Among the slate of shows announced for the East Jefferson General Hospital Broadway in New Orleans 2016-2017 season, one title in particular is sure to have fans roaring.
“Disney’s The Lion King,” coming to the Saenger Theatre Jan. 4-29, is one of the most successful productions in Broadway history. Renowned for its innovative costume design and infectious African rhythms, “The Lion King,” which first premiered in 1997, is the third-longest running show on Broadway and the highest-grossing musical of all time.
Nick Cordileone, who has played the wise-cracking meerkat Timon in the touring production of “The Lion King” for the past six years, says the enduring popularity of “The Lion King” isn’t difficult to explain. By phone from his hotel room in Durham, North Carolina, where the show is running, Cordileone said it all starts with the story.
“I think we are tapping into really old, old storytelling,” said Cordileone. “It’s got classic elements — struggles, triumph, good versus evil, dealing with loss — all pretty fundamental human stories.”
“On top of that, you layer great songs, then you add in beautiful costumes that are all hand-beaded, hand-dyed, hand-stitched, beautiful puppets and mask work that’s all still just as fresh as it was when we started.”
Of all the creative costumes in “The Lion King,” Cordileone’s Timon is especially challenging. The actor is attached to a puppet he controls through a complex series of rods and connectors.
“It’s a little bit like plate-spinning to be able to sing, do the scene work, dance, and bring this puppet to life,” said Cordileone.
For the occasional mishaps — something breaks or malfunctions — he’s supported behind the scenes by a talented team of artists he called “equal parts MacGyver and pit crew,” ready to jump into action when needed.
Cordileone and his longtime co-star Ben Lipitz, who plays Timon’s oafish warthog pal Pumbaa, command the spotlight during their big number “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase that roughly translates to “no worries.” The song is a crowd favorite. It’s a bright moment at the end of the tragic first act, after King Mufasa has been murdered and his young lion cub son, Suma, finds himself alone and scared.
“That could be the end of the story right there, but then these two outsiders come in and shake it up, and they say, ‘Hey, you know what, don’t worry about it. Things are going to work out.’ A real simple message, but at that moment, that’s exactly what he needs to hear.”
Even after years on the road, Cordileone said the “The Lion King” still “feels fresh every night.”
While touring, Cordileone balances work and family by regularly travelling with his teenage daughter.
His wife, a professor at NYU, frequently flies out to join them on weekends.
The family has fond memories of their 2012 visit to New Orleans, when “The Lion King” played at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, and they’re looking forward to returning for a four-week run next year.
“When you stay longer like that, you get to feel like it’s your adopted hometown. You can go deeper than Bourbon Street. You can really check out local art scenes and local food that you wouldn’t find if you were only there for a weekend,” he said.
“We make that a goal everywhere, but in a city that has that much history, we’re really excited to dig in and find out what makes it tick.”