Ever since the iconic chords of “The Circle of Life” first rang out in crowded theaters as the sun rose across the continent of Africa in The Lion King’s opening sequence in 1994, Disney knew they had once again captured magic. That magic was transmuted into a successful Broadway musical three years later, and now, more than 20 years after its debut, The Lion King still enchants theater audiences every night of the week.
For Bradley Gibson, taking on the mane and mantle of Simba in the long-running production was a full-circle moment. “I always say Simba was my first super hero,” said Gibson, who joined the production team as the adult version of the story’s protagonist three months ago. “He’s fighting the bad guys, he’s dealing with loss and trying to heal himself, but he’s also on a major journey of self-discovery.”
The 27-year-old Boston Conservatory alum, who remembers The Lion King fondly as the first film he ever saw in theaters, has risen through the ranks of New York City’s theater world, having first played in Rocky before originating the role of Tyrone in A Bronx Tale: The Musical, now making his migration to Pride Rock. Well, at least the set of it at the Minskoff Theatre.
The involvement of Gibson in the performing arts looks like a long shot on paper, growing up as a gay black boy to Mormon parents in the South. But Gibson’s family circumvents every negative cliché associated with strict, religious southerners, instead encouraging him to do what he wanted, as long as he was dedicated. “I was always supported in my dreams and aspirations and also in accepting others and being myself,” said Gibson, who describes his family as “very liberal” and “very forward-thinking.” It may be this nurturing instinct instilled in Gibson that helped prepare him for one of the most memorable moments of his young career.
In a time when protesters and hecklers have begun replacing proposers and well-wishers in theater audiences, Disney keeps the magic of the stage alive by offering a special sensory-friendly show for children with autism and their families every year. “I didn’t know what to expect,” said Gibson. “I didn’t think anything about it. When I went out into the audience it was very loud, the house lights were half [as bright], the drums in the audience were lower, the lights and big claps we use for thunder and lightning weren’t happening – it was really jarring to me. I couldn’t focus.” Gibson says he was brought back to the moment when he looked out into the audience and saw people enjoying themselves who wouldn't normally get the chance to see a Broadway show. “I thought, what a beautiful moment for me as an artist to be able to be a part of that,’” he gushed, remembering the hugs he received when he met some of the audience members after the show.
Though he’s currently prowling and leaping across a Broadway stage with feline grace, Gibson needed the guiding hand of a musical icon to discover his calling when he was younger. “I always say that my first exposure to theater was through movies and music in general,” he said. “I remember sitting on the floor watching Julie Andrews run over the hills singing in The Sound of Music and saying, ‘Whatever that is, I should be doing it. That’s what I’m supposed to do.’”
But even Julie Andrews can’t protect Gibson from the toils and anxiety of life as a 20-something in New York City – for that, he calls in the big guns. “I’ve called home crying and wanting to not be here, but I’m always reminded [by my family]: you worked so hard your entire life. Keep doing it, and you can’t give up. Have this moment. We’re here. But you’re getting off the phone and going back to fighting.” And fight he does – in makeup and leonine prosthetics seven days a week.
Find ticketing information for The Lion King, here.