Ray Mercer had simply completed his eighth efficiency of the week in Disney’s Broadway manufacturing of The Lion King. He hung up his remaining costume, returned his microphone, and headed to the stage door. He’s normally the primary one out, and his common routine is to signal playbills from patrons excited to fulfill the actors.
That night time’s encounter on the stage door was slightly completely different: A girl who had simply attended the present along with her youngsters requested him to signal his playbill—and he seen he’d already signed it. It turned out that this girl noticed Mercer within the present 18 years earlier than, when he was just some years into his Lion King tenure, and that night time she had introduced her younger children alongside to share within the expertise she’d had years earlier than: seeing somebody who seemed like her on the Nice White Means.
This full-circle second is only one of many who Mercer has had all through his historic 20-year run with the enduring manufacturing, which simply celebrated its twenty fifth anniversary on Broadway. He isn’t the present’s longest-running solid member—that may be Lindiwe Dlamini, who has been within the present since its opening—however Mercer’s two-decade stint within the Disney hit nonetheless places him in a rarefied place. Whereas he has had completely different roles over time, Mercer at present seems because the 14-foot-tall giraffe, and serves because the present’s combat captain.
A local of Omaha, Neb., Mercer by no means imagined that life would take him 1,200 miles away to the Nice White Means. “God can dream a much bigger dream than you may dream for your self,” Mercer mentioned in a current interview. He was at all times drawn to efficiency, however Broadway wasn’t precisely within the image. Actually, earlier than auditioning for the present, he had been coaching to turn into an Olympic gymnast. Little did he know that gymnastic coaching can be superb preparation for his Broadway debut.
His essential background, although, was in dance. When he was 17, Mercer was launched by a pal to ballet. “I walked into the studio and there have been six- and seven-year-olds in pink tights and tutus, and right here I used to be, this grown man going to this ballet class. However I fell in love with it,” he recalled. After attending faculty on the College of New Orleans, he labored as a flight attendant in Detroit for what’s now generally known as Delta Airways—the right job, based on Mercer, as a result of it allowed him the pliability to audition and proceed coaching in dance.
Mercer’s journey introduced him to the proper place on the proper time. He was dancing with Deeply Rooted, a dance firm primarily based in Chicago, the place The Lion King occurred to be holding auditions in 2003. Mercer advised me he remembers the audition prefer it was yesterday.
“Each Black individual in Chicago knew about this Lion King audition!” he mentioned. Amongst a name with 80 different male dancers, he mentioned, “I used to be a nervous wreck for the largest purpose: I needed this job so dangerous. Typically it’s not about expertise, it’s about what they’re in search of. However I knew in my intestine that this was precisely what I needed to do.”
Mercer lasted a complete day within the audition, survived two cuts from casting, and watched because the room dwindled from 80 to five. As his cohort shrunk and the strain grew, the choreographer requested the remaining dancers if they’d any tumbling expertise. Mercer laughingly recalled how he flipped throughout that studio as if his life trusted it. Simply two of the dancers in that room ended up solid in The Lion King, and one was Mercer.
The remaining, you may say, is historical past, however a historical past that retains repeating. Mercer calls his expertise within the present a duty that he doesn’t take flippantly or without any consideration. Many Black theatregoers, myself included, cherish the Broadway manufacturing of The Lion King as one of many first instances we noticed ourselves represented onstage in a significant manufacturing. Mercer understands how that illustration resonates each on and off the stage. It’s additionally his catalyst for performing each night time.
Mercer spoke passionately in regards to the first time he noticed a Broadway present: His aunt gifted him tickets to see The Faucet Dance Child. Mercer even remembers which seat he sat in on the Minskoff Theatre, now the house of The Lion King. “It modified my life eternally. The influence of what it’s like while you see any individual who appears such as you—it fills you with prospects.” Now, he will get to be that very same function mannequin for the subsequent technology of Broadway actors each night time, and in the identical theatre.
Although Mercer brings his full ardour and dedication to his work onstage each night time, backstage, he’s the solid’s greatest prankster; he particularly loves to present people a fright by hiding behind set items or stowing faux rodents of their costumes. When he’s not enjoying jokes on his castmates, he’s sharing recommendation and knowledge with them. Mercer mentioned he reminds them that when they’re feeling drained or burned out, “Bear in mind the place you have been while you first acquired that cellphone name that you’d be in The Lion King. Keep in mind that feeling and do not forget that pleasure.”
There have additionally been some moments he appears again on with amusement. He laughed as he recalled the time when, throughout a efficiency on his birthday, he received midway by way of a scene in his giraffe costume when his foot slid and he couldn’t recuperate his steadiness. A few stagehands needed to pull on his giraffe legs and slide him off the stage, and he acquired a spherical of applause from the viewers.
When not doing eight exhibits per week, Mercer is pursuing his different ardour of being a choreographer. Mercer holds the title as essentially the most profitable choreographer for the Broadway Cares’ Pink Bucket Follies annual fundraiser. Extra just lately he choregraphed dance items on the American Midwest Ballet, the Omaha Performing Arts Theatre, and Jersey Boys at Theatre Aspen.
“I wish to really feel nervous a couple of challenge—these are the rooms that encourage me,” he mentioned of his work outdoors The Lion King, the place the inspiration comes from a job finished properly for a brand new viewers each night time.
Rachelle Legrand (she/her) is an editorial contributor to American Theatre.
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