Disney’s The Lion King musical recently celebrated its 20 year anniversary, it and is currently taking the beloved story on a North American tour. Ahead of the California stops in August, APA spoke with Gerald Ramsey, who plays Mufasa on the tour, about AAPI representation, dealing with self doubt, starring in one of Disney’s most popular stage productions, and more.
Growing up in Aunu’u, American Samoa, Ramsey has always been very in touch with his Pacific Islander roots and culture. The musical actor was a dancer at his local Polynesian Cultural Center when a friend of his convinced him to audition for The Lion King in 2017 — with an offer of free food. “She said it was very rare for musicals to come to town, and they ended up having open auditions that they were advertising for. Not just me, but she was also suggesting a few people at work to go audition. But I’ve never seen a Broadway production, and even professionally, we don’t make very much money. So there wasn’t a plan for this to be a career or anything; it was just an experience.”
Although it’s been five years since that fateful moment, Ramsey still isn’t entirely sure what he wants to do with his future. “I’m still kind of trying to figure that out. You know, especially coming from a Pacific Islander background, even though we’re raised around singing and dancing, and it’s a part of our cultures, it’s not really considered a future. It’s just a part of who we are. And a lot of Samoans especially, if they get into a profession, it’ll be like athletics. They’ll do football, or they’ll play rugby. So to be in the arts is kind of being a little bit of a rebel.” Despite this, Ramsey still ultimately contacted his grad program and notified them that he would be taking a leave of absence to pursue the musical. Aside from his own uncertainty on whether this type of work is what he wants to do for the rest of his life, the actor also knew his parents had their own concerns. “I think maybe their biggest concern was me making a financial living, like being able to support myself. And I think once they’ve been able to see that I support myself now, I think they feel a little bit better about it.”
When Ramsey was first cast in the musical, he thought the casting directors had made a mistake. In part, this was due to his lack of experience. “I thought I stood out in a bad way [at my audition]. I wasn’t dressed like everyone else, I didn’t move like everyone else, and I didn’t even have sheet music for the accompaniment to play the piano because I couldn’t afford it. So I brought and played my guitar instead. But all the things I thought were making me less than everyone else, were actually making me stand out. I wasn’t wearing pants; I was wearing lavalava, Samoan clothes. I wasn’t wearing shoes, I was wearing my nice church sandals. What I thought was dressed up, you know? But when I got there, I looked around and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t look like anybody here.'”
Another contributor to his early self doubt was simply the fact there were so few musical actors of Polynesian descent that he didn’t have too many to look at for reference. “After I auditioned, I found out that there was a Samoan guy, Nick Afoa, playing Simba in Australia. And then he went on to play Simba in London, on the West End. He was the only one in the cast [of Polynesian descent], and he created such a positive impression on Disney, that when I came in, being another Samoan, I think it was a great favor to me that he was such a good person and a great performer.” When talking about Afoa, Ramsey couldn’t keep a smile off his face. The two have since become close friends, frequently talking and hoping they can take the stage together one day. “I’ll drop everything and perform with him anywhere.”
South African musical actress Tshidi Manye, who plays Rafiki in the Broadway musical, also helped Ramsey through some of his negative thoughts. “She pulled me aside and just [helped me through] all the doubts I had about being a professional because there were no other Samoans, Pacific Islanders, or even Asians in our cast at the time. She was saying she doesn’t have a training in musical theater, but to me, she was the most incredible performer. She reminded me that we come from cultures that sing and dance, and that’s how we tell our stories and keep our history. So it’s in your blood and in your bones. A degree could help, but when it’s inside of you, and it’s a part of who you are, you have everything you need.”
The touring cast has grown close over their shared and different experiences stemming from their diverse culture and backgrounds. Thinking back on what connects all of them the most, Ramsey pointed to the reason he auditioned for his role at all – food. “We’re gonna bring it back to food. Especially South African food because I have no idea what kind of cuisine is there, I’m always asking and begging and pleading [the other cast members], like if you make something, I’ll make something from Samoa. It really is like soul food, you know, and to get a chance to share your culture and where you come from with other people? It’s my favorite part.” Ramsey added, “There are parts of Polynesian culture that I’ve shared, especially with the kids that perform in the show, particularly with young Simbas, since we have such a deep relationship onstage. When I left Hawaii, some elders told me I may be the first and only Samoan people meet, a first and only Polynesian. How do I represent us? So I always try to share some words, and sometimes dance or music.”
With a run of over 20 years, The Lion King musical has been performed in nine different languages, in 21 different countries, and in every continent except Antarctica up until now, yet Ramsey’s dream performance location was easy to name. “I would love to go back to Hawaii, to where it started for me. Every time I asked about when we’re going back to Honolulu, they just laughed at me. It would be such a rare stop for them, but hopefully one day, if I’m still around, it’d be great to [go back]. It’s the closest thing I have to a homecoming, since there’s no theatre in Samoa that’s big enough to house a big production like this.” Thinking back on locations he’s been to with the show, there are a few favorites. “Anywhere on the West Coast is the next closest thing. There are so many Polynesians all up and down the West Coast, so it’s always a great place to be. But, there are cities that have very special memories for me,” Ramsey continued with a pensive look on his face. “My first time in San Jose, my mom and her sisters came to watch me for the first time, and for one of my mom’s sisters, it was also her last time. We’re told that in theatre, that you never know when it can be someone’s first or last time seeing the show. So we always give it our all, and for my auntie, it really was the last time. It’s kind of sad and heavy, but I’m just glad that she chose to come see me, and I’m so glad that I was able to hear her tell me that she’s proud of me and what I’m doing.”
The Lion King, even before its Broadway debut, has always been known for its iconic songs such as “Hakuna Matata” and “Circle of Life.” While there are countless upbeat songs in the show, Ramsey’s one and only performance is of a slower ballad song, “They Live In You.” “It’s a really important song, and I’ve come to really appreciate it because its message, I believe, is the core of the show. Even though people have passed on — spiritually, physically, and biologically — they’re still a part of you. Like, my mom is a part of me. We were connected through our umbilical cord, and she’s connected to her mom, and I’m literally connected to all these amazing women in my life.”
All the wonderful women in his life are the reason the song “The Lioness Hunt” is one of his most loved on the soundtrack to the musical. “It’s when the women come out, and they’re hunting this gazelle. The choreography is so powerful, the costuming is beautiful, the music is in Zulu so the language is beautiful, and to me, it’s one of the most perfect pieces of theatre or performance that I’ve ever seen. It’s so beautiful.” On the topic of strong women, Ramsey chose Sarabi, Mufasa’s wife, as the one character he would play if he wasn’t Mufasa. “There’s one scene at the end, where Scar calls her, and she comes out, and there are hyenas all around. She’s like, ‘Yes, Scar?’ and she still has tears on her mask. Scar says to her, ‘Where’s the food? We’re hungry,’ and Sarabi says ‘There’s no food, and there’s no water. We have to move on.’ And she calls him out and says, ‘If you were half the king Mufasa was–‘ and as she says this, she rips her tears off and gets in his face. And Scar actually smacks her, and I just have this vision of me smacking him right back.”
Yet despite that small desire, Ramsey and Mufasa were made for each other. To Ramsey, Mufasa as a character is a way for him to proudly display some qualities that are passed down in his culture. “It’s become like a role where I get to portray what leadership means for the people where I come from. I think there’s a stereotype that because he’s the king, that means you’re better than everybody, or you’re there to be served. But in Samoan culture, we believe that the higher your position is, the more duty you have to serve others. Like my grandpa, he was a leader in our village, and if you looked at him, you would think he was the poorest person in the village because he would just keep giving. So I see [playing Mufasa] as a chance to share my culture and share what we believe about leadership, and I’m very proud of that part of our culture.”
Performing as Mufasa over the past five years, Ramsey shared how his approach to the role has changed over time. “I think the reason why the tour is still running is because it’s ever evolving. Even with the performers, in order to stay conscious even doing the show eight times a week, you’re always thinking and you’re always changing. As things happen in my life, I think the way I approach the role does change. Same thing with the audience – whatever is happening, even if they saw the show the last time we were in a city, a lot [could have] happened in their life. So when they come back to the city, they’re seeing and hearing different messages. For me, particularly, we had a long break due to COVID. I know it’s not a unique circumstance of facing loss and knowing people who face loss, so having to sing “They Live In You,” and just tell Simba I’m going to pass on one day, having Mufasa thinking about his father. It’s such a heavy moment that when we first came back, I had a hard time singing it and I was crying a lot, just thinking of my own personal relationships and family.”
Gerald Ramsey is currently on tour with The Lion King production, and tickets are available on The Lion King website.