You may recognize his image high above Times Square and on buses, cabs and subways throughout the city. The costume, makeup and headdress give this statuesque man an even more regal appearance. As his childhood buddy, I would argue that his signature grin always gives him away, stripped of the theatrical accouterments. Most people, though, might not make the connection between the face on the billboards and that man next in line, grabbing tea or a bite, running for the train on his daily commute into the city.
He is Mufasa, King of Pride Rock, Broadway’s Lion King.
He is also western Queens resident L. Steven Taylor, a creator, artist, father, student, teacher and friend. For Taylor, it is always surreal to see his image throughout the city he calls home, but he says that he is grateful for these reminders of the course life can take.
As many performers know, stable show contracts can be hard to come by, the process often taking much longer than a standard hiring courtship. Taylor first auditioned for “The Lion King” casting associates at an open call at Indiana University in 2002. After waiting in line for hours with more than 1,000 hopefuls, he sang (on a very cold voice). He was let go, and he drove back to Indy with friends.
Still, he had felt a sense of interest from the casting people. So Taylor auditioned again after moving his wife, Erin, and son, Steven Jr., to Seattle for an unrelated theater job. That audition led to subsequent auditions, and eventually to San Francisco, where he was invited to attend “Lion King University.”
“It was an amazing experience,” Taylor said. “We were taught South African history, language, dialects, dance and culture, all culminating in a performance for the creative team.”
All of these events occurred over a span of three years, while Taylor was working on other shows. One day, during his lunch break on “Miss Saigon” at a theater in Seattle, he was offered a six-month temporary ensemble/Mufasa understudy track in “The Lion King” on Broadway.
“That is when we first moved to Astoria,” Taylor said. “I took the contract; the guy never came back, so I stayed with the show for eight months. After that it was a series of years bouncing between Mufasa on the Gazelle National Tour and ensemble work understudying Mufasa and Scar on Broadway. I’ve been the permanent Mufasa on Broadway a year this past June. A 12-year journey from Wildebeest #1 to the king of Pride Rock.”
Twelve years connected to a show can seem unique in the entertainment business, though it does occur. Taylor, like many artists, also takes on other opportunities, but had much to say about his connection to this special show.
“I love the effect it has on people,” Taylor said. “It is such a positive show, so universally relatable. At some point in our life we were all a Simba, lost trying to find his way. As a father I relate to Mufasa — wanting to keep my son safe and instill ideals that he will eventually pass on to his kids and affect his own community.”
He appreciates not only the show’s portrayal of this ubiquitous family dynamic but also the glimpse it gives the audience into South African culture.
“I adore how the culture is represented in the show,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of shows that represent African Americans in the roles of Africans in such a positive light, and under the lens of this beautiful South African heartbeat. Especially with everything going on in the media, we have an opportunity to dispel stereotypes every night. We get to make people think differently.”
After all this time working on the show, Taylor calls the people he works with “family.”
“We laugh together, cry together,” he said. “We have been through births, weddings, deaths, major events — they keep my head straight and give me the opportunity to do the same for them.”
Taylor admits that he never saw his life unfolding in quite this way.
“Broadway wasn’t the primary goal,” he said. “It was creating — a character, choreography, whatever it was. Being an artist means getting out of your own way, especially when creating art that is going to affect others. It forces you to look at yourself critically, change, evolve, provide space and transport someone else. Doing that for another is one of the greatest things we can do. Performing does that for me; Broadway is icing on the cake.”
I asked Taylor to share some of his favorite places for family time, fitness and food with QNS readers.
Family hangout spot
“I love Astoria Park. There is so much going on year-round,” he said. “I remember in the winters taking Steven Jr. sledding there. In the summers, it was the pool. It is a chill place … the movies, the carnival, running around the track. It has been great to watch it develop over the years.”
DOMA Taekwondo on Ditmars has been a significant part of Taylor and Steven Jr.’s father/son bonding time. It grew an ongoing appreciation for and incorporation of martial arts into Taylor’s daily life.
“Steven Jr. started there at [age] 5. He loved it. I went to a family class and was instantly hooked. Master Lee (the owner at the time) is infectious. He is the biggest, cuddliest teddy bear and so knowledgeable of the art form. I was a student and a volunteer assistant. It eventually became a five-year second job. Martial arts provides clarity. It triggers different parts of my brain and keeps me centered. There is a sense of balance. When I am training consistently it transfers over into my performing life. I am more receptive to people and energies, and my booking ratio goes up.”
“Pizza Palace!” Taylor said with no hesitation. “My buddy Jack runs the place. It is so chill and laid-back. It is like walking into my uncle’s kitchen. I love to hang there.”