The Brazilian production of The Lion King, the greatest musical production ever brought to São Paulo opens on March 28th

Shows budgeted at 50 million dollars debuts on Thursday (28) that has the ambition to be seen by more than 350,000 viewers


Director John Stefaniuk instructs Thiago Barbosa who plays Simba

Here at BW of Brazil, we first touched upon the ongoing preparations for the Brazilian production of The Lion King on Christmas day at the end of last year. The question raised then was the news that producers of the musical sought preto (black) and pardo (brown) children for roles in the show. The Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reported that the finalists for the parts ended up being white children who would be artificially darkened for the parts. Below is a full report of the production that is called O Rei Leão in Portuguese and includes photos and videos.  

Between visits to the Statue of Liberty, a stroll through Central Park and lots of shopping, tourists traveling to New York usually take advantage of their time in one of the city’s main attractions, the musicals. An adaptation of the classic Disney cartoon, the play The Lion King (O Rei Leão in Portuguese) leads the list of most popular shows. It owns the title of Broadway’s largest box office attraction. The super production, which has been showing for sixteen years since its release release, multiplied itself by fifteen countries, grossed $5 billion and has been applauded by 66 million people. The show now it arrives in South America for the first time, in a season which runs from Thursday (28) until at least December, in the Teatro Renault in the Bela Vista area of São Paulo.

black Brazilians
Josi Lopes from the state of Minas Gerais and Thiago Barbosa of Rio portray Simba and Nala

It is undoubtedly the largest and most expensive musical that has come to the stages of São Paulo, with an investment of R$50 million dollars (about US$25 million). The Addams Family (called A Família Addams in Brazil), for example, cost half that amount. “We fought to bring this show here since 2001,” says Stephanie Mayorkis, content director of the Family Entertainment division of producer Time for Fun, whose partnership with Disney includes future presentations of Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid (A Pequena Sereia). “Today, the market is ripe to receive something so big.”

South African actress Phindile Mkhize plays the part of Rafiki
The journey of the lion Simba, who inherits the African kingdom of his father, Mufasa, but flees thinking he is to blame for his death, brings chills and brings tears to the eyes of much of the audience. There is a lot of work behind the scenes. The award-winning New York-based assembly is a benchmark for foreign adaptations. Therefore, an American team of Disney that today totals 35 members came to Brazil in June to monitor all stages, from the auditions to the premiere. Details ranging from the intonation of the voice to the position of the scenario are carefully watched. “We have the same quality standard worldwide,” explains Canadian John Stefaniuk, associate director who considers himself sincere even in his criticism. “I demand the absolute best of our team, my expectations are pretty high.” A Disney official for a decade now, Stefaniuk followed two months of rehearsals in the city (the preparations began in February). 
Josi Lopes and Thiago Barbosa
The director knows every scene by heart. After all, he led the development of six assemblies, such as those in Singapore and Paris. Here, he made visits to two classic Brazilian attractions in his spare time: he saw Carnival at the Sambódromo and visited Rio de Janeiro. He suffered, however, an unforeseen setback: he ended up in Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein (Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital) to remove his appendix. Just four days after surgery, he was gesticulatingand running back and forth onstage to instruct the actors. “Sometimes I think I’m directing a zoo, saying things like ‘the elephant goes here’ or ‘this giraffe is out of place,’” he says.

Once inside the show, it’s as if the chosen were part of the “Lion King family.” The scheme of work is kind of like Spartan. Delays are not tolerated. Whoever disobeys the rules can have part of their salary deducted. The rigid routine, with daily rehearsals of up to eleven hours (some stretch until midnight), includes scenes that require much physical endurance. Therefore, a group of four physiotherapists is ready. In one day, they made 35 calls. “My only focus now is The Lion King. It becomes impossible to turn me off completely from work when I get home,” says César Mello, a global actor who plays Mufasa, Simba’s father. In his preparations, he watched movies to take lessons on how to behave like a warrior. Among them, were Gladiator and another with the story of the conqueror Genghis Khan.

Thiago Barbosa as Simba
Despite all the challenges, most of the cast of 53 actors is extremely elated to participate in the show. For all of them, getting a place was a victory. In June of last year were the first auditions in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. Then the process unfolded into two phases here in the city. A resident of the Vidigal favela  in Rio de Janeiro, Tiago Barbosa, 28, competed with 2,000 candidates and won the role of the protagonist, Simba. With a finely tuned Adam’s apple, he participated in the talent reality show Ídolos, a program similar to American Idol on the Record TV network. “I thought, ‘God, it’s the chance to change my story,’” says Barbosa, evangelical of the Renascer em Cristo (Reborn in Christ) Church, son of a painter and a housewife. In his final audition, the original creator of the show, Julie Taymor, cried after hearing him sing, selected him and said she had never seen anyone play the part so well. At the time he was wearing a hairstyle full of dreadlocks down to his waist. “They asked me if I could cut my hair to play Simba. I said that I would cut up to the ear,” he recalls. Among the visual changes, he also gained 4 pounds of muscle mass and tightened up his abs after cutting sodas from his diet.
Josi Lopes will portray Nala

From different parts of the country, team members have several types of resumes. There is, for example, an artist who danced with singer Jennifer Lopez and others who participated in the Cirque du Soleil. Coming from the state of Minas Gerais, actress Josi Lopes was chosen to represent Nala, the romantic interest of Simba. She cried tears of joy after learning she won the part. “The coin still hasn’t dropped (It still hasn’t hit me yet). So I think I’m keeping calm,” she says. Josi has four mini versions, as does Barbosa. Eight children, all 12 years old, take turns in the roles of the couple in childhood. Their movements didn’t escape the eyes of two nannies that helped out backstage. In the dressing rooms, there are drawings and tips such as “respect your aunts” and “take care”.

Gustavo Fernandes Bonfim, 11, is one of the actors that will portray the young Simba
Three of eight young actors that will portray the young Simba and Nala (1)

With two small children, Marcelo Klabin, 38, was initially hired to make replicas. In the theater world, this means that in the auditions he interpreted the lines of all the characters for the actor auditioning and responded to them as they rehearsed. The directors of Disney ended up paying more attention to Klabin than the candidates and invited him to play Pumba, the boar character, immortalized alongside the meerkat Timon (Timão) in the song “Hakuna Matata”. He wears a costume that weighs about 66 pounds. “When I wore it, I thought I would not last a minute in the scene,” he says. Now, after many hot water bottles, he feels free to sing and dance inside the clothes during the nearly three-hour show.

Jeane Guimarães participates in her 4th production

In the cast, there are musical veterans. The São Paulo native Jeane Guimarães is in her fourth production. She started in Holland, where she lived. She fell in love with one of the drummers of the show and they were married there (the Dutchman also participates in the Brazilian production). Then she traveled to Singapore and France. “There’s nothing better than singing in my language,” discovered Jeane, who take turns in six roles. The assembly of The Lion King also has a group of South Africans, as there are songs in the soundtrack’s songs in their native languages. Eleven foreigners came to Brazil. Every day they punched in and out in classes to learn Portuguese. English translators were on duty at the time of the auditions to aid with communication.

Ronaldo Reis (Timão), Osvaldo Mil (Scar), Marcelo Klabin (Pumba)

For being a super production, The Lion King demands a challenging logistic: 35 tons of scenery and costumes arrived in the city in 22 containers. It was necessary to build in the Teatro Renault attachments to mount the material for two more lateral cabins to accommodate percussionists. To write the lyrics in Portuguese of Elton John songs, other than those already known in the film, legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil was summoned. The tracks will be performed by an orchestra of ten musicians.

Legendary singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil wrote Portuguese lyrics for Elton John songs

For the handling of makeup and wigs, five professionals who were trained for four months are responsible for the task. “Sometimes we just have thirty seconds to change the look for the show,” explains Simone Momo, who lives surrounded by brushes and baby wipes. The great secret of the production, however, comes in puppets, masks and dolls. Creator of the spectacular, Julie Taymor thought of a different way of portraying the animals. She, who has directed among other films, Across the Universe and Frida, used influences as techniques from eastern theater and scenography of the seventeenth century to come up with her apparatuses. The goal is that one can see the performance of both the actor and the animal he or she represents. In some cases, as in the cheetah, a puppet is connected to the body of the dancer. Thanks to a set of wires and rods manipulated by the artist, the puppet reproduces their movements on stage.

Child actors portraying the young Simba and Nala (1)

 The Lion King comes to crown a growing music scene in São Paulo. Planned in the future, for example, are Shrek and Kiss Me, Kate. “When we started, we found the cast or specialized technical team,” recalls the director Charles Möeller, a veteran of the segment along with Claudio Botelho, currently in theaters with The Wizard of Oz (O Mágico de Oz) e Milton Nascimento — Nada Será Como Antes (Milton Nascimento – Nothing Will Be Like It Was Before), named after the classic Nascimento song. The Lion King is already on sale with tickets costing $R50-280 (about US$25-140). There are still a few seats available in most sessions on sale in an audience of 1,500 seats. The show’s producers hope to attract over 350,000 spectators to see the spectacular.

Brazilian cast of O Rei Leão (The Lion King) sings “Ciclo da Vida” (Circle of Life)
Scenes from Brazilian production of O Rei Leão (The Lion King)
O Rei Leão – O Musical

Source: Veja SP


1. Looking at the photos of these children who are to play to characters Simba and Nala as children, one will note that several of these children are significantly light-skinned than the actors Thiago Barbosa and Josi Lopes who play the parts of the characters in their adult phase. Of the photos of above and other available photos online, actor Gustavo Fernandes Bonfim seems to be the only young actor of prominently visible African ancestry. In transitioning the characters from children to adults and the physical differences, it would seem that the reports of artificial “tanning” or “darkening” of the actors was true. The names the child actors in the production are Gustavo Bonfim, Henrique Filgueiras, Matheus Braga and Yudichi Taniguti as the young Simba, and Any Gabriele, Karollyne Nascimento, Lais Dias and Ysa Paula as the young Nala. Given the hidden racial politics that are at play in this type of production, and that surely exist in Brazil, one has to wonder whatever happened to the Brazilian production of the musical The Color Purple.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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