Dancer Lisa Lewis Takes Us Backstage At ‘The Lion King,’ Where She’s The Cheetah!
Disney’s blockbuster hit “The Lion King” has been running on Broadway for 20 years — and from a dance perspective, that means two decades of great gigs for dancers.
The musical, winner of six Tony Awards, has employed nearly 450 performers since it opened in November 1997. Its dancers bring an eclectic mix of training and on-the-job puppeteer skills to the choreography by Garth Fagan, a leader in contemporary dance.
What does it take to be in “The Lion King”? We interviewed dancer Lisa Lewis to find out: She’s performed as the Cheetah, a lioness, a wildebeest, and tons more roles since 2004. She has also danced with the Rockettes and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Click through for a trip backstage with Lisa as she warms up and performs. She also shares how she found love in the show!
First Stop, Sign In
Meet Lisa Lewis, a dancer, yoga instructor and a cast member of “The Lion King” since 2004.
Raised in Vancouver, Canada, Lewis studied ballet with Russian teacher Lucienne Anczykowski. At age 17, she moved to New York City and joined Dance Theater of Harlem.
In 2000, she became a Radio City Rockette. Then, after joining “The Lion King,” she continued to dance in “The Christmas Spectacular” for six seasons by taking a holiday leave from the musical.
At “The Lion King,” she dances multiple roles: At the performance you’ll see here, she had 16 costume changes.
Don't Mess With This Cheetah
Before every performance, Lewis warms up for about 45 minutes, starting with footwork, then a modified ballet barre and yoga practice before most of the cast and crew arrives.
“People come and want to talk — especially people who don’t have to dance! The dancers get it,” she said. “I have noise-canceling earbuds and music. It’s like a ‘work in’ rather than a work out.”
Not An Easy Stretch
Lewis brings multiple stretching tools with her, so she can do moves like this!
But the first step in her work out is warming up her feet for about five minutes with a ball, roller and a half disc, followed by exercises with a TheraBand and a long roller, “with spikes,” she said, “so it’s a little more intense than the foam roller.”
Barre AND Yoga
After that, she does ballet barre exercises while lying on the floor, then a modified standing barre of plies, tendues, dégagés and leg swings.
“Then I do a yoga warm for 15 to 20 minutes,” she said. “I also teach yoga. It is mind, body and spirit, so it helps me.”
Arriving at The 'Circle of Life'
Lewis’s first role of the show is the Cheetah, who saunters into the celebratory opening number, “Circle of Life,” with a sultry, graceful walk.
While Lewis had training in multiple styles of dance, she learned how to handle the puppets when she joined the show. “Even when I learned it, there was still a learning curve. I was learning it as I was performing,” she said.
What It Looks Like From the Seats
Throughout the show, dancers manipulate the puppets in what Tony-winning director and costume designer Julie Taymor called a “double event.”
What that means, Lewis said, is: “The audience will get lost in the movement. You are looking at the actor and the puppet. You see both at the same time.”
How She Does It
The ability to adapt to the different styles of movement needed, like the fluid, cheetah-like stalking, is a quality Lewis says she gained from studying a range dance training, from ballet to modern.
“There is an embodiment happening,” she said. “You are trying to awaken the puppet with your movement.
Not On The Prowl Yet
In the Cheetah character, she focuses on the continuation of her line as she walks, which is why her feet need to be warmed up and flexible.
“You roll through your feet. And there is a lot movement in the torso,” she said. “My shoulders are rolling up and back, like when you see a big cat.”
What It Looks Like From the Seats
The masks and costumes in “Circle of Life” were meticulously created by Taymor herself, along with designer Michael Curry.
The Full View
The opening number brings the entire animal kingdom together, even the Cheetah and other hunters, who will later prey upon others.
“In ‘Circle of Life,’ we are celebrating, so she’s not out to get anyone,” said Lewis, noting that when audience first sees her she’s “moving very slowly, coming out, greeting the animals.”
Green Grasslands On The Move
After prowling with the Cheetah puppet, Lewis has to make a quick change to be a member of the Grasslands team. And she’s not the only one: All ensemble members are used as both hyenas and Grassland “heads.”
What It Looks Like From the Seats
Every year, the upkeep and maintenance of the 25 Grasslands headdresses (in each production) needs more than 3,000 stalks of grass, which weigh about 60 pounds, according to Disney.
And did you know: It took a team of mask makers, sculptors, puppeteers and artisans 17,000 hours to create the characters for Broadway.
For performers, “The Lion King” can be an exhausting show, but Lewis found more energy by adjusting her diet.
“When I started ‘The Lion King,’ I was a vegetarian for about 10 years. I was feeling really fatigued with my stamina,” she said. “I added back fish. I don’t eat red meat.”
She gets protein from shakes or powers.
Roving In a Pack
In this scene, Lewis is one of the Lionesses, and she returns to this costume twice more in the show.
When performing in this “track,” or series of roles, she will also be a giraffe, wildebeest, a kite flyer and a pole puppeteer. She’ll also dance in the “He Lives On In You” number and be part of a large mask apparition scene, as well as return to the Cheetah costume twice.
Mother-In-Law To Be
Lewis stands out from the Lioness pack when she portrays the mother of Nala, who falls in love with Simba.
Did Someone Say Simba?
Yeah, so we just thought you could all use a photo of Simba right about now!
Simba is the young lion who, as a child, inherits his father’s kingdom after a tragic accident orchestrated by the evil, jealous Uncle Scar. Simba runs away, fearing that he was at fault, but later returns as an adult to avenge his father’s death and take his rightful place as king.
And why not a shot of Mufasa, too?!
He’s the king of quite a lot. There are nearly 40 performers in the show, which takes a total of 142 people directly involved (such as musicias and crew) on a daily basis.
She Found Love During 'Can You Feel The Love'!
The show is so big that people might never meet each other — until one person takes a new role. And that’s how Lisa Lewis met her boyfriend, musician Grant Braddock.
A few years ago Braddock started playing drums for “The Lion King.” The musicians sit backstage in a high skybox, a small balcony within the wings and overlooking the stage. For the first year, Braddock focused on learning his music, but once he learned the show, he would watch more. And then he noticed the beautiful dancer flying past him during the number “Can You Feel The Love.”
Again her long warm-up came in handy. “He had to pass me warming up to get the box,” she said.
He asked her out and the rest is all love!
Even when exhausted, dancers check in and visit with each other before heading home. Here, Lewis has a laugh with friends Jamal Lee Harris (ensemble) and Jelani Remy (Simba).
With a cast of 40 people coming, going and learning new tasks, extra rehearsals are often required, usually on a Thursday or Friday — in addition to the regular eight shows a week.
Additionally, with the 20th anniversary coming up, the cast is rehearsing to tighten up the show, Lewis said.
It's a Wrap!
The extra work, though, is an opportunity to find new accents or deepen moments in the performance, said Lewis.
“I love the show. I have completely fall in love with the music and the movement,” she said, adding that even after 13 years, she finds joy in the crowd reaction. “The audience is always different. It is different every night.”