AMERICAN THEATRE | For ‘The Lion King’s’ Ray Mercer, Life Keeps Coming Full Circle

Ray Mercer.

Ray Mercer had just finished his eighth performance of the week in Disney’s Broadway production of The Lion King. He hung up his final costume, returned his microphone, and headed to the stage door. He is usually the first one out, and his regular routine is to sign playbills from patrons excited to meet the actors.

That night’s encounter at the stage door was a little different: A woman who had just attended the show with her children asked him to sign his playbill—and he noticed he’d already signed it. It turned out that this woman saw Mercer in the show 18 years before, when he was just a few years into his Lion King tenure, and that night she had brought her young kids along to share in the experience she’d had years before: seeing someone who looked like her on the Great White Way.

This full-circle moment is just one of many that Mercer has had throughout his historic 20-year run with the iconic production, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary on Broadway. He is not the show’s longest-running cast member—that would be Lindiwe Dlamini, who has been in the show since its opening—but Mercer’s two-decade stint in the Disney hit still puts him in a rarefied position. While he has had different roles over the years, Mercer currently appears as the 14-foot-tall giraffe, and serves as the show’s fight captain.

A native of Omaha, Neb., Mercer never imagined that life would take him 1,200 miles away to the Great White Way. “God can dream a bigger dream than you can dream for yourself,” Mercer said in a recent interview. He was always drawn to performance, but Broadway wasn’t exactly in the picture. In fact, before auditioning for the show, he had been training to become an Olympic gymnast. Little did he know that gymnastic training would be ideal preparation for his Broadway debut.

His main background, though, was in dance. When he was 17, Mercer was introduced by a friend to ballet. “I walked into the studio and there were six- and seven-year-olds in pink tights and tutus, and here I was, this grown man going to this ballet class. But I fell in love with it,” he recalled. After attending college at the University of New Orleans, he worked as a flight attendant in Detroit for what is now known as Delta Airlines—the perfect job, according to Mercer, because it allowed him the flexibility to audition and continue training in dance.

Mercer’s journey brought him to the right place at the right time. He was dancing with Deeply Rooted, a dance company based in Chicago, where The Lion King happened to be holding auditions in 2003. Mercer told me he remembers the audition like it was yesterday.

“Every Black person in Chicago knew about this Lion King audition!” he said. Among a call with 80 other male dancers, he said, “I was a nervous wreck for the biggest reason: I wanted this job so bad. Sometimes it’s not about talent, it’s about what they are looking for. But I knew in my gut that this was exactly what I wanted to do.”

Mercer lasted a whole day in the audition, survived two cuts from casting, and watched as the room dwindled from 80 to 5. As his cohort shrunk and the tension grew, the choreographer asked the remaining dancers if they had any tumbling experience. Mercer laughingly recalled how he flipped all around that studio as if his life depended on it. Just two of the dancers in that room ended up cast in The Lion King, and one was Mercer.

Ray Mercer with his giraffe costume.

The rest, you might say, is history, but a history that keeps repeating. Mercer calls his experience in the show a responsibility that he doesn’t take lightly or for granted. Many Black theatregoers, myself included, cherish the Broadway production of The Lion King as one of the first times we saw ourselves represented onstage in a major production. Mercer understands how that representation resonates both on and off the stage. It’s also his catalyst for performing every night.

Mercer spoke passionately about the first time he saw a Broadway show: His aunt gifted him tickets to see The Tap Dance Kid. Mercer even remembers which seat he sat in at the Minskoff Theatre, now the home of The Lion King. “It changed my life forever. The impact of what it’s like when you see somebody who looks like you—it fills you with possibilities.” Now, he gets to be that same role model for the next generation of Broadway actors every night, and in the same theatre.

Though Mercer brings his full passion and dedication to his work onstage every night, behind the curtain, he is the cast’s biggest prankster; he especially loves to give folks a fright by hiding behind set pieces or stowing fake rodents in their costumes. When he’s not playing jokes on his castmates, he is sharing advice and wisdom with them. Mercer said he reminds them that when they are feeling tired or burned out, “Remember where you were when you first received that phone call that you would be in The Lion King. Remember that feeling and remember that joy.”

Ray Mercer.

There have also been some moments he looks back on with amusement. He laughed as he recalled the time when, during a performance on his birthday, he got halfway through a scene in his giraffe costume when his foot slid and he couldn’t recover his balance. A couple of stagehands had to pull on his giraffe legs and slide him off the stage, and he received a round of applause from the audience.

When not doing eight shows a week, Mercer is pursuing his other passion of being a choreographer. Mercer holds the title as the most winning choreographer for the Broadway Cares’ Red Bucket Follies annual fundraiser. More recently he choregraphed dance pieces at the American Midwest Ballet, the Omaha Performing Arts Theatre, and Jersey Boys at Theatre Aspen.

“I like to feel nervous about a project—those are the rooms that inspire me,” he said of his work outside The Lion King, where the inspiration comes from a job done well for a new audience every night.

Rachelle Legrand (she/her) is an editorial contributor to American Theatre.

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