When it comes to Broadway musicals, it doesn’t get bigger than “The Lion King.” By one estimate, the theatrical adaptation of the Disney classic has grossed more than $8.2 billion worldwide, making it the top-earning title in box-office history for both stage and film works.
It’s also Broadway’s third-longest running show in history, racking up more than 9,000 performances and still counting. Like the film it’s based on, this “Lion King” tells the tale of a young lion who must combat his evil uncle and take his rightful place as king of the jungle. By retelling the same story with inventive and elaborate costumes, puppets, set pieces and choreography, director Julie Taymor played into some of musical theater’s unique strengths.
Next week, the touring Broadway production will roar into Richmond for 15 performances. Along for the ride is Nick Cordileone, an actor who has spent the past 12 years – minus part of the pandemic – portraying Timon in the touring show.
Cordileone came to portray the wisecracking meercat after having spent months working as a reader for “Lion King” auditions, playing opposite actors auditioning for roles. Eventually, the big wigs at Lion King Inc. asked if Cordileone would be interested in auditioning for the show.
“The final day of auditions, Julie Taymor was there and said, ‘How’d you like to go on tour?’” recalls Cordileone, who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and grew up bouncing between San Diego, Minneapolis and Arizona.
Still, there was the matter of learning the puppet. For those who haven’t seen the stage version of “The Lion King,” the elaborate puppets often show their operators acting alongside them. The puppeteers are aiming to create a ‘double event,’ meaning it appears that both the puppet and puppeteer are telling a story in tandem.
“It’s a complicated puppet. It’s beautifully articulated and painted, and the mechanics of it are intriguing and interesting,” Cordileone says of portraying Timon. “The closer you get to [mastering] it, the more it looks like it’s an organic thing. It never looks sort of lifeless in front of you. It has its own sort of internal energy.”
Even after more than a decade of touring with the show, Cordileone says he still hasn’t tired of it.
“Every night, it’s still fresh,” he says. “When ‘Circle of Life’ starts, I still get [misty-eyed], and I still wish I was in that number.”
If anything, Cordileone says spending this much time with the show has made certain elements impact him more deeply, especially as a father.
“There are some parenting lines in there that hit you a lot differently,” he says. “A lot of the talk of your ancestors living in you, looking down and being proud of you, a lot of that stuff really resonates with me, and resonates louder the longer you’re with it.”
Cordileone says some of his favorite shows have been sensory-friendly performances that are designed to benefit people with disabilities.
“To be able to perform for a room of folks for whom there’s no notions of how you’re supposed to react, just come and enjoy the show, that’s really life changing,” he says.
Asked how he would convince someone who hasn’t seen the show to come out to the Altria, Cordileone says it’s the same story and songs that everyone knows and loves, but brought to a “richer, fuller life” through the work of the creative team and the performers.
“It’s hard to oversell it,” says Cordileone. “You just say, ‘Come and experience it, and let’s talk about if afterwards, because I guarantee you’re going to have as big a smile on your face as I do.’”
Disney’s “The Lion King” plays March 9-20 at the Altria Theater, 6 North Laurel St., 23220. For more information, visit altriatheater.com or call (800) 514-ETIX (3849).