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Brief Encounter With ... The Lion King’s Gary Forbes

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Gary Forbes, who plays Banzai the hyena in The Lion King, is the show's longest-serving cast member, having been with the ensemble since it first opened in the West End in 1999.

As the multi award-winning musical approaches its 12th anniversary and 5000th show (on 13 September 2011), Forbes tells us about his memories of the early days, and whether he plans to stick around for the next 12 years.

Did you ever imagine when you first started in The Lion King that the show would still be running 12 years later?

I have to say, I did think that the show would still be running 12 years later as it really is like nothing else in the West End. But at the time it opened, a lot of shows were closing after a year or two so I had my doubts. However, going by the success of the film and all the Tony awards the show had won on Broadway, I knew it would be a sure hit here in London.

What are your stand-out memories of those early days?

I remember the first day when I met the international cast that was going to be my family for the next year. The whole company was gathered in the auditorium of the theatre and an automation show with lights and sound was put on for us, like a mini concert when suddenly, this huge 16ft Pride rock spiralled up from underneath the stage almost like the Titanic being resurrected. The whole cast was silent in amazement, then there was this massive applause - we were all cheering and going crazy! And that’s when I felt so proud to be part of the original London cast as I realised how massive this production was going to be. And of course, our opening night was incredibly memorable too.  

Why did you want to stay with the show for all these years?

When I first heard that the show was coming to the West End, I was so excited and knew I wanted to be part of it. I loved the film and I really wanted to know how they were going to take it from the big screen and put it on the stage. After a lengthy audition process, which consisted of nine auditions, I got offered a part in the ensemble for the show which I did for two years then I got offered the part of one of the Hyenas, Banzai. I was so pleased as I couldn’t wait to perform.

In addition to Banzai, I also cover the role of Mufasa the King, which is very challenging for me as it is so different to Banzai, though I welcome the challenge the role brings. I’ve also been very lucky to have been given the position of the assistant children’s director, which is another string to my bow and great to be on the other side of the stage.  Learning additional skills from my resident director and having the opportunity to direct the kids keeps me busy within the show.

Is it a struggle to keep the energy up, and keep it fresh?

It’s never a struggle keeping my energy up. There are so many things to think about whilst performing. I have this big puppet head that's attached to me on a harness that I have to bring to life each night. I'm on all fours with these stilts attached to my arms so whilst singing, dancing and acting, I have to make sure my Hyena looks and moves realistically. It’s also a challenge to ensure that my performance as an actor doesn’t get lost behind the massive costume that I have to wear.

We have an international creative team that travel the world, visiting each production to ensure the standard remains high and each performance is as slick as opening night. I am also mindful that some people have waited months to see the show, so I treat every show like it's my first and am always finding new ways and moments on stage with the other actors to keep it fresh and exciting.

Who have you most enjoyed working with?

I've definitely enjoyed working with my fellow Hyenas, it's great being part of a trio and playing a baddie (every actor would love to be a baddie at some point in his or her career). In the industry people say, "Never work with children and animals" but the kids in the show are great fun to work with and true professionals. Being the children’s assistant director, I get to work very closely with them and it's such an amazing feeling watching them grow in confidence as young actors and seeing how far they’ve come since they first started the show and knowing I played a part in that. It’s very rewarding and I learn a lot from them.  

Do you think it will run for another 12 years? And will you still be in it?

We’ll be celebrating our 5000th performance on Tuesday 13 September, which is very exciting! Going by the show's track record and with a new production of TLK opening in Madrid in October I think it will definitely run here in London for another 12 years. I doubt if I'll still be in the show by then but hey, you never know. It would be very interesting to do the show in another country, maybe in the Broadway production, that would be cool.

The Lion King is currently booking at the Lyceum Theatre until 1 April 2012, and will stage a special anniversary gala performance on 13 September 2011.


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