Changing lives with Lion King

South African hopefuls audition for a role in the top-grossing musical with an eye on adventure and money to be earned

A miner's daughter, Ms Fumane Moeketsi, 23, auditions for The Lion King in Johannesburg.
A miner's daughter, Ms Fumane Moeketsi, 23, auditions for The Lion King in Johannesburg.PHOTO: NYTIMES

JOHANNESBURG • Ms Fumane Moeketsi bent her knees into a crouch, threw her hands up in the air and tore into the opening notes of a musical she had never seen.

It was the fourth time in five years that the 23-year-old daughter of a miner from a village in South Africa had tried out to play Rafiki, the mandrill, in The Lion King.

She had stood in line for open auditions with hundreds of other hopefuls and waited by the phone for callbacks that never came.

She had mastered English and memorised Circle Of Life.

Finally, on the last day of May, Ms Moeketsi found herself in front of a row of tables occupied by The Lion King's global brain trust, including the show's award-winning director Julie Taymor.

Over the past two decades, 263 South Africans have been dispatched to Lion King productions staged in Dutch, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Disney, the musical - about Simba, a lion cub finding his way after the death of his father - has earned more money than any other title in entertainment history.

Since opening on Broadway in 1997, it has been seen by 90 million people in 24 productions that have collectively grossed US$7.9 billion (S$10.7 billion).

Adapted from a hit animated film, the stage version is rooted in South Africa by its music, much of it by composer Lebo M., using South African languages and choral stylings. Almost every cast has included eight to 12 South Africans among about 50 performers.

"I felt very strongly that we had to have South Africans in it from the beginning," Taymor said in Durban in June. She was there for auditions, which continued through the summer, to assemble a largely South African-cast tour that will begin in Manila in March and then set out across Asia.

Performers, generally young adults, leave their parents, and often their children, behind, relocating to countries where they do not speak the language. But there is adventure to be had, art to be made and money to be earned.

That is why Ms Moeketsi started auditioning. She had moved from her village to Johannesburg for college and, as she wrapped up her studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, she saw The Lion King as her best hope, professionally and financially.

She was seeking to join a generation of South African performers who have landed jobs in the musical. Some have found new homes, new families and new careers. Others have also struggled to translate the opportunity into sustained success, but all have been changed.

Brenda Mhlongo, 38, is a Lion King success story, parlaying a stint with Disney into a significant television career back home.

She now stars on Generations: The Legacy, South Africa's second-most popular soap opera.

She encourages other Lion King hopefuls, in part by helping her husband to prepare high-school graduates to audition for the musical as well as more generally for careers in the arts.

Over the years, about 20 alumni have landed roles in the musical.

For Ms Moeketsi, the phone call that she had been waiting for five years finally came. Did she want to join the new international tour?

"My mother was in tears when I told her," she recalled.

"She said, 'I know you're going to work hard to make sure everyone at home is taken care of.'"

This month, she will fly to Manila for a costume fitting and in January, she will begin rehearsing there.

She expects to be in the show through 2020. That is when the tour is due to reach South Africa.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'Changing lives with Lion King'. Subscribe