Amy chats to Shaun Escoffery and George Asprey; Shaun plays Mufasa and George plays Scar in the West End production of Disney’s The Lion King – both actors are celebrating their 15th year anniversary in these roles this year. Shaun and George are the longest serving performers in these roles in any production of The Lion King.
Tell us a bit about your journey to this iconic role.
Shaun Escoffery: I originally auditioned for Simba when the show first came to London and was offered a part in the ensemble and to cover Simba. However, I ended up signing a record deal and took that path instead while thinking that was a bit of a lost opportunity. Then years later, I was doing Parade at the Donmar Warehouse and the Resident Director at The Lion King at the time came to see the show and contacted my agent saying I’d be great for the part of Mufasa. After a gruelling audition process I got the part! I remember my agent called when I was in the car with my fiancé at the time, now my wife, and I was so chuffed. It was a really poignant time in my life. And I haven’t looked back for 15 years.
George Asprey: I remember Scar made a big impression on me when I saw the film for the first time – especially the wit of the character – and Jeremy Irons is one of my favourite actors. After leaving drama school, I spent three years doing solid musicals and decided I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a musical theatre actor so I spent the next few years just doing film, TV and straight plays until I did Chicago. Straight after Chicago, I got an audition for The Lion King and as soon as I got the script it just went in. I read it once and I knew it off by heart. And that’s a really good sign because it means that you identify with the words. You’re not just learning the words but the words are almost entering your soul. And when you can connect your heart and your mind and your voice together into one thing, then it becomes something altogether more powerful.
What attracted you to this production?
Shaun Escoffery: It’s Mufasa. I think back to the animation with James Earl Jones and his rich voice and how iconic the role is. To be playing that part, to be a King, is so exciting and never gets old. It’s been a real dream to have been able to play him for such a long time.
George Asprey: Definitely the role of Scar. He’s the greatest Disney villain and there’s no one who compares (except for maybe Ursula but that’s never going to happen). Scar’s wit and intelligence, everything about him, is incomparable.
You both have played these roles for an incredible 15 years – how has your approach to the character evolved throughout the years? And why have you remained in this role?
Shaun Escoffery: The amazing thing about playing this role for such a long time is I now have the liberty to pull it apart and put it back together again. It is a constant process of discovery and trial and error. I always try to approach the character in a fresh way and try something new to give the role vibrancy and excitement.
George Asprey: It’s a journey of discovery. When you start off, there’s so much that you have to think about from the singing and the acting through to the movement and the wearing masks. There are tiny things that people watching the show won’t notice that make up the bigger whole – for example underscoring means you constantly have to hit a certain point in your dialog to coincide with a certain point in the music, every single thing on the show has to fit together perfectly. Eventually it all becomes second nature and you can concentrate on developing the character.
Do you have any advice to budding actors beginning their careers?
Shaun Escoffrey: This might sound kind of cliche but really study your art. I can’t emphasise this enough when I speak to young people. Because sometimes when we approach this industry it’s all about the glamour and the fame and fortune. You need to be able to put all that aside and just do it for the sheer beauty and love of the art. Really dissect your role and think how would you embody that character? How would you embody that song? How would you embody that movement? Everything else will come via that. And if it doesn’t, you’re still in love with the art. Also don’t take yourself too seriously. Remember this is not about you. It’s always about your audience. When you have that at the forefront of your mind you’ll always be a giving artist.
George Asprey: I would say, similarly to Shaun, to practice your art. If you’re in an environment with other actors and you’re unemployed, if you can find the time, get four of you together and work on a play. You don’t need to be employed to do it. You just need to keep doing it and you will get better and find things within that will definitely help you to be better in the future. Remember to stick at it and don’t get discouraged. We all have suffered rejection, that is just part of it, so you need to be resilient and keep yourself healthy.
What is your favourite moment within the show?
Shaun Escoffrey: My favourite moment constantly changes. I love ‘Be Prepared’, particularly right at the end when everyone in the show is really giving it their all at the same time – the hyenas are all scared and Scar’s at his most terrifying. It’s such a climactic moment and I’m side stage about to go on so it sets me up for my next scene.
George Asprey: My favourite moment is when I’m at the side of the stage right at the beginning of the show during ‘The Circle of Life’. I literally stand watching this extraordinary event unfold before my very eyes and I’ve got the best seat in the house. Then Shaun comes out of the rock and we look at each other and give each other a nod. We have done this every night for 15 years, it’s like, ‘we’ve got this.’
Why do you think The Lion King is so successful?
Shaun Escoffrey: Where to even start? It’s timeless. There really is something in it that everyone, no matter where they are from, seems to identify with. The story seems to transcend languages and cultures and age groups. Alongside that you have the pure spectacle of it all – the music and the harmonies and the costumes and the colours – it’s something special. You can’t pigeon hole it as any one thing, it stands alone. It’s a masterpiece.
George Asprey: One reason for The Lion King’s success has got to be the music, it is the the ultimate soul music. Every night I see that the show appeals to every single age group on a different levels, from the spectacle that the kids are amazed at through to the story that the adults are fully invested in – it is Shakespeare after all the return of the prodigal son!
If you could see another Disney film adapted for the stage, which would you choose?
Shaun Escoffrey: Great question because there’s a few, but I think The Jungle Book could be something really special and fun if they could pull it off…
George Asprey: Finding Nemo would be a good one. And maybe Freaky Friday as a pure comedy – it would be really fun.
And finally, what would you say to someone that has never seen the show before to encourage them to book a ticket?
Shaun Escoffrey: The Lion King transcends theatre. On an entertainment level and on an artistic level I can guarantee it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
George Asprey: The Lion King at its heart is a show about life and death and it doesn’t get more visceral than that. It’s not just a recreation of the film, it’s a standalone piece of art.
ABOUT THE SHOW
The Lion King has been running at London’s Lyceum Theatre since 1999, it is the West End’s best-selling stage production and the sixth longest-running West End musical of all time.
Based on the 1994 Disney film of the same name, the stage musical has music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and a book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. The Lion King is the most financially successful musical of all time, and has been seen by more than 100 million people worldwide.
You can also catch the show on tour this year – find out more here!