Twenty-five years after “The Lion King” roared onto Broadway, its final original cast member feels nothing but pride.
Ensemble actor Lindiwe Dlamini believes the Disney musical about a lion cub’s coming-of-age journey continues to connect with audiences because it’s a human story at its core.
“You have all these things about loss,” Dlamini told the Daily News. “You have the death of the king. You have a young man trying to find himself. … Sometimes the audience tells us when they watch the show, ‘I just lost my dad’ or ‘I just lost my loved one, and when I went to the show, it just made me feel better.’ “
Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of “The Lion King” on Broadway, a prolific reign that’s included more than 9,000 performances. Now playing at the Minskoff Theatre, the show opened three years after 1994’s animated “The Lion King” movie introduced classic songs such as “Hakuna Matata” and Elton John’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Those hits and more are featured throughout the stage musical, which uses intricate costumes and comprehensive set designs to depict South Africa’s Pride Lands and animals including giraffes, hyenas, elephants and zebras.
The South African-born Dlamini, 54, has been with the show since its inception. She vividly recalls performing the opening number during the company’s first tryout performance in Minneapolis.
“The audience went crazy,” Dlamini said. “I remember coming backstage when we finished ‘Circle of Life’ and me and a few girls in the show started crying because it was so overwhelming. … I knew then in my heart, ‘OK, we have something amazing here.’ ”
When “The Lion King” opened in Manhattan a few months later, the crowd’s reception was even more effusive, according to Dlamini, who says the show has hardly changed in the 2½ decades since.
Dlamini got her start performing with her family’s singing group in South Africa and moved to the United States as a teenager to join the Broadway show “Sarafina!” about apartheid and racism in her home country.
She remained in New York after that musical closed in 1989 and jumped at the chance to join “The Lion King,” which she loved thanks to the South African music written by Lebo M. for the movie.
“I just didn’t get how we were going to play these cartoon characters, animals, on stage,” Dlamini said. “Then, surprise, surprise, [director] Julie Taymor came in with those designs, those costumes, that told the story of ‘The Lion King.’ It’s just amazing.”
Dlamini is one of many South African actors in “The Lion King,” which she believes adds cultural richness to the production. She met her husband through the show, and her sister, who was also part of the original cast, recently returned after exiting years earlier.
Appearing in the ensemble means frequent character changes for Dlamini, who also played Shenzi the hyena as an understudy.
“I come in as a bird lady coming down the aisles, and then I come back as a lioness, and I come back as a hyena, and we wear these big pieces that imitate grass,” Dlamini said. “In the second act, you have banana leaves. We keep wearing these costumes throughout the show.”
“The Lion King” is the third-longest-running show ever on Broadway, behind “Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago.” Dlamini doesn’t expect the musical to leave any time soon – and she doesn’t plan to, either.
“When my mom passed away, my father passed away, my sister passed away, people did not understand why I came to work,” Dlamini said. “I came to work because … my family is in South Africa, so when I come here, I feel a sense of family. I feel a sense of community.
“They still want me here, so I’m still going to be here as long as they want me,” she said. “I’m really enjoying it.”