Nicholas Afoa – Lion King life

New cast have joined the London production of Disney’s The Lion King this summer, including New Zealander Nicholas Afoa who has taken on the role of Simba at the Lyceum Theatre.

Afoa made his stage debut in the Australian production in 2013 and played Simba in the Sydney production of the musical between 2013 and 2016, performing more than 860 times. The opportunity to play the role in the West End brings Afoa to London for the first time, as he embarks on his second professional theatre engagement.

The Auckland-raised performer had a promising rugby career with the All Blacks until he was sidelined by injury. After recovering and dedicating himself to his theatre career, nearly a decade later the 30 year-old beat 400 other hopefuls to the role of Simba in the Australian production.

What caused your transition from rugby pitch to stage?

I suffered an ACL and miniscus tear in a rugby game when I was 23. My introduction to theatre wasn’t until years later as I spent a lot of time trying to rehab the knee and come back to rugby. I also spent time trying to start a band and focus on my solo music. I eventually accepted the fate that was the end of a rugby dream and focused on these artistic qualities; I feel so lucky to be where I am right now.

Did you undertake any formal training as a result?

My formal dance training really started once I had landed the role. Now being part of the show has become such a huge part of my life and I feel like I am training and improving my skills every day. It is great to be around so many talented performers and teachers in an environment where everyone is constantly learning.

Describe a day in your life.

I like to spend time with my wife, go to the gym, keep in touch with family back home and go to vocal classes or ballet classes to keep my body up to speed.

How important is your ranging and diverse world experience in your work today?

I wouldn’t be able to bring the same depth to the role if it wasn’t for my life experience over the last 10 years, the interactions I have had with people, the trials I have overcome and what I have learnt from overcoming them. I worked as a youth counsellor for four years, where I learnt so much about adolescent behaviour and the way young people (like Simba) view the world around them and perceive themselves – these are all things that helped me to bring Simba to life.

What’s the most rewarding thing about the performing arts?

The most rewarding thing is how, through your passion, you can also inspire and move others. That’s what drives me, especially if I’m feeling tired. The fact that somebody in that audience, young or old, is being positively affected by the show is the most rewarding thing.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I always say a little prayer moments before swinging on stage. Whenever I can I will watch young Simba and Mufasa in the first act. Their scene gives me an extra emotional boost that I carry through into the second act.

What is it like being part of The Lion King?

It’s very humbling. Every day I learn something new. I’m in an amazing show surrounded by talented, passionate people. I still consider myself very fortunate and never once take it for granted.

What were you most looking forward to about beginning your Lion King contract in London?

What I was looking forward to most was learning and experiencing new energies and actors, seeing how that would affect me as a performer and being able to see what contribution I could make. It was also a chance to experience life outside Australasia as I have never been this far away from home.

What is your advice to an aspiring dancer?

I see with the dancers I work with how dedicated every dancer is to maintaining their own standards. What dancers’ bodies go through is mind-blowing. It inspires me to keep bettering myself. My advice would be to keep working hard, but also give yourself time and space to heal when you need and to also take in some of the world around you. While it’s good to be driven we can get so set on our dreams that sometimes we lose touch with our surroundings. This is also where we learn the most about ourselves and in turn makes us better and rounded performers.

Twyla Tharp Dance heading to Italy

Twyla Tharp Dance recently took the premiere of its choreographer’s latest creation to Italy, performed at the end of June when the company visited Florence, Ravenna and Rome. This Italian tour saw the preview of a new work as well as two works performed from Tharp’s repertory. She has been creating dance for 50 years, and during that time she has choreographed over 160 works. These include 129 dances, 12 television specials, six Hollywood films, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.

Within this creative circuit, Tharp has not only created work for her own company, but for most American dance companies, such as American Ballet Theatre and the Martha Graham Dance Company, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Australian Ballet. In her time as a modern dance choreographer she has earned herself two Emmy Awards, and the 2002 Broadway dance musical Movin’ Out won her a Tony Award. In 2008 she was awarded the Jerome Robbins Prize and the Kennedy Centre Honour, and she has received 19 honorary doctorates.

Tharp formed her company at 23 years old, looking for dancers with high levels of technique and strong personalities, but who are also open-minded and willing to forget that they know anything else about dance. The Italian tour for the company saw eight dancers perform, presenting the preview of Beethoven Opus 130, as well as Country Dances and Brahms Paganini.

The new creation, Beethoven Opus 130, received its official premiere at the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre. The piece was originally kept completely secret, apart from some workshop shots taken during the Catskill Mountain Foundation residency in April. Country Dances premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1976, inspired by American music and traditions. Brahms Paganini, from 1980, is set to Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

Cats To Return To London

Cats The MusicalThe iconic musical Cats will return to the London Palladium later this year, playing a final ten week season from 23 October 2015, having already seen its West End revival earlier this year which was a huge success. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s creation will go on sale on 14 May for the run, which plays from 23 October 2015 to 2 January 2016.

Casting is yet to be announced for the production’s strictly limited season, however the original Palladium run has already seen pop star Nicole Scherzinger and musical theatre star Kerry Ellis play Grizabella. Later this year Cats will tour to Blackpool ahead of its return to London, and the iconic singer Jane McDonald will play the iconic role of Grizabella. These three women follow in the footsteps of the original Elaine Paige creating the role.

Lloyd Webber’s musical is directed by Trevor Nunn, with choreography by Gillian Lynne and design by John Napier. 2014’s high-profile return of the show reunited the original creative team, including director Nunn and choreographer Lynne. The musical takes inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s poems about the feline creatures to tell the wonderful story of the Jellicle cats and the Jellicle ball. Its triumphant return to the West End last year was a delight for its original – and new – fans. Only recently did it close after its Olivier Award-nominated run.

Featuring much-loved songs including Mr Mistoffelees, Macavity: The Mystery Cat and the iconic Memory, given its resounding success by Paige as Grizabella, Cats was first staged in 1981, when it went on to run for a record breaking 21 years. The show continues to delight fans and be a favourite amongst musical theatre enthusiasts as it is now enjoying further success from 2014 to 2015 and onwards.

Site-Specific Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia!There is a site-specific Mamma Mia! set for cities worldwide, with the first Mamma Mia! The Party is being produced in Stockholm by Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus. The New York Times has reported that the Abba-centric musical Mamma Mia! will receive a new ‘immersive’ staging in a Stockholm beer hall. The beer hall is situated near an Abba museum; the show’s creative team will transform the beer hall into a Mediterranean restaurant, hugely similar to the Greek tavern featured in the show.

The news comes in the wake of the recently acclaimed site-specific production of Sweeney Todd, which transferred from a pie shop in Tooting to a ‘mock-up’ in the West End. The concept appears to have sparked a trend, in which immersive musical theatre performances are the go-to for a fun night out whilst engaging – in this case – with all your favourite Abba songs.

Ulvaeus will be producing Mamma Mia! The Party, which is set to open in January 2016; if the site-specific musical is a success it will then be replicated in other cities. The idea for Mamma Mia! The Party was born from Ulvaeus’ experiences in the theatres staging Mamma Mia! all over the world. In the show’s finale the audience enjoy dancing in the aisles and singing along, as a result of the happy mood the show has created.

Mamma Mia! The Party is therefore an extension of the show, transferring it to a Greek restaurant for a big party and a real-time story. Mamma Mia! The Party will not follow the precise storyline of the stage show and film, as the plot will be semi-improvised from night to night, based on interactions with the audience, with stories being created based on Abba songs. The concept looks set to be a huge success, with audiences experiencing something different every night.

NBC’s Annual Live Musical

The WizTelevision channel NBC recently announced that the next live musical to be broadcast on its popular and wide-reaching channel would be The Wiz, an iconic version of the legendary Wizard of Oz. Following an annual live musical series on the channel, The Wiz will be broadcast and will then return to Broadway, New York City, for the 2016-17 season.

Earlier in 2015, Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC’s entertainment division, announced that after “The Sound of Music Live” in 2013 and “Peter Pan Live” in 2014, the network would next see The Wiz as the next live musical production. “The Music Man” was a close contender in the running, however this may be seen in 2016 instead. The Wiz will be broadcast live on 3 December, making its debut on the network, produced in partnership with Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical division.

The yearly tradition is enjoyed by a large number of American audiences; for 2015, the channel will see yet another Broadway musical brought to America’s living rooms, with the added bonus that it will then be performing on Broadway for an even larger audience pool. Broadcasting the musical live adds an extra theatrical element to the production, enabling even wider audiences to see musical theatre productions, and from the comfort of their homes.

The Wiz, as a welcome version of the “Wizard of Oz” story featuring an African-American cast, first appeared on Broadway in 1975. The 1978 movie version, co-produced by the movie strand of Motown Records, was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Amazon For Tickets!

Amazon LogoAmazon has upped its presence in the theatre marketplace recently, announcing it will now sell theatre tickets, becoming further involved with the artistic industry. As a giant global retailer, Amazon appears to see UK theatre – and specifically the West End – as an area into which it can expand.

Despite some cynicism, its entry into the arts could potentially be completely transformative for theatres. Amazon has previously been involved in the area of book publishing, for example, so this is not its first dabble into the arts. It is unlikely that the association of Amazon with the arts would be detrimental; ultimately Amazon will bring a whole new market for theatre tickets, as its customers are hugely global.

Amazon has a huge database to promote the arts and theatre tickets to, and this would also be significantly more diverse than the data of traditional ticket sellers. It is also a master in terms of ease of purchase with its one-click model – something that theatre ticketing websites have often struggled with, so it will be interesting to see these developments as they occur.

For tourists, theatre – particularly in London’s West End – is a huge magnetic pull. For many foreign visitors, it is one of the principal reasons they visit the capital city, in order to experience some of the artistic wealth the London theatre scene offers. It is therefore promising to see mayor Boris Johnson recognising the crucial role theatre plays in making people want to visit the city. Proximity to arts and culture are important to many people, so it is important to recognise this effect as a whole, not just for London.

Judy – The Life And Music Of A Hollywood Legend

Judy GarlandAs the only authorised Judy Garland show in the world today, the UK premiere of a breathtaking new musical show, Judy – The Life And Music Of A Hollywood Legend, will tour UK theatres, opening at the Edinburgh Playhouse on 8 May. Highly-acclaimed choreographer, Arlene Phillips, will be Creative Director for the production, with the show made in arrangement with the Judy Garland Estate.

The show will star Lorna Luft, Garland’s daughter, together with leading West End musical theatre stars, including Louise Dearman, Rachel Stanley and Ben Richards. Also appearing are dancers – The Boyfriends – named after Judy’s original dancers of the same name. Luft is considered ‘Showbiz Royalty’, as the half sister of Liza Minnelli and a highly successful stage, film and TV actress and singer in her own right. She has appeared in numerous film, TV and stage shows, including White Christmas, They’re Playing My Son and Babes in Arms.

Dearman has performed in leading West End roles including Wicked, where Dearman was the first actress to play both the good and bad witch – Glinda and Elphaba. Dearman also starred in Evita, Cats and Guys and Dolls to name just a few. Richards has played lead roles in West End and touring musicals including Rock of Ages, Oliver!, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Guys and Dolls and Saturday Night Fever. TV includes roles in The Bill and Footballers’ Wives.

The show will feature songs from some of Judy’s hugely popular films such as A Star is Born, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade and The Wizard of Oz. The set of songs will include I Got Rhythm, The Trolley Song, The Man That Got Away, Get Happy, and the song synonymous with Judy Garland, Over the Rainbow.

Curtain Up! – A Celebratory Exhibition

V&A LogoA special exhibition celebrating 40 years of theatre on Broadway and the West End is to run in both New York and London. Provisionally called Curtain Up!, the exhibition is timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards in 2016, and will showcase past winners of the awards in the ultimate celebration of theatre and the arts in the two cities.

It will run first at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in February 2016, and then at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in the autumn of 2016. The venues are both collaborating with the Society of London Theatre on the exhibition and it will indefinitely honour the shared artistic heritage which connects London and New York.

The Curtain Up! exhibition is being designed by Tom Piper, the artist responsible for the poppy art installation at the Tower of London in 2014 in order to mark the centenary of the First World War. Curtain Up! is being curated by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s theatre department, with support from the Library for the Performing Arts in New York. Additional theatrical artifacts and material will be displayed from theatre collections across the UK and the US in order to enhance and support the exhibition.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has expressed his support of the exhibition, maintaining that it will celebrate the unique relationship that has been created between the two cities and what they offer in terms of theatre. The exhibition is also being supported by iconic actress Helen Mirren, who opens in The Audience on Broadway this month, having also appeared in the show in the West End. Alongside the exhibition an education programme will be run, which will be aimed at encouraging young people to get involved in the performing arts and spark a lifelong interest.

New Today, Gone Tomorrow

London's West End Theatre SceneWhen new musicals hit London’s West End in particular, there is often a sense of excitement and anticipation, but possibly now one of cynicism too. How long will it last? What will the audience and box office figures be like? Following such a barrage of shows opening and closing within the same year throughout 2014, it is no wonder these questions are now largely conscious in theatrical minds. Only recently was it announced that the hearty – and seemingly successful – Made in Dagenham was set to close its doors, and the reaction was rather subdued, even expectant.

Equally, there doesn’t seem to be a successful musical theatre model in which to base a new show heading for the West End, except perhaps for The Book of Mormon, of which content includes severe expletives, blasphemy and and downright crude humour. A very different experience for audiences, however; the show has played to 100% capacity since its opening, and continues to book well in advance at high prices. Even shows which have had successful runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre – a surefire breeding ground for West End transfers – such as Singin’ in the Rain, have not managed to survive in the city.

There is no middle ground particularly in the West End, filled with either established ‘classics’ which have years on their clocks, such as The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, or young musicals which are just beginning and cannot compete. Perhaps financial and social issues are to blame for the poor survival rates of West End musicals, using up lots of time and money to produce the show, which do not translate to return on investment for that very reason.

With recent reports showing the capital now cannot financially house those that are playing on its stages night after night, perhaps London is becoming to too expensive to reasonably survive in.

ELF The Musical To Open In The Autumn

Elf the MusicalAs a much loved Christmas classic, ELF the Musical will open at the Dominion Theatre on 24 October, for a strictly limited 10 week season. Following the sold-out UK and Ireland premieres in Plymouth and Dublin in December 2014, ELF the musical will receive its London premiere this autumn, with the run ending on 2 January 2016. What began as a mandatory Christmas film to watch with the family could now become a smash hit!

The musical is based on the 2003 New Line Cinema hit starring Will Ferrell: it is the hilarious tale of Buddy, a young orphan child who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported back to the North Pole. Unaware that he is actually human, Buddy’s enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth. With Santa’s permission, Buddy embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity, and help New York remember the true meaning of Christmas. Casting for the musical is yet to be announced.

ELF the Musical features a book by Tony Award winners Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone), with songs by Tony Award nominees Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer). The production will feature direction and choreography by Morgan Young (Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), set design and costumes by Tim Goodchild, lighting design by Tim Lutkin, vocal arrangements by Phil Reno, dance arrangements by David Chase, orchestrations by Doug Besterman, video design by Ian William Galloway and sound design by Clement Rawling. Musical direction and supervision will be by Stuart Morley.

Michael Rose and U-Live, in association with the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, will present the Theatre Royal Plymouth production of ELF at the Dominion.