On my Easter visit to New York City, I was again struck by the ever-increasing Orlando-fication of Broadway. Many Mouse-made musicals – the newest are cult film adaptation Newsies and Peter and the Starcatcher, an avant-garde Neverland prequel – are garnering positive press. But none have equaled the critical and commercial acclaim afforded Julie Taymor's The Lion King , which celebrates its 15th anniversary with a return to the Bob Carr this week.
The Lion King has had a convoluted life cycle: from film to theme-park attraction to theatrical phenomenon, and back to the parks. Few appreciate that evolution better than Selena Moshell and Dionne Randolph, two longtime Orlando residents who star in the national tour performing downtown through May 13. Speaking with them last week, I learned that though in different places career-wise, they share a love for the show that changed their lives and for the city they still consider home.
For Moshell, an ensemble member who plays up to seven roles in the show, a life onstage seemed a genetic inevitability. A student from age 5 at Maitland and Winter Park dance studios, she can remember watching her older sister on the Bob Carr stage and “dancing in the front row, waving, saying ‘Mom, look at me!'” Her sister, Cheryl Mann, has danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago; her musician brother Dave Mann plays with FunkUs and founded Jambando. Moshell attended Rollins College for environmental studies, but after auditioning for Royal Caribbean cruise ships “as a joke,” she put her academic ambitions on hold in favor of a career that included turns at Capone's dinner theater and Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.
Randolph, who plays Simba's father, Mufasa,started life on a scientific track. A Morehouse College math and science major from Gainesville, Ga., with a computer engineer father, in college Randolph was offered his choice of internships at NASA or Walt Disney Imagineering. “[My dad said], ‘Well, clearly you're going to NASA, right?'” Randolph recalls, laughing. “And I go, ‘You know, I've never seen Mickey Mouse, I've never been on Space Mountain.'” That choice took him into the tunnels under the Magic Kingdom, where in 1993 a show producer overheard Randolph speaking and asked him to record a parade announcement, which led to voice-over narration and animatronic acting. Randolph ended up spending three years singing on cruise ships and performing in local theater.
Both Randolph and Moshell got their first theatrical Lion King experience at Disney attractions. Randolph played Mufasa in the Legend of the Lion King puppet show. “I remember saying to Tiffany [Korkis, fellow puppeteer] one day, ‘If this show ever goes to Broadway, I'm going to play this role!' and [she said] ‘Yeah, right.'” He joined Animal Kingdom's Festival of the Lion King show as a principal shortly after it opened in 1998; Moshell started after that as an aerialist, performing the show's romantic bird duet. She credits the show's flying sequences with fulfilling one of her dreams: “I miss that every day.”
When word came that Moshell had been cast in the touring company, co-workers were confused: “I said, ‘I got the Lion King!' And they replied, ‘But you are [already] at the Lion King?'” Randolph, who auditioned for the Broadway cast six times and received five rejections (“They were waiting for me to age into the role”), had recently renewed his Festival contract when the call came. “The stage manager said, ‘Every time we give you a contract … you leave [for] some new job.' I said, ‘I promise I won't do that this time,' and literally at that moment my phone rang” with an offer to join the tour.
Since the Lion King tours stay in a city for weeks or months at a time, the actors make themselves at home on the road. Randolph rents an apartment instead of staying in hotels; Moshell travels with her boyfriend and cat, visiting roadside attractions in their downtime. Both still call Orlando home. Asked what she misses most, Moshell name-checks Sapphire Supper Club (now the Social), Back Booth and WPRK (where she DJ'ed). “I didn't appreciate [Orlando] until I left. I flew like a bird, I danced with Elmo, I scared the crap out of people … I'm a big Orlando nerd.” For Randolph, it's even simpler: “I will not live anywhere else but Orlando. … You can't beat the weather, I've got to see me a palm tree or I'm going to die, but it's the people that keep me here.”