”
As a character, Nala is particularly difficult to portray especially because for half of the show she's performed by a younger actress, and it's only in the second act that she opens up and confronts her feelings.
“Performing Shadowland in particular is a journey” Janique explains. “The song is about her taking a journey as a character, but you're also taking a journey as an actor. It's such an emotional song as well, as I'm going through it I'm gaining the strength to do it as well. At the end of it I feel so empowered like I could take on the world. If you listen to the end of it it has an incredible message that she will return to her family – it's so empowering. It's such a lovely song, it's not easy, but once you do it you go through that journey too.”
Whilst settling into London life is particularly daunting, Janique is confident that London and the West End is her new natural home. Looking ahead to making her West End début later this month it's a challenge she has fully embraced.
“This is a place for me to be, I'm young now, I'm definitely enjoying it, I love everything about being in London and being in this show. It's definitely different here to Trinidad. That's my home, beautiful island vibes – that's where my family and friends are. London is much more fast paced, more going on in the theatre scene. Having this opportunity is just broadening my horizons and helping me to develop so much as an artist. You either sink or swim, with support from my family and the new friends I've made here and the company members I'm definitely swimming, I'm buoyant, I'm flying.”
Janique Charles begins performance in Disney's The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre on 9 May 2017.