In the years that I have been a DJ, writer, and Podcast host, I’ve been lucky enough to interview people from all walks of life. From musicians to TV stars to astrophysicist and authors. But personally the interviews I always enjoy the most are with theater actors. In recent years those interviews have been the bulk of my interviews. I’ve found that there is a zest and passion for their craft that is so much more human and beautiful than other artists. So when I found out I would be interviewing Gerald Ramsey who stars in the current North American tour of The Lion King as Mufasa, I anticipated another enjoyable chat about theater, and music and acting, along the lines of the chats I of the chats I always have and always cherish.
What I did not anticipate was Gerald’s own story and perspective on storytelling that left me speechless and inspired.
The Lion King's Gerald Ramsey And The Art Of Story Telling
PopWrapped: Tell us about this production of The Lion King and your part in it.
Gerald Ramsey: This Lion King of production is one of nine around the world. We are the “Gazelle Tour.” We cover North America. I’ve been on the tour for about 18 months, and we've been through Canada, and coast to coast and now we’re going back, coast to coast again and coming up to San Francisco from New Mexico. We’ll be in San Francisco for about nine weeks - we’ll be there from November 2nd through December 31st, through New Year’s Eve. Since I’ve been on the tour, during the last holidays we were in Chicago for about seven weeks and we’ll be in San Francisco for nine. I think everyone in the cast and crew appreciates the chance to sit down and kind of make a home for a little bit. I’m from the Pacific Islands, so I’m happy to be in San Francisco this year (for the winter).
PW: How did you get the part of Mufasa?
GR: I’m originally from a small islands in American Samoa called Aunuʻu and I was raised there and then I moved to the middle east for middle school and high school in Saudi Arabia, where my dad was working, and then I went to college in Hawaii on the big island, Hilo, where my sister was going. And then I ended up working there as an educator and then I moved to Oahu and I started working as a Polynesian dancer on the North Shore. A couple of years into that The Lion King came to Hawaii, and very few Broadway productions make it that far into the Pacific. One of my friends who was a dancer with me said that they were having open auditions for The Lion King and I thought ‘Oh that's cool, but not for me.’ In my head I was thinking I’m going back to get my masters, I’m going to be a professor. And she kept badgering me, and finally offered to buy me lunch if I went and I said, ‘Ok, sure.' So I prepared the best I could, because I don’t really have a background in theater or music or acting. So I thought I just try not to make a fool of myself and go get some free food. So I went to the audition, super nervous, but they were so receptive and encouraging. And then they invited me for a call back, and I got called back a couple of times. But they told us at the last call back that there weren’t actually any openings. And I thought, Yea, that’s nice. We’ll have our people call your people kind of thing. And I didn’t lose anything; I got some free food. And I could just go back to my original plan of going back to school, which I did. I went into a masters program at the University of Hawaii. And about a semester into school they sent me an email saying they wanted to Skype with me. So I skyped them from work, while like doing Hulu shows in Waikiki. In between shows I skyped them from the van. And they offered me the role and to come out on the road to play Mufasa. I was in shock.
Even when I arrived in Philadelphia and they explained to me I was going to be Mufasa in eight shows a week, I was like, ‘are you sure?' I thought for sure they were going to send me home, that they were going to realize I didn't know what I was doing. But they were able to pull something out of me. Where I come from, in the pacific Islands, historically we’re raised orally. We don't have a written language. Everything was passed on through song and storytelling. And I think they pulled that from me and were able to see that as a Pacific Islander, storytelling was just part of who we are. In the end that's what theater ois. We're just there to tell the story.
As I got into the character and into the story I realized that this is the same story from back home where I’m from in Samoa. The circle of life, the issues of being a dad or being a disobedient son, being a mother, being a daughter. It’s everyone story, everyone can relate to some aspect of The Lion King which I why I think it's been running for so long.
PW: What else do you think has contributed to The Lion King’s long running success on stage?
GR: I think at it’s core, it’s a story about a family and for me personally, I feel like, especially what sets apart the stage production from the motion picture, is bringing the indigenous music to the forefront. So there’s multiple african languages being used in the production. And we have singers from South Africa performing in the show and there’s the language that is thousands of years old, this music that, even if you don't understand the words, you can feel it, and there's this emotional connection that’s timeless and without place. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak but when Rafiki sings in the opening number you can feel it. And there's this heart about the show and I think that’s the longevity of it a great that everyone feels and they feel like it’s a part of their own story.
PW: What have you taken from this experience so far?
GR: One of the biggest things, the principles are on one year contracts and I thought after one eye I thought they were just going to send me home, but after they renewed I really started thinking and really having confidence in myself and where I’m from, because it’s so rare to see people of Pacific Islander heritage on stage, and I accepted that like, ‘Oh, we don’t belong here on broadway or on the big stage'. And when people talk about their education at Julliard or these prestigious dance and music schools I felt like I was less than, you know? But getting to know them and reflecting on where I’m from and my experience with dance and music I realized we have just as much to offer the world and to theater as anyone who has any amount of schooling. And the South Africans have had a similar experience. We’re raised singing and dancing, and we may not have the same pedigrees or same degrees on our walls but it’s about storytelling and it's made me confident in the people I come from. So when I went back home recently to visit Hawaii, that was my whole mission, was to encourage everyone that I used to work with, dance with, that I saw ‘If this is a dream of yours, you can do it!’ That’s the biggest thing I’m coming away with.
PW: What is your favorite moment in the show?
GR: Circle of Life, the opening. I’ve never seen movie or show with an opening like the Circle of Life. I love the father/son connection between Simba and Mufasa, it’s really made me grow as a man. But my favorite part right now, there’s a moment towards the end of the show where Sarabi stands up to Scar, who's been a tyrant for so long. From the death of Mufasa there's these tears that Lionesses have worn and all the Lionesses have taken off except for Sarabi. She’s literally carrying these tears on stage and there’s this moments when she stands up to Scar. I get emotional every time because I come from a long line of women in my family that are very strong, independent women and when I see Saravi stand up for herself and for her family like that, I get emotional and I feel that passion and fire. That moment in your life when you have no other choice but to survive, I feel like that’s what I see in Sarabi. And I’ve seen that in my own mom, and my Grandma and my sister, and it makes me very emotional to see that.
Backstage I’m meeting people from all over the world and I’m realizing that we’re all the same. Maybe we speak different languages and raised in different parts of the world, but at the core we all have the same stories.
Thank you so much for telling your story Gerald!
The Lion King begins its run at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater on November 2 and goes through New Year’s Eve. If you’re not in the Bay Area you can find out when the tour will be coming to a stage near you.