Brown teaches students Broadway choreography.
Russell Brown, a veteran performer in Disney’s The Lion King, performed this summer at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The AFRO sat down with Brown for a one-on-one interview.
AFRO: How long have you been performing in the Lion King?
Russell Brown: I’ve been associated with the show since 2005. This is my third contract. I was on the West Coast tour from 2005 to 2008. In the summer of 2008, I was asked to go to Taiwan with the show, and we played the Taipei Convention Center for seven weeks. I joined the North American Tour in June 2010, and I’ve been here ever since.
AFRO: How were you originally hired?
Russell Brown: It’s really unbelievable how this job came about. It opened on Broadway in 1997. I started auditioning for the show in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In 1999, Disney paid me to take three weeks of classes to learn the South African languages that are used in the show. In 2000 and 2001, I’m still auditioning for the show but have not been hired, that’s 4 years of auditioning. I came in for Simba, for Mufasa, for Mufasa and Scar’s cover, I came in for Simba again. Four (more) years later, I get a call from Disney (2005).
AFRO: How long have you studied dance? Acting? Singing?
Russell Brown: I started studying classical ballet in the 4th grade. My sister was a professional ballerina at Dance Theatre of Harlem, and I thought I was going to dance at DTH with her. I studied classical ballet for eight and half years, then I switched over to theatre and voice.
AFRO: Where did you go to college?
Russell Brown: I graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta. I finished in 1988 and worked in corporate America for three years before I moved to New York to be an actor. I’ve been a professional actor since 1991, almost 23 years.
Russell Brown poses with students at a lecture at the Community Folk Art Center’s Creative Academy in Syracuse, N.Y.
AFRO: As a career performer, where do you get your stamina from?
Russell Brown: I’ve very meticulous about the way I care for my body and especially for my voice. I eat properly and I’m usually in the gym six days a week. At 50 years old, I have to stay in shape so that I can prevent injuries.
AFRO: What are some of the highlights of your career?
Russell Brown: It would have to be singing a duet with the opera star Jessye Norman. I also was the guest soloist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York for four very famous funerals: Arthur Ashe, Dizzy Gillespie, Thurgood Marshall, and Cab Calloway.
AFRO: What is your vocal range?
Russell Brown: I am a bass baritone. I have all of the low notes of the baritone but I also sing a “G” above “C.” I sing all of those notes every night in Lion King. There are not a lot of basses that can sing that high, so you might say I have job security! (laughter)
AFRO: What characters do you play in the Lion King ensemble?
Russell Brown: I play a lot of different characters and I have nine costume changes. In the opening I’m a wildebeest, I have my fan plant, play a hyena, I go back to being a wildebeest for the stampede. I understudy the role of Mufasa which is the Lion King in the first half. I’ve probably performed that role maybe 220 – 250 times. Not too many times! (laughter) When I first got hired, I was an understudy for Mufasa and Scar, the evil brother.
AFRO: What are your future plans?
Russell Brown: I’m on an open ended contract. My plan is to stay another five years and then open a school of musical theatre, probably in my hometown of Augusta, Ga. I’m also looking into some distance learning where I can teach over the Internet across the world.
AFRO: What is your life philosophy?
Russell Brown: To give first and everything will be open to you. If I seek first to give of myself before I start asking of society, of God, of relationships, then everything is a whole lot easier for me when I start “asking.” We are Christians and we are called to give.