Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | 2:52 p.m.
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For the third time, actor Alton White is taking on the challenge of the role of Mufasa, this time in Mandalay Bay’s production of The Lion King, which has its official premiere Friday night. After a near lifetime on Broadway, Alton has moved to Las Vegas and bought a car for the first time! Not only does he love The Lion King story, but he also loves his new Vegas home.
In the quiet, near-empty theater after a cast rehearsal, we took two seats and talked candidly about the magical Disney show and his move to our desert kingdom:
Robin Leach: What to you, inside the show as an actor, is the magic of The Lion King? What is it that gives you that charge to get up every night to do it?
Alton White: It’s a combination of the beautiful costumes and the music, which provides an escape. I think a lot of people come to escape, and the root of it is, it’s a really, really good story. There is a message of the hero -- a journey that everyone has to take. Growing up in your family, leaving your family, making your own way, taking what you need from your family, you know, it only takes you so far, and then you have to exercise what you’ve learned, personalize it, and then come back to your family, if you decide to, and contribute what is learned on your own. That is the journey everyone has to take.
RL: Do we really do that in America, or is that a cultural difference that exists in most other parts of the world?
AW: I think that it’s something that every human being does or is challenged to do. Even people who never leave home, and when I see those people, they tell me constantly how lucky I am that I got out. But they had the opportunity to, so freewill comes in. I believe that not everyone has to, but everyone is called to. Every culture, every person, there is an abundance of options. Some people are afraid to exercise those options. Simba, in this story, is kind of forced to. He’s told to go away, and was told he was responsible for something he wasn’t really responsible for, and going away he finds who he really is, and eventually he comes back and takes his rightful place.
RL: So it makes you feel good every night to preach this.
AW: I do, I do. Theater is very difficult, in repetition, although I believe discipline is in the repetition. It’s difficult, it’s a difficult life, but it helps knowing that you are part of a whole that has this great human message at the root of it. That makes it worth it.
RL: What sets this Vegas production apart from its previous incarnations of which you were a part?
AW: This is my third one. This one is different because it really is my own “circle of life.” Each time coming back, I perform Mufasa with a different maturity, bringing my life experience to it. The difference with Vegas, well, there are a couple things that are different here; they will be obvious.
RL: Can you tell me one thing to look for?
AW: I can’t tell you because it’s going to ruin it, but it’s cool. Other than that, it’s very true to the creator’s original vision.
RL: Do you ever feel like you’re trapped in this one show?
AW: I don’t because I’ve been blessed with breaks, so now it’s been about three years since I did it the last time.
RL: Is this a piece of the theatrical evergreen? It should have been done way longer than just 12 years ago, and yet it will now run forever?
AW: I think this show opened exactly when it was supposed to. I think it’s amazing when the animated feature opened in the early ’90s, and it was a phenomenon. It touched people, and it was a cartoon. And here is a stage version, which has kind of blown theater out of the box, so I think the different steps of The Lion King have happened when they were supposed to happen.
RL: In a sense, again inside the production as an actor, is it a show that almost should never have happened if it hadn’t been for the genius of creator Julie Taymor saying we could turn humans into animals?
AW: I’ve heard different stories from different members of the creative team. Everybody thought it was impossible, but it was actually Michael Eisner (then head of Disney) who said it could be done. I definitely believe in the collective unconscious where energies come together to create something that is lacking but that is very vital. I think the right energies came together and made magic happen.
And, having done it a couple times, it’s been great to start from scratch with a seemingly new company and seeing it be rebuilt. You start at the table reading the script, and then you hear the music, and then when you see it all come together, you get the goose bumps. You know, when adults say they cry in the opening number, it’s that unspoken something that we need, that we don’t even know we need until it arrives.
RL: The viewpoint that most people hold of Vegas is that we are this Godless, soulless society out here, but yet we are a two-million-strong, great community of well-grounded, ordinary, hard-working folks. … We welcome these 40 million tourists every year who go wild when they get here. Having lived here 10 years, I think I can say it’s the people living in Vegas who have their feet on the ground and the others who come to visit who are out to lunch. So you talk with the nine South Africans who Disney chief Thomas Schumacher has put into this cast -- and have you tried to explain Vegas to them in any shape, matter or form?
AW: I haven’t, I haven’t really had a chance to, but I haven’t heard about one single person in this cast who has not been enjoying Vegas. We are now locals! It’s interesting because I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I would come to Vegas for a variety show and be another Sammy Davis or something, but Broadway happened for me instead. So coming to Vegas, I just thought it was all about the Strip and nightlife. I had no idea that Vegas was in a wonderful valley surrounded by these spectacular mountains. And that’s what everyone is talking about, the nature, and the fact the people here are so friendly.
RL: So you give The Lion King and Vegas a 10 out of 10 so far?
AW: I do -- I love it! I’m having an amazing time. I bought a car for the first time in 20 years, because I’ve lived in New York for the past 20 years, so I haven’t had to have one. Also everywhere you drive, there are mountains, it’s just stunning, a wonderful surprise. I can’t wait to get out to either Red Rock or Mount Charleston and just watch as the sun comes up.
Tomorrow right here at Vegas DeLuxe, we’ll feature our conversation with singer-actress Kissy Simmons, who portrays Nala, and Mandalay Bay President Bill Hornbuckle, who has finally seen a 12-year dream come true to get the Disney production to the Strip. On Friday, as the premiere is just hours away, we’ll have our last two cast interviews, and then Saturday, we’ll have the overnight report and photos from the gala opening night show and cast party.
I’m also set Friday afternoon to interview musical genius Tim Rice, who worked with Sir Elton John on the amazing and emotional music and lyrics for The Lion King, and we’ll have that for you next week.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground. Read more of Robin's stories at VegasDeLuxe.com.