About the author:
Ron Kunene has been part of The Lion King family since he provided background vocals in Disney's 1994 Oscar-winning motion picture, and today, he remains one of only two actors to have been in the ensemble of the Broadway production since it opened in 1997. A South African transplant and a graduate of UCLA, Kunene praises the Tony-winning production for its authenticity and commitment to the people, culture and history of South Africa. Below, he recounts his 15-year journey with The Lion King and why it still inspires and moves him.
My journey with The Lion King begins in 1992 when I worked with composer Hans Zimmer and music arranger Lebo M on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning movie.
While I was going to school at UCLA, I was friends with a good gentleman named Lebo who was also from South Africa. Lebo partnered on a variety of projects with Hans Zimmer, now a prolific composer who did Rain Man, Inception, The Dark Knight and Gladiator. They had worked on movie called The Power of One about the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. In the early ‘90s, Disney approached Hans to work on the soundtrack for The Lion King and it was natural that he invited Lebo to join him on the project. He wanted to make the score universal and, I think, because of its universal appeal, the music became the most enduring aspect of The Lion King.
In 1996, we heard Michael Eisner [the former CEO of Disney] wanted to put The Lion King on stage. It sounded like a crazy idea at the time, because we thought how do you transform an animated feature film on stage? We started doing the workshops, and it was immediately apparent that Julie Taymor was not only a maverick director but also a vibrant visionary. Of course, The Lion King went on to become a monster hit on Broadway, winning six Tony Awards. And while it’s an honor to be part of this legendary production, for me as a South African native, it’s the musical’s authentic Afro-centric concepts and allusions that fulfill me as an artist and as a person.
After its success, Lebo had the good idea to go back and take measures to keep the stage show authentic and fresh. He was asked by Tom Schumacher to do workshops in South Africa to create a database of actors and performers we can tap throughout the years and for companies around the world. The workshops taught African history, African heritage and all about the intricacies of African culture.
For instance, The Lion King vividly portrays the African traditional religion, which believes that life is perpetual and that we never die; we shed our bodies here but our spirits live on and join our ancestors. You see that in the show when Mufasa returns to a lost Simba in Act II. Also, Rafiki’s line about “winds of change” is taken from the title of British Prime Minster Harold Macmillian’s 1960 speech about the change of colonization when Africa was becoming independent.
Finally, at the end of the show, the anthem that plays was when Simba takes back the throne was inspired by Mr. Nelson Mandela when he was coming out of jail to lead South Africa to freedom. It’s so amazing to be part of a theatrical piece that was also highly relevant to my academic life and personal history, and that’s what has sustained me.
Another highlight for me over the past 15 years has been the opportunity to educate the young actors who play Young Simba and Nala about Africa. To tell them stories that were told to me by my grandfather and grandmother through oral tradition is just so wonderful. And then to watch children in the audience seeing the show for the first time , and seeing their minds absorb everything, like sponges, is really moving.
Disney’s commitment to the people of South Africa extends beyond the creation of The Lion King. Disney launched a South African production where this type of theater is not known. Then the show did outreach to the schools to educate kids who have been under apartheid for a long time, to be very well versed in theater. It was amazing to see them introduced to theater and also the hard realities of life and death through The Lion King.
Disney Theatrical President Thomas Schumacher is also really behind working with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. South Africa was the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, so since 1997, we have been able to raise funds of over $3 million help with AIDS service organizations in South Africa. The Lion King has ended up expanding its boundaries beyond the theater to illuminate the heart of darkness. It’s illuminating as it teaches people about Africa today and magnifies the grand age of the African Renaissance.