Age & Hometown: 23; Chicago, IL
Current Role: A Broadway debut in his “dream role,” Simba, in Disney’s long-running hit The Lion King.
A Whole New World: Windy City native Nelson grew up mostly with his mom and was home-schooled through high school. “I was all about martial arts and football until I was 14,” he says. “My dream was to be in the NFL. Then my mom redirected my energy toward the arts.” Nelson studied opera and ballet, recalling that future president Barack Obama was in the audience at his first recital. After high school, he enrolled in Columbia College Chicago, where he met his future wife, Ashley, at a fashion show. “We hit it off right away,” he says. “The first day we talked, we walked around downtown Chicago for three or four hours.” The two got married this summer and are the parents of a one-and-a-half-year-old son, Aaydin. “It’s rough being away from them,” says Nelson, who joined The Lion King in late August, “but I’m getting everything set for them to move here and begin this new life together.” His NYC to-do list includes “checking out museums with my son and day dates with my wife.”
Disney Beginnings: At 19, Nelson spent nine months working at Walt Disney World in costume as Goofy, Tigger, Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts and the Red Power Ranger, an experience he calls “some of the best times of my life. Being at Disney showed me about the magic of performing: how you affect people, how to do a show five times a day and keep it fresh. That’s what sparked my interest in theater.” The only drawback? “It was really hot [in the costumes]!” Back home in Chicago, Nelson pursued singing and songwriting under the stage name Apollo, which he picked up after studying Greek mythology. Describing his alter ego's sound as “R&B with a hip-hop edge and pop sensibility,” Nelson explains, “Apollo is all of Aaron’s strengths and none of his weaknesses. He’s just a fearless character. I can hide behind him when I’m feeling nervous. I’m starting to use Apollo in The Lion King: I get my makeup on, and I’m Apollo.”
Dream Come True: Nelson has the distinction of the being the first actor since original star Jason Raize to win the role of Simba on Broadway without having played the part outside New York. “This whole Lion King journey began for me in 2008,” he says. “I heard they were having auditions and I thought it would be fun, even though I didn’t know anything about theater. The casting director said, ‘You did a great job. Just keep coming back.’ So every year, I went to open calls. Finally, this year, it came through.” When Nelson stepped on stage at the Minskoff Theatre for the first time, “My heart was beating a billion times a second,” he says with a laugh. “Everything was a blur.” The father/son story of The Lion King touches Nelson on many levels. He recalls seeing the animated film with his own father, “who wasn’t around much,” and relating to Simba’s longing for a parent. Now, as a young dad, Nelson relates to Mufasa in a greater way. “My life intertwined with this show in a crazy way, but it works.”