2 veterans from 'The Lion King' opening still roar

NEW YORK (AP) - November 16, 2012

It can only be called a royal connection: Both have spent the last 15 years in the ensemble of "The Lion King" on Broadway. That translates into more than 5,000 shows since 1997.

In 15 years, Dlamini has welcomed a baby girl and Brown has been married and divorced. They've suffered the deaths of parents and cheered when their castmates gave birth or got married. They've bid goodbye to performers and welcomed fresh ones. They've danced at backstage Halloween parties and shared potluck dinners.

And like the show itself, which is celebrating its milestone anniversary this week, they plan to keep on going. The lithe dancer who now has a hint of gray in her close-cropped hair and the quick-to-smile singer from South Africa are as much at home together as anywhere else.

"I think we're going to be friends forever," says Dlamini, looking at Brown. Her friend nods vigorously.


Brown and Dlamini still remember their auditions for the show, back in the year when Hong Kong was handed to China and designer Gianni Versace was murdered.

Brown, who had been on Broadway in "The King and I," had read about artistic visionary Julie Taymor and happily landed an audition for the musical based on the Disney film.

"I think, at the time, I thought loud was good. So I sang 'Get Here (If You Can)' and I sang it really loud," she says, laughing. "I really wanted to do the show."

Several callbacks led to a role in the ensemble for the former Martha Graham Dance Company soloist: "I really was elated. I had no idea that 15 years later I'd still be happy in the same show."

Dlamini, who missed the earliest reading since she was pregnant, auditioned when the show made the leap to Broadway. But when it came time to sing, she panicked as Taymor watched.

"I couldn't remember what I was supposed to sing," she says. "I sang the national anthem of South Africa. And I sang it loud, too. I did the same thing. I sang it louder and louder and louder."

She got the job, of course, and knew it was going to be special during an out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis when she saw the audience crying. "That feeling, even today, I still get," she says. "Somehow I felt like, 'OK, this is going to be a long-running show.'"


Slowly, as the show matured, they became the veterans. Brown and Dlamini - along with ensemble member Ron Kunene - are the only performers to have lasted since opening night on Nov. 15, 1997.

New cast members seek them out for advice and ask Dlamini questions about Swahili words. "It's fun," she says. "When they come in new and excited, you're like, 'Wow. This is how it felt for us when we started the show.'"

Having a steady paycheck has given Brown and Dlamini the option of exploring other projects - voice-overs, readings, writing their own work and mini-performances - but nothing has lured them away permanently.

"The wonderful thing is that you have a home so you can feed yourself and continue to grow as an artist," says Brown. "That energizes you and you bring it back into the show."

Does it ever get old? Is hearing "Hakuna Matata" - Swahili for "no worries" - for the 5,000th time enough? Or those Elton John-Tim Rice songs?

Both women shake their heads.

"Whenever we have vocal rehearsal and we're singing the music, 15 years later I'm still like, 'Wow. What a beautiful score,'" Brown says. As for the rest of the show: "There are all these beautiful layers. It's not just pretty. It doesn't just sound good. There's a deep motor to it."


One of the first to arrive at the Minskoff Theatre on show days is Dlamini, who usually comes 90 minutes before the curtain rises. "I just like that moment when I'm there by myself," she says.

Soon she is joined by Brown, another early arrival. She likes to warm up by taking yoga, Pilates or spinning classes before shows. Cross-training is important to avoid repetitive stress syndrome, a real threat since both women are also moving with puppets.

Before long, a stereo backstage will be cranked up and the rest of the cast and crew will filter in. "We talk and dance and sing and we go on already warm and happy and excited," says Dlamini.

Snafus are rare, as one might expect for a Tony Award-winning show. But the women recall a few years back around Christmastime when an actress forgot to take off the Santa hat she had put on during intermission. So the audience got to see the song "One by One" performed by dancers in dashikis - and one wearing a Santa hat.

"It's never happened again," says Dlamini, shivering at the thought.

The anniversary of the show has led both women to think about the future. Brown would like to teach one day.

"I think that this is probably my last dancing role," she says. "I've been dancing for about 25 years, so every time I go out I'm kind of savoring it. I love this show, but after this I think I'm probably done."

Dlamini thinks she, too, might be done performing onstage after this, but wants to keep making music. "I don't think I can ever stop singing," she says.

Neither is planning retirement.

"I think I have more years," says Dlamini.

Brown glances at her friend. They smile in agreement.

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