Bradley Gibson joined the Broadway company of Disney’s The Lion King last summer after stints in the original casts of Rocky and A Bronx Tale. Playing the coveted role of Simba has been a dream come true for the young native of Pinehurst, North Carolina, who shares his Lion King memories and current daily routine with Broadway Direct.
I was 15 years old when I saw The Lion King on Broadway, on a trip to New York with my high school choir. I sat in the first row of the mezzanine in the center seat, because my teacher knew that I was the one kid in the choir who really wanted to be a performer on Broadway. When the show began, it was so exciting to see a stage filled with people who looked like me. That was eye-opening. I had been singing and dancing my whole life but had never been in a show with all people of color. I had never seen a show like that! The Lion King made me feel like my dreams were valid; it let me know that there was a place for me in New York, and that I would be welcomed here if I worked hard and put my best foot forward.
When I was cast as Simba, I had done two original Broadway musicals, so I thought the transition into The Lion King would be easy. In fact, it has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. This show is a fast-moving train, and finding my place in it has been a huge learning experience. It’s my third Broadway show, but my first time in a leading role. The show tells the story of Simba’s journey from childhood to the adult at the top of Pride Rock, and this has also been a year of transition and self-discovery for me.
My daily routine centers around doing whatever I can to be my best at 7 o’clock when the curtain goes up. I start the morning with hydration, then head to the gym because the show is very physical and I need to keep myself mobile and strong. I’m lucky enough to have an amazing fiancé [Adam Hyndman, who spent two years in the Broadway cast of Aladdin] who keeps me grounded and present, so I have lunch with him or with friends. It’s important to stay connected with people you care about. I often call my grandmother in North Carolina to catch up. I love her so much! My family has seen me in the show, and I do this work to honor them and their belief in me.
At the theatre, I say hello to everyone as I head to my dressing room, which I share with L. Steven Taylor, who plays Mufasa. Yes, father and son share a room! Sometimes I take a nap — the goal is always energy, energy, energy, and getting enough rest is an important part of that. There’s a real sense of family at the Minskoff. It’s relaxed and supportive because there has been so much time for everyone to settle in. The company has had births and deaths, and little Simbas have grown up and gone off to do other shows. They’ve experienced a lot together, and it’s nice to be part of that energy.
For most of Act One, Simba is a little boy, so I have that first hour to get ready. I drink a little green tea or coconut water, stretch, steam my voice, and do my vocal warm-up. Then I head to the top floor, where the great Brenda O’Brien does my makeup. She has worked with many Simbas, and the process takes about 20 minutes. I head back downstairs to put on my corset and mask, which has two microphones inside, then I swing in on a vine during “Hakuna Matata” and my show starts.
I always say that Simba was my first superhero, because he overcomes obstacles, defends his family, falls in love, and finds himself. My favorite moment in the show is the reprise of “He Lives in You,” when Rafiki tells Simba that he needs to go back to Pride Rock. It’s incredibly healing every night, because it shows that the people we love most will always live in us; we can hold them close and make them proud.
After the curtain comes down, it takes 10 or 15 minutes to get out my costume, and then I love meeting people at the stage door and hearing what the evening meant to them. I’ve never done a show where the audience is so excited and moved every night. I think that’s because the story is so human. It’s told through animals, but everyone can see and connect with the human feeling behind it. And it’s not just for old or young; it’s for everyone. I think back to seeing the animated movie with my mom when I was very young. I was laughing at “Hakuna Matata,” and then I looked over and saw her crying when Mufasa dies. That’s my first memory of the two of us sharing an experience in a theatre, and that’s the kind of connection that happens on Broadway.
Every time I step on stage in The Lion King, I remind myself that our show has the power to move people who are seeing it for the first time — or the 10th time. I do the show every day for myself, for my family, and for the little kids in the audience who will come after me. I do it for every 15-year-old sitting in a center seat in the front mezzanine, falling in love with Broadway for the first time.