Meet the Woman Who Opened in Broadway’s The Lion King 20 Years Ago—and Never Left

Interview   Meet the Woman Who Opened in Broadway’s The Lion King 20 Years Ago—and Never Left
 
How original cast member Lindiwe Dlamini has kept the Disney smash fresh for two decades.
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Lindiwe Dlamini Marc J. Franklin

Actor Lindiwe Dlamini may only have two credits to her Broadway résumé, but that doesn’t accurately reflect the amount of time she’s spent onstage. The current Lion King cast member has been with the show since its out-of-town tryout in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That’s right: Dlamini has been a member of the cast of Disney’s The Lion King for its entire 20-year Broadway run. While Lion King marks its milestone anniversary, Dlamini can also measure her life in Lion years.

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Lindiwe Dlamini Marc J. Franklin

Dlamini joined the company for the out-of-town tryout in July 1997—only eight weeks after giving birth to her eldest daughter. Dlamini grew up in Durban, South Africa, in a township known as Umlazi. Her father was a minister and her whole family grew up singing. She and her sister, Ntomb’Khona Dlamini, both opened in the original Broadway production of Lion King as ensemble members at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Her sister left the show to return home to South Africa, later returning for the Gazelle and Cheetah companies, the musical’s First and Second National Tours. Not long after, Dlamini met a Lion King cast member who would become her family: ensemblist Bongi Duma. Duma and Dlamini wed in 2007—The Lion King’s 20th anniversary marks their tenth.

Though Dlamini now knows Lion King inside and out (she’s the unofficial den mother in the cast), the learning curve on Day One was steep. “When we first started I couldn’t even put on my lioness costume,” says Dlamini, who also plays a bird lady, a hyena, a grass head, an ensemble singer, and understudies Shenzi.

The Lion King was unlike anything Dlamini, or her fellow actors, had tackled before. “Nobody knew already [how to do this], so we had to learn how to sing while we’re moving with the puppets and while you’re dancing,” she explains. “You had to have the same feel of an animal with the human body and you had to connect to that.”

Twenty years later, the show still requires intense focus to get it right. “If you’re not careful you can get injured, so you have to be always alert,” she says. But how does Dlamini maintain focus in a show she’s done over 8,000 times? “Sometimes people look at it as a job, but if you’re looking at it as an art, you’re an artist,” she says. “We make people feel better when things are tough. People come here to get away from their problems, so we are here to make sure people come out of this show feeling good. And it does that for us too.”

Pride Rock is an oasis for Dlamini. “I come in this building…” she pauses. “You just feel uplifted.” Of course, the customary turnover within the cast keeps the show fresh for Dlamini. “When a new Simba comes in, it’s still the same role, but it’s a whole different person and a personality within the role is different,” she says. “Even with [new] ensemble members, you get excited again.”

Tapping into the Disney magic is no problem for Dlamini. Each night, as “Circle of Life” begins, she can transport herself back to the first time she performed the show in front of an audience in Minnesota—before the reviews, before the six Tony wins, before the hype, before the legacy. “I get chills now because that moment was so amazing for us,” she says. “The audience was screaming. You had people crying when we were going down the aisle in tears of joy. You had that feeling of relief right after we did ‘Circle of Life.’ You were like, ‘OK, we got this. We are in something amazing.’ You felt it.”

For more exclusive features and interviews celebrating The Lion King’s 20th anniversary, go to Playbill.com/LionKing.

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