Owen Chaponda and Merryl Ansah on coming full circle with 'The Lion King'
The actors were in the ensemble of the hit West End Disney musical before the pandemic, and this May, they stepped into the lead roles of adult Simba and Nala.
Owen Chaponda and Merryl Ansah are definitely feeling the love tonight. The talented pair had previously performed in the ensemble of the West End production of Disney’s The Lion King – now, they’re leading the show at the Lyceum Theatre as, respectively, the adult Simba and Nala.
Talk about the circle of life! “I make that joke on the daily,” Ansah said with a chuckle. She added that it hasn’t really sunk in yet that she’s now back in this starring role. But, as Chaponda pointed out, there’s a “great parallel” there: Just like their characters, they’ve been away for a time and have returned to the show with more life experience under their belts.
They’re also both very aware of what an honour it is to lead a beloved, long-running musical like The Lion King. “This is a dream show and these are dream roles,” says Ansah. “To be trusted with it, the honour is not lost on us – it’s huge.”
London Theatre spoke to The Lion King’s new stars about their take on these iconic characters, representing African culture, and how the hyenas get to have the most fun.
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When did you first join the ensemble of the show?
Owen Chaponda: I was in it from 2017-2019.
Merryl Ansah: And I did from 2019-2020 – basically up until the pandemic.
Did you ever imagine you’d play Simba and Nala?
Ansah: I did think, coming into it, that it’d be amazing to play the role one day. Then I understudied it, and I thought that was the end of the journey.
Chaponda: Nicholas Afoah was playing Simba when I came in – I had a really close relationship with him. There were moments when I thought it would be really nice to take over when he left and play this role and see what I can do with it.
Were you fans of the Disney film growing up?
Chaponda: Oh yeah – I was obsessed! It’s the best movie musical. It was actually the reason I started doing musical theatre. And it was my first [stage] musical: I got a surprise for my birthday when I was 17. It made me believe I could do it as a career.
Ansah: Same with me, we had the film on repeat in my household. My family lives and breathes The Lion King! It’s timeless.
Did you get to learn puppetry?
Chaponda: My first year, I was a swing. I was able to learn 13 tracks – within them, a lot of ensemble members got to use puppets, whether Simba or Scar or the Mufasa mask. It was very tricky to learn at first: it’s so detailed, you have to hit every single mark. But once you get the hang of it, it does get easier.
Ansah: I was one of the bird ladies at the start – so I had birds on my hands, I was swaying from side to side, it was beautiful. I also really enjoyed being a hyena, getting to crawl up and down the aisles.
Chaponda: Oh yeah, as a hyena I got to creep up and scare people, especially the kids! It’s so funny; everyone reacts.
When did you audition for Simba and Nala?
Ansah: Toward the end of last year, a friend of mine told me the role of Nala could be up for grabs. I was umming and ahhing for a while – then thought, “Just go for it. If not, I’ll kick myself.”
Chaponda: My agent asked me about it – I said of course, it’s 100% a dream job of mine, so let’s push for it and see if it’s possible.
What’s it like to come back and lead the show?
Chaponda: There’s a great parallel between us leaving the show and having some time away – growing, maturing, experiencing, living life – and then going back with a new perspective on what life is and taking that on stage. Simba and Nala have the same thing: They leave the Pride Lands and go on this journey of self-discovery. It’s really nice to have that experience, and get the chance to figure out new ways of singing these songs and telling the story.
Ansah: I really appreciated how in rehearsal we unpacked everything we’d learnt before. When you’re an understudy, you’re at the mercy of what the person playing that role has done – because you want to make it seamless for everyone around you. This time round, we could really think about, “Why am I saying this line or moving this way?”
For both of us, this is a dream show, and these are dream roles. To be trusted with it, the honour is not lost on us – it’s huge. It’s nice that we’ve come back and there are people who did the show before and are still in it – knowing we have their support. We’ve got everyone on our side.
What are your takes on your characters?
Chaponda: Simba is still trying to figure out who he is. He’s in this environment he’s not supposed to be in with Timon and Pumbaa: He eats meat; they’re vegetarians! It’s nice to explore his arc from trying to figure things out to becoming a strong leader, a king. He goes through all those highs and lows – which I did in my own life too. So I think about, “How can I bring truth to this story?”
There’s also lightness and comedy. It’s very human. And it’s really important to see Simba, this strong character, be vulnerable. It shows people that it’s okay to not be okay, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, there’s hope, especially if you have people around you to support you.
Ansah: Nala is such a good role model. I look at her and think, “I want to be more like Nala!” Likewise, it’s nice seeing her be this strong character who’s also vulnerable – like at the start of “Shadowland,” she shows she’s scared, but she has to go on this journey. Then she allows herself to let go in “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
How do you build the chemistry for that love story?
Chaponda: It’s really easy once you get into playing these characters, and with Merryl being so beautiful and talented and gifted in what she does. We also both have a history with the show, so we can bring that to the table, bounce off each other and allow ourselves to make mistakes – and laugh!
Ansah: We obviously didn’t get to work together before, but we did know each other before we joined the show. Also we didn’t rehearse “Can You Feel” straightaway – we built up a rapport first. But yes, we try to have fun with it. It helps that we’ve got similar personalities.
Do you have a favourite song or moment in the show?
Ansah: I normally say “Circle of Life” – it’s iconic. But I also really like the “She’s going to eat me!” moment [when Nala hunts Pumbaa] just before Simba and Nala are reunited. Watching the dancers each night is breathtaking – I don’t know how they do it. Their stamina is off the charts.
Chaponda: I love the end of the show – Simba’s coronation. He walks up Pride Rock in glory of who he is as a king. It’s one of the best moments visually and musically; the pacing of that scene is so, so beautiful. You have his mum there, Timon and Pumbaa, Zazu comes back, and Rafiki crowns him.
Owen, you’re originally from Malawi. Can you speak to the African representation in the show?
Chaponda: I’m so proud to be part of that. I’ve actually been called by the governors in Malawi to speak on The Lion King and what it means – that narrative and the representation it has. It’s a big deal: “One of our own is in London playing Simba.” It’s a story told throughout the whole world. It touches on such universal subjects. Then the diversity in the cast means everyone can come watch the show and see themselves in these characters.
Ansah: I’m pretty much the same. I’m originally from Ghana, so it’s nice as well to have African culture represented on stage. Obviously, the music is based in South African culture, and we’ve got a lot of South Africans in the show, so we can learn from them about getting to grips with the language. It’s definitely a multicultural production.
Have any Black kids told you they're excited to see you on stage?
Ansah: Yes we’ve had a few of them – each time I get emotional! That was me when I was young, watching the show for the first time. One kid, the other day, came up to me saying, “I didn’t understand why the wildebeests’ heads didn’t spin like in the movie.” It’s amazing they notice all these details.
Chaponda: We’ve got the potential to change kids’ lives with his show. We might leave them inspired to think “Maybe I can do this myself: act and sing and dance.”
Have your families been to see the show?
Chaponda: Oh yes – they’re our biggest fans.
Ansah: My sister’s actually in tonight! It really is a show for everyone. There are so many different themes: love, loss, a sense of finding oneself, growth, family. It’s beautiful.
Top image credit: Merryl Ansah and Owen Chaponda. (Photo courtesy of Disney)
In-article image credit: The Lion King in London.
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