We look at one of The Lion King’s key characters – King Mufasa - and speak to the actor who has played him for over 12 years in the West End.
“I just hear that name and I shudder,” says Shenzi the hyena of Mufasa, a character who evokes fear and affection in equal measure.
The patriarch of the Pridelands in The Lion King, Mufasa is the epitome of strong leadership. But he is a lion with a soft side, especially when it comes to his family.
Shaun Escoffery, who has played Mufasa in The Lion King in the West End for 12 years, describes him as the “absolute model father”, who wears his status lightly. “He’s a warrior king who is extremely powerful, and he knows that. Everything he says and does is measured. He doesn’t have to prance around, acting like he’s big and mighty, because he knows who he is.”
Mufasa takes his role and its duties extremely seriously, and is keen to pass on this awareness to his son and heir, Simba. But like all parent-child relationships, there are challenges. Young Simba wants to revel in power (‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’), and Mufasa knows he must rein him in.
“He believes that once he goes the kingdom will be in Simba’s hands,” says Escoffrey, “so he has to teach him the ways of the warrior king and the kings before him.” When Mufasa sings the stirring ‘They Live in You’, after rescuing Simba from the elephant graveyard, the message is clear:
They live in you
They live in me
They’re watching over
Everything we see
In every creature
In every star
In your reflection
They live in you
"Mufasa maybe lets Scar get away with things that others wouldn't"
His commitment to tradition and family is total, but also proves his weakness. His willingness to trust his brother Scar - the antagonist of The Lion King - and allow him to remain part of the Pride sows the seeds of Mufasa’s downfall.
So why doesn’t he banish his troublesome sibling? Escoffery thinks this may be due to their past. “The scar actually came from a fight they had when they were young. So Mufasa feels responsible for that - there’s a certain amount of guilt that he carries. Maybe he lets Scar get away with things that others wouldn’t.”
In fact guilt is a key theme of The Lion King, and proves to be something that Simba must wrestle with in the same way as his father. He too shares a tendency to trust those he shouldn’t.
Scar manipulates this trait mercilessly. “Scar definitely knows how to push Mufasa’s buttons,” Escoffery says. “Mufasa has vowed to himself that he wasn’t going to allow Scar to make him lose his temper to such an extent again. But this becomes his weakness.”
Brotherly rivalry is a timeless subject - from Cain and Abel to Thor and Loki. And, as Mufasa comes to learn in The Lion King, its intensity can have deadly consequences.
"We’re a family off stage as well as on"
The close bonds between the characters on stage are reflected behind the scenes as well, among the cast and crew.
“The Lion King company’s really tight, and we have a great team spirit,” says Escoffery, who knows this better than most having been with the company for over a decade. “We are a family in every sense.”
This is also reflected in the chemistry between the actors playing Mufasa and Young Simba. Over the years Shaun Escoffery has played opposite many young actors in the role of his son, and says he gets enormous satisfaction from seeing them learn and develop.
“You do inevitably get attached to the young Simbas, because I’m on stage with them most of the time. I love seeing them move on to other things - a number of them have been in major films and TV series, their careers are flying - and I feel like a proud father. It’s wonderful to see them grow and progress, and I’ve learnt a lot from them as well.”
He recounts telling one young actor that he was doing really well in rehearsals and if he kept up such a work ethic, he would go far in life. “A few weeks later I met his Dad at stage door, and he told me ‘I don’t know what you said to him, but thank you!’”
The Young Simbas often keep in touch with him, he says, and he is always happy to share advice. It’s a clear case of life imitating art.
Another major highlight of being in The Lion King, reveals Escoffery, is getting to stand below the stage waiting to make his entrance during ‘The Circle of Life’. “Hearing Rafiki sing ‘Nants ingonyama’ fills my stomach with butterflies every time. For me it’s one of the best intros to a show ever, without a doubt. Just thinking about it gives me shivers.”
Listen to Shaun Escoffery perform an acoustic version of 'He Lives in You' with former cast member Nick Afoa
The moment Mufasa strolls up the appropriately named Pride Rock to introduce Simba says everything you need to know about him. It captures all of his majesty, grandeur and familial loyalty. So the scene must be played just right.
Escoffery says donning the unique mask always helps him get into character. “The costumes in The Lion King are elaborate and magnificent, and the head mount is just incredible. You have to adjust to the mechanics of it, and at first that’s really overwhelming. But then you get used to it, and eventually you start to feel naked without it.”
He has no plans to hang up the mask anytime soon, and says the recent enforced break due to the pandemic has only fuelled his passion for the show. “You miss the people, the atmosphere, performing in front of an audience. The time away has reinvigorated me and I can’t wait to get back on stage.”
See The Lion King return to the West End at London’s Lyceum Theatre from the 29th of July 2021. Seats are now available for this Summer and beyond from just £20 with Disney Tickets.