Leadership / 06.02.20
An Actor Shares His 2008 Tony Award Experience
James Brown-Orleans has a rather spectacular favorite Tony Awards memory. The actor, known to movie audiences as Doctor Motors in “The Princess Diaries,” was in one of the more memorable opening numbers of the Tony Awards. The year was 2008, and his show “The Lion King” was celebrating 10 years on Broadway with a cast performance of “The Circle of Life.” Brown-Orleans has played Banzai the hyena in the long-running show for the past 18 years. He was six years into his run when the Tonys beckoned.
The story begins the day before the ceremony. It was a Saturday, and he and the cast had performed both a matinee and an 8 p.m. show that ended at 10:45 p.m. “I made my way back to my dressing room; hung up my 30-pound Banzai puppet; stripped out of my hot, sticky, wet hyena costume; kicked off my heavy hyena combat boots; wiped the Banzai makeup off my face; and cleaned my makeup brushes. Then, as I still do after every show, I hopped in the shower and scrubbed my body with a bar of Irish Spring so as to not offend whoever is lucky to sit next to me on the New Jersey Transit bus home.”
But that Saturday night after washing himself clean, instead of rushing out of the theatre to catch the 11:45 p.m. bus at Port Authority, Brown-Orleans turned off the lights in his dressing room, hid himself between the hyena puppets and costumes, and quietly waited for security to make their rounds. When he was sure all was clear, he turned the lights back on and with a pair of sweatshirts, sweatpants, a bright gold Lion King blanket with a huge imprint of Mufasa’s face on it (“A gift to us from the producers to say, ‘Thank you for 10 wonderful years’), “I MacGyver-ed my bed on the floor next to the costume rack, set the alarm on my phone for 5 a.m. and went to sleep.”
When his alarm went off the following morning, Brown-Orleans was very glad he decided not to bus an hour and half home only to sleep for a couple of hours, then get up and travel back into the city for the cast’s 6 a.m. Tony Awards dress rehearsal at Radio City Music Hall. “That morning during our rehearsal,” he says, “rather than guzzling down a ton of coffee from the catering table to stay awake, I took in the excitement of it all. The men and women buzzing to and fro the stage adjusting camera angles, lights, microphones, sound, costumes, sets, props, etc. But most of all, the awesomeness that awaited us right after our 3 p.m. matinee.”
At 6 p.m., he and his fellow “Lion King” members boarded charter buses and made their way over to Radio City. “The energy on the bus was truly magical,” he says, beaming at the memory. “It’s the same energy I believe makes theatre a life-changing event. The same energy that called us to be artists, called us to this life of endless possibilities, this life of endless love and passion, this life in the theatre where we play for a living, and the living put aside their living for a couple of hours and go on a journey with us in our play.”
He also remembers taking in the scene outside Radio City. A parade of limousines lined the streets. Men and women in tuxedos and long flowing gowns seemed to glide out of their carriages. “Flashes from paparazzi lit up like fireworks as they captured every moment on their cameras,” he says. “Throngs of screaming theatre fans on the sidewalk shouted affections to the stars on the red carpet. ‘WOW!’ I gasped, ‘This is what Cinderella must have felt like when she arrived at the ball.’ Yes, I felt like Cinderella. And all the hundreds of auditions that resulted in a ‘No,’ in that very moment, paled in comparison to this one ‘YES!’ at the Tony Awards.”
Brown-Orleans and his cast members were ushered into the theatre where they all took their rightful place in the Circle of Life. Mufasa, Sarabi, Rafiki, the giraffes, the cheetah, the zebras, the gazelles, and the bird man took their place backstage. The two antelopes took theirs in the mezzanine.
“The bird ladies, the rhino, the wildebeests, Zazu, the baby elephant and the four of us who carried the big elephant down the aisle took our places in the lobby at the back of the house where we stretched our bodies, warmed up our voices and tried to calm our nerves,” he says. “The theatre community now all in their seats, and in front of their TV sets at home, we were ready to open the 2008 Tony Awards. The lights in the theatre slowly dimmed to darkness, and you could hear every member in the audience scoot to the edge of their seats. A spotlight immediately hit Rafiki as she called, ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!’ We responded, ‘Sithi uhm ingonyama!’ from backstage and out in the lobby.”
It was a call and response they had done hundreds of times before, but suddenly it felt like opening night all over again. Right on cue, Brown-Orleans and his three castmates loaded the elephant into their belts and into the house they marched.
“One of the many reasons why I love being a part of ‘The Circle of Life’ is because, as the ‘Left Front Leg of the Elephant,’ I get a chance as we’re marching down the aisle to stare into the faces of men and women, boys and girls, from all walks of life who are either seeing the show for the first time or for the umpteenth time,” Brown-Orleans says. “And every time I do, their faces concur that I’m a part of something truly special that is bigger than me and will continue to bless others long after I’m gone.”
He continues, “As we entered into the house chanting, ‘Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala.’ Fear kept whispering in my ear to not look at the audience. ‘Keep your head and eyes front and center, James!’, Fear commanded. Trust me. You do not want to be remembered as the guy in the left front leg who got so distracted he tripped in the middle of the aisle, causing the entire elephant to fall on top of Julie Taymor at the 2008 Tony Awards.”
But Brown-Orleans says a stronger force that night was Faith, which, right before entering the aisle, intervened and banished Fear away from his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Faith made him take in “every face beaming with joy, every teary eye and every smile wide as the Grand Canyon. And what I saw on the faces of my theatre brothers and sisters was gratitude,” he says. “Gratitude for the moment, for each other, for a night to celebrate one another and those who spend their hard-earned money to come see us play for the first time, the umpteenth time, or the last time. These are the memories and gratitude I still carry with me to this day.”
The performance can be viewed here.
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Tags: Theater , Broadway