“The Lion King” tends to make a big impression. And for Dan Donohue, that is especially true.
The Spokane-born actor played the show’s villain, Scar, for more than 1,700 performances on tour and on Broadway. That kind of immersion in a character and a show can’t help but leave a mark.
And even though he’s more than a decade removed from his time with “The Lion King,” Donohue said the show remains a “profoundly positive” experience in his life. And clearly, given its longevity, it’s a profoundly positive experience for audiences too.
“There are so many elements that are thrilling to experience in the show. But in the center of it is this great story,” Donohue said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “And there is so much joy in the music and the artistry. And it’s not just that it’s beautiful. It engages audiences in a way that is unique. … You see the puppets and the puppeteers at the same time, and there’s an added excitement about that, an added wonder when you watch both at the same time. You watch these inanimate objects come to life. That at the heart is why the musical endures and why people want to come back and see it again and again and bring the next young generation of people to come and see it.”
“The Lion King” draws inspiration from “Hamlet,” so it makes sense that actors with Shakespearean experience would feel at home in the show. And Donohue had that experience. By the time he auditioned for the role, he had already worked for several seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, portraying characters such as Edgar in “King Lear,” Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar,” and Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Parts I and II” and “Henry V.” In some ways, Scar is a classic Shakespearean villain, not unlike Claudius from “Hamlet,” who murders his brother the king to seize the throne.
What Donohue didn’t have was a lot of experience with musicals.
“When I started the tour in 2002, I jumped into it with some apprehension about being in such a big musical,” said Donohue from his home in Los Angeles. “But I did find that the whole experience, being in it and playing that role, was quite operatic in size, and it quickly became comforting to be playing a role that had so much of its DNA in some of these great Shakespearean characters like Claudius and Richard III.
“I hadn’t played many big villains at that point, and it became sort of a turning point,” he added, “and I since have played big Shakespearean villains … Richard III at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Iago in ‘Othello’ and some others.”
He landed the role in “The Lion King” thanks to his friend and mentor Patrick Page. Page, who also was born in Spokane but raised in Oregon, attended Whitman College in Walla Walla at the same time as Donohue. They met and became friends. Years later, Page was playing Scar on the first national tour of “Lion King,” and he reached out to his friend to see if he’d be interested in auditioning for Zazu, the red-billed hornbill who serves as Mufasa’s adviser. About a year later Donohue was going to be in New York and he called Page to help arrange an audition.
Coincidentally, Page was about to leave the tour to take over playing Scar on Broadway. When Page mentioned the possibility auditioning for Scar, Donohue said he wasn’t too sure about it.
“I could not quite picture myself in the role. I didn’t seem to click for me,” he said. “That role is bigger than life and the character is so full of hubris. I’m a character actor, but I didn’t think it would be a natural fit. I thought I’d be a better fit for Zazu.”
Didn’t take him long to change his mind and decide to audition for both. Good thing, too.
“I went in and auditioned and they really weren’t interested in me at all for Zazu. I could tell as soon as I started,” he said with a laugh. “So that was it. Patrick went into the New York production and I took over Scar on the road. And years later, I ended up playing it on Broadway.”
One of the big challenges in playing Scar is the costuming. The lion mask sits upon the actor’s head, but mechanics and simple movements allow it to be manipulated by the actor as the scene calls for. All told, Donohue said, the costume weighs 40 pounds and is one of the heavier ones in the show.
Occasionally, it didn’t work, meaning a quick costume change and repairs between scenes. He likens those times to a pit stop at the Indianapolis 500, with the puppet department and costumers rushing to get him out of the malfunctioning getup and into the backup headpiece. “It’s all part of the adventure,” he said.
During his call-back in the audition process, it was just him, the resident director and the Scar mask in a room with a big mirror.
“They wanted to see what my relationship would be with the mask,” Donohue said. “In terms of whether it was something I enjoyed working with, or had the ability to work with well. … And I just had so much fun doing that. I immediately gravitated to that challenge. … I found it fascinating and it became this incredible storytelling tool that I never got tired of working on during the long run of ‘Lion King.’ ”
Despite all the years on the road, he never had a chance to bring “The Lion King” to his hometown. The 1984 Lewis & Clark High School graduate never got further west than Minneapolis while on tour.
He does get home to Spokane at the holidays to visit his parents, Mary Donohue and Michael Donohue, who is a retired judge. This past Christmas, he noticed all the “Lion King” billboards around town, “which I thought was fantastic.”
He’d like to come home more frequently, he said, but work often gets in the way. He’s about to start shooting the second season of “Strange Angel,” for CBS All Access, where he has a recurring role as Professor John Tillman. In recent years he’s done voice work for video games and animated series and appeared in “Longmire,” the USA series “Damnation,” “The Last Tycoon,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Fear the Walking Dead.”
And while his career is mainly focused on movies and television at the moment, he wouldn’t say no to the right big tour.
“The experience of being part of a family like that with a show that you know is important to the audience, and that audience’s response is so beautiful and tangible, in a second I would consider doing another musical,” he said. “The great ones don’t come around. Like great plays, they’re special for a reason. They don’t come around all the time.
“I hope ‘Lion King’ continues to have a long run because it’s a great show.”
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