As of Nov. 13, 2017, “The Lion King” has ruled Broadway for 20 years. And three members of the cast and crew have been with the musical for every one of those years. Night after night, they groom the pride of the Great White Way. We talked to them to find out how, and why, do they do it.
Kjeld Andersen, Production Wardrobe Supervisor
Kjeld Andersen considers himself a lucky man. As production wardrobe supervisor, he’s been with “The Lion King” since January 1977. Can he imagine his career—including a 16-year stint at New York City Opera, where he started as a stitcher in 1978 before moving on to become principal dresser, men’s wardrobe master and eventually assistant director of costumes—without “The Lion King?”
“I can,” he says, immediately adding, “but it would not be nearly as good.” Here he talks about what he calls “his really exciting job” looking after Julie Taymor’s Tony Award-winning costumes.
What kind of training prepared you for “The Lion King?”
I’ve had no formal training in costume or design whatsoever. But my grandmother taught me to knit when I was 4 and let me start sewing on the treadle machine when I was tall enough to stand and see the needle move. All through my life, I have enjoyed putting things together. Everything from miniatures and clothes to an entire wall of bookcases.
What exactly does the production wardrobe supervisor do?
On a daily basis, I run the Broadway production, making sure all costumes are up to standard. I oversee general maintenance and repairs and also decide when costumes need to be replaced. In addition to this, I will participate in setting up most of the new productions of “The Lion King” around the world.
How often are costumes replaced?
Some costumes only last six to nine months. Things like gazelle unitards. They are thin stretch fabrics and are washed daily. Most other costumes will last one to four years. I do believe we have a Broadway record, though. Lindiwe Dlamini [ensemble singer, see below] is still wearing her original lioness corset and necklace. That is 20 years on Broadway worn by the same performer!
Accidents do happen, and everyone loves to hear about them. Has there ever been a wardrobe malfunction onstage?
Most memorable will probably be Timon [a meerkat, played by an actor manipulating a life-size puppet] losing his head, and the performer having to hold it over the Timon body. And, of course, fallen giraffes. This happens very rarely (I cannot remember when it last happened on Broadway), but when it does happen, it is very sad. It is generally a slow motion: the legs sliding apart until the performer is belly down on the stage. No graceful exit: We simply have to drag him off.
Elizabeth Cohen, production makeup supervisor
Unlike Kjeld Andersen, Elizabeth Cohen, production makeup supervisor, learned her craft at college, earning an undergraduate degree from Vassar College in studio art. While at college, the theater bug bit the Austin, Texas, native. She's been with “The Lion King” since June 1997.
“When I wasn’t taking art classes, I was taking design and application courses while also designing and running shows in the drama department,” she says. “Most of the advanced courses I took in the department were one on one, just me and the professor. So even though I did not technically major in drama, I benefited almost as though I had gone to a conservatory. I moved to New York immediately after college, and have been working in theater ever since.”
What does your job entail?
As production makeup supervisor, I maintain the integrity of Michael Ward’s makeup designs. In addition to applying makeup to several principal performers every show, I supervise a crew of two additional (incredible) artists, Brenda O’Brien and Michael Clifton. It’s also my job to teach every new performer how to do his or her makeup.
Has the makeup design been tweaked over the past 20 years?
The designs continue to be based on the same concepts—and are primarily inspired by African tribal makeups—and the color palettes remain the same. But certain shapings have changed on a number of the characters. For example, the Young Nala makeup for many years was characterized by an orange oval mask-like shape around her face. Several years ago, Michael Ward modified the design to be more of a shield-like shape, creating a clearer through-line among the designs of the principal Lioness characters.
Any other modifications?
Some changes that have been made have been site-specific. For example, the original ensemble dancer Lioness makeups had stripes on the cheeks starting at the outer edges of the face, angled along the cheekbones and fading off toward the tip of the nose. When we moved from the New Amsterdam Theatre to the Minskoff Theatre [in 2006], the lighting hit the Lionesses differently, and these bright, colorful stripes were no longer visible. We modified the placement so that they were more of a precise horizontal line, beginning near the nose and fading off toward the ears. Simply adjusting the angle and direction of the stripes made all the difference in the world to their visibility onstage.
What’s it like behind the scenes at “The Lion King?”
Stimulating! On any given day, one can walk through the building and find pockets of creativity, Just today, between shows, I walked through the lobby and happened across several cast members sitting in chairs rehearsing some music with an accompanist. I have no idea what they were working on, but it was beautiful. Absolutely soul-filling. And there are times when the building engages in friendly creative rivalries, such as holiday door-decorating contests or our spin on “Project Runway” or making stunning bridal gowns out of toilet paper for a company member’s bridal shower. And then there’s the increasingly legendary, building-wide Halloween event. People go all out to make fully immersive environments in their dressing rooms and other common areas. No creative effort is spared. We are steeped in creativity here.
Lindiwe Dlamini, ensemble singer
“I will stay with “The Lion King” as long as they still want me!” says South Africa-born Lindiwe Dlamini, who has been with the show since Day One as an ensemble singer and now also as understudy for Shenzi, the female principal hyena.
“I never thought I was going to be here 20 years later and still enjoy every moment,” she continues. ”I guess if you love what you do and are surrounded by people you enjoy working with, it makes it easier and you enjoy coming to work.”
Like Kjend Andersen and Elizabeth Cohen, Dlamini looks upon her job as more than a job. “This is art to me,” she affirms.
What’s your favorite part of the show?
It’s hard to choose a favorite! But if I have to, it’s “Circle of Life.” Seeing people’s reactions at the beginning of the show when we all come down the aisles of the theater as different animals is such an emotional moment. You feel so connected to the audience.
Is there a song that speaks to you personally?
“Shadowland” [in the second act]. That’s when all the women in the show are onstage, saying goodbye to Nala. There’s something about the strength of a woman in that moment.
You’ve sung “Shadowland” at more than 8,000 performances on Broadway. How do maintain your enthusiasm and keep your performance fresh?
I perform every show like it’s the first time because there’s always someone [in the audience] seeing it for the first time.
Have you ever had a mishap onstage?
One time, I tripped on my costume and fell during the second act coming up the stairs, and I couldn’t get up. One of the stage managers had to come out and drag me off the stage. When everyone got off, we couldn’t stop laughing!
Being in the show for so long, has it taught you anything?
I have learned so much about so many different cultures that I wasn’t exposed to before. We have so many different races in this show that you appreciate one another. It’s the United Nations of Broadway.
Do you think “The Lion King” will ever end its run?
No, I truly believe it will still be here 20 years from now.