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Catching Up With The Lion King's Lebo M. and His Iconic Voice as the Show Turns 20

Lebo M. opened The Lion King 20 years ago, but he's never left it behind.

On November 13, The Lion King officially passes its 20-year mark on Broadway and is showing no signs of fatigue. The Disney phenomenon rarely dips below the top five in weekly Broadway grosses, and the impending live-action film version (featuring a star-studded cast) only promises a surge of Lion King fever as the 2019 release draws closer.

As a property that's raked in billions since the original animated film's 1994 release, it would be difficult to find someone who's never seen The Lion King on either stage or screen. It would be even more difficult to find someone who's never heard Lebo M's rendition of the opening "Nants Ingonyama" chant — an iconic piece of music that the South African musician performed for the film as well as in the original Broadway cast, to which he also contributed additional music, lyrics, vocal arrangements, and choral direction.

Lebo M has left his musical thumbprint on the The Lion King, and The Lion King has reciprocated, shaping his career in film and solidifying his longtime collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer, with whom he continues to tour the world. We had a chance to sit down with him ahead of the show's 20-year milestone and look back at where the journey to Pride Rock began. What we learned is that it pays to fool around with studio equipment after hours.

Lebo M. with The Lion King director Julie Taymor in advance of the musical's 20th Broadway anniversary.
(© David Gordon)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Lion King is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on Broadway. Does it feel like it's been that long since you opened the show?
What's the English word? It's mind-boggling! It's quite a milestone in my life. Until now it has not been as tangible — I'm saying "now" because I'm going around the world on tour and performing "Circle of Life" with Hans [Zimmer] and getting that immediate audience reaction. The only time I felt the power of the opening of The Lion King was from the live presentation of the Broadway show. Now, years later, having to stand in the middle of let's say Wembley Stadium in London, which has a 90,000-person capacity, and do my segment— it was initially intimidating. I've kind of embraced it now.

How did you meet and start collaborating with Hans Zimmer all those years ago?
The collaboration with Hans was a blessing in disguise. I was working at a car wash in Los Angeles in the early days as a refugee and I used to go to a friend's studio. I was an intern and runner that would make the coffee and clean, and I would mess around when they finished doing the important work in the studio. I loved that because it was my first real authentic experience. I was 16 or 17. Hans's friend was Hilton Rosenthal. He was Johnny Clegg's producer, who was also South African. Hans was approached to do this film, and he went to see his friend Hilton to talk about possibly teaming up with Johnny Clegg (who was not in America) to do the soundtrack. Hilton looked at me and said, "Hans, you should try this kid." So Hans called me into his studio the next day in Santa Monica. Long story short, I ended up cowriting, coproducing, and performing on the soundtrack of The Power of One. That started this unique creative brotherly relationship with Hans, and I end up doing movie soundtracks by default. I never knew that I could be in that world.

How was The Lion King presented to you?
When Hans was approached to do The Lion King, I was not in America. I was going home to South Africa because there was a new dispensation evolving there. So I came in to do a demo for this jungle thing with lions and left. Then I was called in to work on the movie.

Did you have any expectations for the film?
There was something unique about The Lion King at that time. But as a young professional, it was always about doing the job and the work and not about "is this going to be a success or not?" I had worked enough to know not everything that you work on is a hit, so that mentality is not there. You go into a project and contribute your best. So that was the approach with The Lion King. It was a project that we gave our all. The shock comes when the project is released and it goes worldwide. I hear my voice all over the world. I can't even go to the damn toilet — or elevator! [laughs]

The Nants Ingonyama opening to "Circle of Life" has become iconic. What does it feel like to sing it for audiences now?
Because it is the experience of the live audience, every time you do it, it feels like the first time. But I'm the most paranoid stage fright person you'll ever meet. For me, there's always five seconds before I have to go onstage where I'm miserable, and five seconds after I'm onstage I'm in heaven.

Lebo M. (center, bowing) takes a curtain call with Elton John, Julie Taymor, and the rest of The Lion King's original creative team at the show's 20th anniversary performance on November 5 at the Minskoff Theatre.
(© Walter McBride)