Tshidi Manye as Rafiki
Photo: Joan Marcus (Disney Theatrical Productions)

The Lion King is still one of my favorite Disney movies (and stories) of all time. And I am obviously not alone. The movie has stretched onto the Broadway stage and been slaying for over 20 years! There’s no way this musical would have that sort of staying power if it wasn’t your favorite’s favorite.

The Lion King made its move to the stage in July 1997 in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre and was instantly embraced. By November of the same year, the musical had made the major move to Broadway. And it hasn’t looked back.

Meet Tshidi Manye. You know her. You know her voice. As the cornerstone of The Lion King, Manye plays the show’s resident oracle and narrator, Rafiki. You hear her sing, “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba.” That’s the Zulu language, and that’s Manye calling for the audience’s attention. And she keeps it throughout the entire show.

Full disclosure: The Disney powers that be on Broadway invited myself and three other staffers to view the show. When I wasn’t crying my eyes out over Mustafa, I was dancing in my seat. I’m emotionally spent.

“Language plays a huge role in the show because it’s what makes it authentic. It’s different from what’s seen on Broadway,” Manye says of the five languages (including English, Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa) that she speaks in the show. If you’re counting, that’s five out of the 11 official languages of South Africa!

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Tshidi Manye as Rafiki
Photo: Joan Marcus (Disney Theatrical Productions)

Manye’s haunting voice dances inside your eardrum. As soon as you hear it, you remember the same voice in the movie. While Rafiki was played by Robert Guillaume in the film, it was Manye you heard on the soundtrack.

Manye told The Root, “Music is soothing to us.” The Lion King on Broadway opens with drummers in the box on each side of the audience. They’re a part of us and the show. It makes for an interactive experience. “The show starts with drums. It’s the heartbeat, the beginning of life,” Manye said.

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Manye has been in The Lion King for 17 years now, ever since the show opened in Toronto in 2004. “I really was happy when I found out that was the role I was going to play. It came natural to me,” she said.

A native of Johannesburg, Manye says that back home, they have something called sangomas. These are like mediums, or clairvoyants: “My cousin and my niece, they all are sangomas, traditional healers. I watched them go through the transition, and now for me to come to play the same thing that they do, and the only difference is that I’m talking about the story that’s about to happen.”

In 2013, Manye had been playing Rafiki on Broadway but wanted to go out on tour, so she had a talk with Buyi Zama, the woman who played Rafiki in the touring production, and they decided to play a fun little game of changing places. Evidently, they knew each other from the small performing arts community they grew up in and had kept in touch.

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Disney said yes to the unconventional swap, and Manye was off on tour, while Zama settled in to make her Broadway debut. Fast-forward to now, and Manye is back on Broadway, continuing her run as Rafiki.

During our chat, Manye would often pause, seemingly thinking back over her charmed life and reveling in the replaying of her best experiences. After one of those long pauses, she said to me: “When I was told that I was coming to Broadway, I couldn’t sleep. I asked everyone, how do I behave on Broadway? In my mind, it was like I was going to Hollywood. I remember sitting in my living room, watching and wishing that I could be a part of that.” And now she is a “part of that.” She’s the biggest part of “that.”

It’s been 17 years, and Manye still walks around the historic Times Square area, where most of “Broadway” is spread out on the side streets, and gazes up at all the lights and the buildings. It’s as if she’s still mystified by the reality of living her dream. It’s a humbling experience.

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“Circle of Life”
Photo: Joan Marcus (Disney Theatrical Productions)

Every time she sings “Circle of Life,” it feels like she’s learning it all over again. “It’s a learning process. Oh wow, it’s come full circle.” Part of The Lion King’s mass appeal is that it is an age-old story that is relatable and heart-grabbing. Most people would laugh it off as a kids’ show, but Manye says it’s anything but that. Sure, it a spectacle, but what Broadway show isn’t?

“It’s lions, and you see all of these things, but the funny part is to see grown-up people crying. At the end of the show, people come to you and say they went through that in their lives and they didn’t know it would stir up emotions at the show,” Manye mused. “It’s a great story. What goes on in The Lion King goes on everywhere. It’s not just Africa. The language in this show becomes a heartbeat. For me to come in here and sing and share my culture, there’s nothing like it!

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“This is one of the best experiences I have ever had,” she continued. “Having to see my name outside the building, it’s like, I can’t believe it. It’s complete for me. It’s an award of a lifetime.”

And if the powers that be allow her, Tshidi Manye will stay at The Lion King for as long as it runs. “I will never call to say I’m leaving The Lion King, but I will receive the calls to tell me I’m being kept in the cast,” Manye said, laughing.