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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

Blog

"And Suddenly My Eyes Were Opened!"

Mo Brady

The Ensemblist is celebrating the 20th Anniversary of The Lion King on Broadway by asking some of our favorite ensemblists to share their stories of performing in the iconic Broadway musical. Today, we hear from ensemblist and podcast guest Arbender Robinson.

Arbender Robinson

Arbender Robinson

When asked to comment on my The Lion King experience as a cast member, I found myself thinking of all the different ways to respond. Finally I said to myself “GO TO THE BEGINNING”

It was November 13, 1997 when The Lion King opened on Broadway and now here we are talking about a show that has been seen by over 70 million. I was in my last year of study at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and had the amazing opportunity to see the show a month earlier when it premiered in Minneapolis, Minnesota (The Big City, as we called it). This show later would win six Tony Awards out of its 11 nominations.  It is still one of the most breathtaking shows and the iconic CIRCLE OF LIFE opening number still causes the audience to gasp. As I write this statistics say the show has grossed over $1 billion and still fills 97% of its available seats weekly.  

At the time I had this overwhelming urge to be a part of this show. Why? It looked fun, it was magical, it spoke to me on a spiritual level and it seemed like something to fight for.  I set out on that journey and failed so many times along the way.  I tried the front door, the back door, air, land and sea to get into this amazing cast of stellar performers and often times it seemed the “Impossible Dream.” I want to clarify something here and remind you the “Impossible Dream” was not to get on Broadway.   The “Unreachable Star” was not to make a career as a professional actor.  It was my “Quest to follow that star” that would one day lead me to perform on stage in Disney's The Lion King.

For the sake of time and space I will move to another part of this story.  By now, I had been in the Broadway Cast of Hairspray, Disney's The Little Mermaid, Hair, Ragtime, and The Book Of Mormon.  At this point I had lost track of the number of The Lion King auditions I attended. I had lost track of the number of cities I had traveled in order to audition for the show.  For some reason I was still determined to be a part of this show and I could no longer explain this insane adventure.

“No matter how hopeless, no matter how far.  To fight for the right, without question or pause, to be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause.”
— The Impossible Dream, "Man of La Mancha"

AND SUDDENLY MY EYES WERE OPENED!

The year is now 2012 and I have an email from Ronald Vodicka that reads, “WELCOME TO THE PRIDELANDS” in the subject line. I still have this email message because there is still a part of me that thinks it was all a dream  A wonderful and delectable dream, but still a dream.  Here I was, headed to that magical place.  Here I was joining the cast of Disney’s The Lion King.  Finally, I had accomplished "The Impossible Dream”.  I was going to be a swing in this show.  I was terrified as the Management Team brought me around the building to meet everyone. EVERYONE. You will not believe how many people are in this building.  It is truly a small village and this village made me feel so welcomed. This immediately felt like home with over 100 people living and working in this small village. This massive ensemble of cast and crew would become my FAMILY.

This next moment answered all the questions I had in my mind.  Why did I need this so badly? What is it about this show and ensemble that pulled me in this direction for so many years? Why do I immediately feel at peace in this small village known as the Minskoff Theatre? Over the loudspeaker the entire company was immediately sent to the Women's Ensemble Dressing Room. I was led across the massive stage and down to the Ladies Dressing Room with a sense of urgency. I heard others rushing and in hushed tones I heard a few phrases. “Yes, it’s the cubs.”  “Because we love them.” “Hurry up, we cannot miss it.” Once inside I felt like a sardine in a can. How did all of these people fit into this space?  Why were we all in this space?  Suddenly the ladies all dressed in black began to lead a funeral service. A FUNERAL SERVICE? How did I know it was a funeral?  Well they were all dressed in black with hats and veils, organ music playing, and tears flowing. Apparently the young cubs in the show, Simba and Nala, had a goldfish. Milky Bones had come to the end of his life and it only makes sense that we celebrate life and death in the building.  “It’s The Circle Of Life” and the village had to support the young cubs as they said goodbye to their little friend.  We cried, prayed, shared stories and then all sang WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN as we celebrated the life of Milky Bones. After the celebration the cast ran to places and shared that same giving spirit with their sold out house. Just one of many magical backstage moment being a part of this glorious ensemble.

Over the next two years, this village would have amazing Halloween gatherings complete with making our very own haunted house. holiday door decorating contests. Raising awareness of social causes and supporting Broadway Cares Events. This village would have a chili cook-off on Superbowl Sunday.  This special village would celebrate the largest and smallest accomplishments of its citizens and lift you up when you were feeling low. Birthdays, Anniversaries, Engagements, graduations, births, Sunday brunch  and Winning Gypsy of the Year, fighting Cancer and celebrating life were all HUGE CELEBRATIONS in this village. So many moments and stories I could share with you.  So many tears of joy, afternoons of laughter, personal journeys and discoveries happened during my time in this village.

Can you tell that I just LOVE THIS PLACE?  When I was asked to share a few thoughts on being a part of this Ensemble I immediately jumped at the opportunity.  Since The Lion King I have been lucky to work on Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Les Miserables, Shuffle Along, and In Transit and years later, and I still call this place home. The Pridelands is home. There is a “wall of fame” with headshots of the long legacy of performers that have graced this amazing show and I am proud to be part of that legacy.  Everyone is still considered family and I cannot express how much security and safety that gives me and we navigate the entertainment industry.  The universe has a way of taking care of us and the universe allowed me to fight to join this family and for that I am eternally grateful.  

20 years and counting. 70 million audience members and counting.