West End Interview with The Lion King star Nicholas Afoa

Disney's The Lion King continues to play to packed houses in London's West End, and has recently welcomed a new leading man to the company. New Zealander Nicholas Afoa is a former New Zealand age grade rugby player turned musical theatre star, and joins the London company after playing the role of 'Simba' in the Australian production of the hit show.

After leaving the rugby world following injury, Afoa worked on his second love - that of singing. After performing as a soloist with the Rugby World Cup Choir as well as productions of Auckland's Sky City Symphony Under the Stars and Christmas in the Park, he joined the Sydney company of The Lion King in 2013.

The move to London marks Nicholas' furthest journey away from home, and he made his West End debut weeks after first visiting the city. We caught up with the performer to hear how he has settled into the role in London's West End.

DOH: Dom O'Hanlon 
NA: Nicholas Afoa

DOH: Nicholas, you've now been with the London company of The Lion King for a month, how have you settled in?

NA: It's almost been a month now of live performances, it's all gone really fast and everything sort of happened all at once. We performed at the Royal Albert Hall, I know a lot of people wait a long time to perform there, and then there was the London Palladium performance two weeks after I landed here, so it's all been happening!

DOH: How did it feel when you found out you'd be travelling across the world with such an iconic show?

NA: It was towards the end of the Australian production and I'd been told by the creatives that it could possibly be happening, and I didn't want to get my hopes up as I knew it also could not happen. When I found out it was happening I was over the moon, as was my family, I had never been to Europe before, it's the furthest I've been away from home. I had heard about the West End but I didn't really grasp the magnitude of it until I landed here. I couldn't believe the lines outside the theatre and the crowds waiting to see the show.



Nicholas Afoa

DOH: How did you handle the change both physically and mentally, stepping into a new company?

NA: I had to keep reminding myself that I've done it before, don't panic! I just spent time immersing myself with the new cast and my new colleagues, all the other characters I work with, Nala and Pumba and Timon to make sure our energies intertwined. I sat in the rehearsal room and involved myself, listening to everyone. The first week was really tough. I had six weeks off since the Australian production and I'd lost quite a bit of vocal fitness and physical fitness, I really had to work on those things but at the same time not panic about it.

DOH: Have you noticed any major differences between the London production and the Australian one?

NA: There are slight differences but at the end of the day it's the same script but there's slightly different focuses, but that's good, It keeps it fresh. I've been playing the role for two years but I'm still discovering new things. Not to mention the crowds are all different, they have their own buzz about it – it always feels like a new show. I've noticed here that every crowd buzzes and just goes off! People wait a long time to watch The Lion King and you see that at the bows, four or five shows a week will get a standing ovation and it's just amazing.

DOH: What did The Lion King mean to you before you initially got the job?

NA: I'm not just saying this but it was my all time favourite movie! I remember watching it as a ten year old and the emotional impact the story and the music had on me, it was the first of its kind. I had friends who were in the first Australian production in 2003 and I always had a liking to it and the journey of Simba always resonated with me. When it came time to prepare for an audition I couldn't wait to really just show what I could do and see if it was good enough.

DOH: Julie Taymor's production was seen as being groundbreaking back in 2000, and continues to stand the test of time - do you have a particular moment in the show that you just love?

NA: I love the puppetry and I also love the simplicity. My favourite scene in the whole show is where Mufasa is giving Simba a life lesson, there's something really simple that the grass does when Mufasa walks across the stage and it's just so moving and so touching. Whenever I get chance and I've done my make-up, I'll go to the side of the stage and watch that scene, just to get the emotional through line for me when I come on. It never fails to touch me, no matter which little Simba is on.



Nicholas Afoa as Simba
(photo Belinda Strodder)

DOH: Your journey to the role is quite unique. How did you make the transition from rugby player to West End performer?

NA: Like many young New Zealand boys who played rugby it was my dream to play for the country. It became quite real when I represented my country and my age group and it was looking promising, and as you know that was taken away. I was playing one day and I just fell when I was changing direction and I snapped a ligament. I tried to come back after rehab but it was just never the same. Music was always my second love, and it just gave me an opportunity to put a little bit more time and a little bit more effort into it. I started a band, I auditioned for other shows, I was in a covers band, it was a lot of hard work! I loved to sing, and the two came hand in hand. Back home they are both big parts of our culture so it wasn't a shock when I started to take singing a bit more seriously. Then with The Lion King I discovered another love, and that was acting. It came quite naturally.

DOH: Have you found any similarities between the worlds of professional rugby and musical theatre?

NA: Surprisingly I have. There are similarities between how physically demanding theatre is – people ask me what's harder and they assume that I'd say rubgy, but I can honestly say after training for both that they're as hard as each other. At the beginning it was hard for me to make the transition because of how used to doing certain things my body was, I had to try and get rid of some old habits, and still I find myself channelling my energy in the wrong way. In rugby you just go out there and smash it – in theatre you have eight shows a week and you have to take care of your body, you can't just smash your body 8 times a week or you won't last. I've been going to ballet classes and yoga classes, as you can imagine my friends at home find that funny, but it's something that I'm enjoying.

DOH: The Lion King is still one of London's most popular and most successful shows. What is it about the show that continues to resonate with audiences?

NA: On top of the fact that it's such a visual spectacle and you can just get transported to Africa, I also think that the story is timeless, you'll never need to change it. People will always hear and respect that story. I just think that no matter where you are in the world that story works, and that's why the show works all over the world.


Nicholas Afoa is currently starring as 'Simba' in The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre in London's West End.

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