Arts & Entertainment | February 28, 2018 5:00 am

Life With ‘The Lion King,’ the Musical That’s Grossed $8 Billion and Counting

An ex-cast member reflects on traveling the world with a show that's earned more than "Star Wars."

Nyala (R) played by Puleng March of South Africa, performs during a media preview of the Lion King musical performance in Singapore on March 9, 2011. The award-winning broadway musical event, the Lion King celebrates its debut in Southeast Asia at the Marina Bay Sands theatre on March 10.  (Roslan Roman/AFP/Getty Images)
Nyala (R) played by Puleng March of South Africa, performs during a media preview of the Lion King musical performance in Singapore on March 9, 2011. The award-winning broadway musical event, the Lion King celebrates its debut in Southeast Asia at the Marina Bay Sands theatre on March 10. (Roslan Roman/AFP/Getty Images)
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On November 3, 1997, The Lion King opened on Broadway. 20 years later, it’s still there. It won Best Musical and five other Tony Awards, with Julie Taymor taking both Best Director of a Musical and Best Costume Design. It has earned over $8 billion and counting through its Broadway staging and other productions. Throw in the 1994 film’s $968.4 million and its total earnings are roughly equal to the total worldwide box office gross from all of the Star Wars films so far, including re-releases.

The money won’t stop anytime soon, as 2019 will likely bring a significant revenue spike when the Jon Favreau’s live-action film adaptation opens. (If you’ve yet to see the show on stage, here’s a glimpse.)

Of course, the theater community loves the show because every night it provides jobs. For two decades and counting, The Lion King has been a lucrative source of employment for actors through its permanent productions and assorted touring companies. Quite simply, for many a young performer, The Lion King has—for a little while, at least—transformed acting from a constant financial struggle to a solid career choice.

That was the case for Damian Baldet, who spent years playing the meerkat Timon. (The character was voiced by Nathan Lane in the animated film; Billy Eichner takes over in the upcoming movie.) It was a role he found both “great” and physically painful: “I was always hurting.” It kept him crossing the country for years and then sent him all over the world … plus twice brought him agonizingly close to Broadway, as he’ll explain.

This is what it’s like to be part of a global phenomenon, as experienced by one actor in one of the show’s many productions.

The Audition (Take One)

In the early 2000s, Baldet was a “downtown theater guy” in New York. He tended to star in productions celebrated by the New York Times and other publications but by no means lucrative. (These included a number of shows with The Civilians theater company, co-founded by my late collaborator and friend, the composer Michael Friedman.) The relatively meager earnings from acting were particularly trying because Baldet and his wife were firmly in the red (“A lot of debt from school and credit card debt”).

Consequently, Baldet sought out additional jobs to try to make ends meet: “I used to work as a reader for $15 an hour for a casting office.” (This meant he read scenes opposite actors actually auditioning for roles.)

The job offered an unexpected opportunity in 2004: “One day I was working as a reader and they said, ’You’re really good. You want to audition?’” Thus began the process of getting a role in The Lion King.

Baldet was by no means a natural candidate: “I had never done puppetry before. I had never seen the show before.” Yet in the early stages, he had one distinct advantage: “I didn’t give a sh-t so I wasn’t nervous.”

As he got callbacks, gradually it dawned on him: “I could actually get this.”

At which point the nerves kicked in: “I didn’t get it that year.”

The Audition (Take Two)

A year passed and they were casting again. Baldet was once more a reader and they’d remembered him: “They told me, ‘You’re going to be a reader for three days. At the end of it, you’ll be the very last person to audition. You’ve got three days to read your competition.’ They were really trying to help me.”

So Baldet read not only his intended role of Timon but also whatever parts were needed: “I was really loose and having a great time.” When it finally was his time, “They told me, ‘This will be the first in three days the reader isn’t funnier than the person auditioning.’”

Even so, it played out much like the previous year’s: “Horrible.” Baldet felt like he already showed all he had to offer in those three days (“They had seen everything”). But he also blamed himself: “I just audition terribly. I get really, really nervous.”

He was doing a show in Aspen when they called: “The casting director said, ‘You have to know something. Your actual audition was the worst thing that you did.’ I said, I know.”

They gave him the job anyway. Now he had to get set to perform with the National Tour.

Show Time

Baldet was to start appearing on stage within a month. But it was a rehearsal process unlike any he had experienced before. While he was going to join the Cheetah Company (which he noted “is no longer in existence”), Baldet first would travel with the other National Tour, the Gazelle Company.

And so he hit the road with them: “I had maybe three weeks of rehearsal, but it wasn’t every day. It was maybe an hour on Tuesday, an hour on Wednesday, two hours on Thursday.”

After two weeks, Baldet had a revelation: “I’d only used the puppet a handful of times. I went, Oh my God we’re going to open pretty soon and I don’t know how to work a puppet.” He decided to get as much experience as possible on his own: “I remember being in my hotel with a sock on my hand and a clothes hanger on my left hand to rehearse the show, attempting to mimic the controls of the puppet. I’m just in a hotel room in my underwear for hours a day with a sock.”

Finally, in Buffalo in the middle of the winter, he got to run his entire performance in tech. (Baldet recalled that this was a huge deal for him—again, he’d spent much of his prep time alone with a sock —but it was of no particular importance for show veterans: “Everybody is checking their messages.”)

The experience was overwhelming: “You’re in there with the lights and all of the smoke and they’ve only described it to you at this point.” (He spent much of that initial run thinking, I can’t see a goddam thing.)

Also painful: “I kept falling over and hurting myself. I knocked a chunk off the tip of my elbow.”

Particularly when he landed on his back: “The thing about the Timon puppet is you cannot get up unless somebody helps you up. You’re like a turtle.”

Baldet recalled the actor playing Simba walking over to finish the scene and walking off again, having made no effort to help him up.

Afterwards, the Resident Director told Baldet: “You did good. You just need to stay on your feet!”

The Routine

Now Baldet was up and running: “Eight shows a week no matter what.” As far as theatrical tours go, it was a pampered one: “It was always at least six weeks in a city.” Plus they flew to each new destination. (This is by no means a given—an actor once told me about going on an American tour of a Broadway show where the turnaround between an epic bus ride and the next performance was brief enough he made a point of lying down in the aisle so he could fully stretch out and get some desperately needed sleep.)

Playing a character who didn’t appear on stage until the end of the first act, Baldet said he only had to arrive 30 minutes before the show and undergo a “leisurely makeup session” lasting 45 minutes. He’d chat and hang out before finally making his entrance.

Timon doesn’t have a huge amount of stage time: “Maybe 22 minutes.”

Yet it could be physically difficult (even once he understood the flow of the show and stopped falling). The production recognized this: “We traveled with a PT person.” Some roles were more demanding than others: “Zazu has to hold the elbow up all the time, so they get horrific elbow and shoulder problems.” Baldet said his own problem areas playing a meerkat were usually “middle back and hamstrings.”

It was best to work out in the days off to stay healthy: “Which I did the first few years. When I didn’t, that’s when I started getting hurt.”

Baldet did a one-year contract. Then a second. (Getting invited back was common: “They really liked to keep people for long periods of time. It’s expensive to train people. You really had to be f—ing up to get thrown out.”)

By the time Baldet finished, he’d been to cities all across the country. He struggled to recall them, but said they included San Antonio, Austin, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Des Moines, Cincinnati and Appleton, Wisconsin. (Baldet noted the later destinations were generally less exciting than the earlier ones or seemed that way at least.)

While he was offered another extension, he declined because he wanted to get back to New York and take on some new roles. Both at the time and looking back now, he regarded that initial tour fondly: “It was awesome. I really enjoyed it.”

Money Matters

The Lion King had paid Baldet $140,000 per year. He also got a “pretty massive per diem every week, like $750.” While given the option of having up to two weeks vacation each year, it was also possible to keep working and earning.

Back in New York, Baldet’s pay plummeted. Now roles often paid less than his former per diem. Much of the money from the touring had been eaten up by debt and he admitted their lifestyle had changed as his salary increased. Remunerative as the two years had been, there was little left to show for it.

Then they had a child.

In short: When Disney came calling about a permanent Lion King production in Las Vegas, Baldet and his wife decided it was worth returning to a role he knew well. Plus now he didn’t have travel to break up the routine.

Keeping It Fresh in Sin City

The main attraction of a touring production of The Lion King (or any hit show) is that you’re getting to see a Broadway smash… without the hassle of traveling to New York. Of course, this means there is a standard to be maintained. By necessity, it limits the options available to actors in the show—the blueprint exists and is proven to work, making it stupid not to follow it.

But actors are also human beings. While discovering how to play a part is both thrilling and scary, once they have a firm grasp of a role it’s hard not to get a little bored with it. (Particularly if they’re supposed to be hitting the exact same marks night after night.)

Each of the various Lion King productions has a Resident Director. They’re tasked with maintaining the show: “They have a set number of performances they have to watch every week.” Actors found to be slipping would be given notes. If those failed to work, there would be rehearsals during the day as well as the performance each night.

Just as Baldet had lucked out in getting an audition, he also lucked out in how he entered the show. He had trained with the “head of the Resident Directors.” Generally, his decisions stood unless vetoed by the original director, Julie Taymor. (Baldet found this to be uncommon: “There were years when she didn’t come around.”)

Thus the man who trained Baldet was both connected and had “really liked me. He said, ‘You can basically do whatever you want.’”

The result was that Baldet could make changes to his performance if he found himself getting bored. (The general standard was if it got a laugh, he’d keep it—if it didn’t, he’d let it go.) Even this had its limits. While Baldet came from an acting background and also sang, much of the cast were schooled strictly in musicals: “You’re not dealing with actors who are for the most part really comfortable with keeping it loose on stage.”

When the Vegas production closed, he was ready to head back to New York. Again, Baldet had nothing but good feelings about the experience: “I was treated really, really well.”

Then Disney asked Baldet to continue playing Timon, only in England: “I seriously did not want to do the show any more, but London?” While his wife had “hated Vegas,” London was a city she loved.

And so Baldet signed on for what proved to be his final two years with The Lion King.

Across the Atlantic

Baldet had done the production overseas before. This included time in Mexico City and a strange experience in Taipei. (It was a quickly assembled performance consisting mostly of actors from the South African production and played a “6,000-seat arena”—this was Baldet’s lone experience of The Lion King not filling the house: “Tickets were really, really expensive. People that were there loved the show. All maybe 500 of them.”)

London seemed to be the final step before Broadway, which would allow him, at last, to go home to New York and keep earning a substantial salary. Indeed, twice he got the call.

The first time he couldn’t go because of bad timing: “I broke my foot.”

The second time Julie Taymor unexpectedly got involved: “She just happened to show up on the day and say, ‘I’m casting this other guy.’ So that kind of broke my heart.”

And thus began the final stretch.

What Happens When You No Longer Get Along

Baldet said he sympathized with Resident Directors: “It’s a very lonely position.” They do a job where “nobody wants to see them.” (After all, their presence invariably means critical notes and potentially more work.) Baldet tried to be upbeat during his interactions with them. “When I was in rehearsal, I would always compliment them on their notes: ‘That’s a really great fresh idea, thank you so much!’ It made them so happy because I realize they’re creative people too and they’re not allowed to be creative.” He remembered one R.D., in particular, falling to pieces: “He developed a really, really bad meth problem. He was just gone.”

Indeed, Baldet was one of the few people in the show with the chance to be creative. In his final months, that slipped away. Baldet said the head of the Resident Directors went from “being open to stuff” to “really adamant.”

During one of his visits, he conducted a run-through when he “ripped everybody an ass except for me.” The next day in rehearsals he “suddenly decided he didn’t like anything I was doing.”

Thus the man who “was Julie Taymor unless Julie Taymor was there” was no longer in his corner. Indeed, he was aggressively critical, hostile even: “My main protector had gone insane.”

“I didn’t suffer from mental fatigue until the last year,” Baldet said.

In 2013, Baldet’s time as Timon ended: “I was not doing a good job any more. They didn’t ask me to come back, like usually they did, and I didn’t ask to stay. I wanted to leave.” Above all, he felt tired. He needed a break.

Life After The Lion King

Baldet and his wife finally returned to New York. He had gone from the best paying gig of his life to… well, nothing. Literally nothing. His unemployment even was delayed. Desperate, he reached out: “I called up the producers and they just cut me a check for a couple thousand dollars to get me through. They were great.”

For the better part of eight years, Baldet had played a single role. He had roamed all over the country and beyond, requiring his family to uproot their lives as well. At last, he was back doing what he’d wanted all along: making theater in New York with his wife.

Then he realized: This didn’t work for him either.

Life After Acting

Today Baldet lives “down the road from the Cincinnati Playhouse.” (“My family lives back here in Ohio. My mom’s not super well.”)

But he isn’t there for a role. He works as the “kitchen manager of a coffee shop/café out here. I cook all day and I manage the staff… I always wondered what it would be like to not be acting. It’s like, Hey, this isn’t so bad.”

That’s not the only change. Baldet and his wife separated—she remains back East. While he misses his daughter, he said, on the whole, he’s content with his life: “I get to make omelets all day. I’m so happy.”

The Lion King, of course, continues. It is currently in New York, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Sapporo, The Hague and Madrid. An international tour begins in Manila in March. The Broadway production alone generates at least $1.6 million each week like clockwork.

Baldet is not surprised by this, having experienced fans’ love of the show for years: “Everywhere you go, everyone’s so excited about The Lion King, everybody wants your autograph when you walk back to the stage door.” He said it was particularly intense in theater-loving London, but also among people who might not get so many chances to see shows: “You’d see families who’d kind of wandered out from the sticks and the kids are so excited.”

Regardless of whether he ever steps on the stage again, he remains grateful for the experience: “It was really wonderful.”

Below, a short film on Baldet’s time in Taiwan in 2008. He would continue performing in various companies and cities until 2013.