In Disney's The Lion King, currently playing on stage at The Orpheum, audiences are constantly reminded of the hierarchy of the animal kingdom. Mufasa is king, and son Simba will be his successor. There is no room for two kings.
Enter Scar, the lion who would be and should be king, at least in his own mind. He questions Mufasa's rule by asking his subjects, the hyenas, "What does he have that I don't have?"
For anyone who's ever felt a twinge of envy and resentment toward an older sibling, better athlete, or smarter student, this line is relative -- at least Scar hopes so. "The audience isn't going to be rooting for me no matter what, but there's something upsetting about what happens to Scar and what he does to other people," says veteran actor Dan Donohue, who plays the role in the touring show. "My job is to let the audience step into his shoes a little bit ... and when he gets torn apart by the hyenas at the end, hopefully the audience will say, 'I don't wish that on anybody.'"
Playing a villain is new for Donohue, who also auditioned for the much lighter role of Zazu the bird. His stage credits since joining the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1994 include parts in Julius Caesar and As You Like It. He has also had small roles in the television comedy The Drew Carey Show and the film The Contract.
Donohue calls the play "completely theatrical" because it doesn't turn the story into a realistic representation but engages the audience to draw their own conclusions and form opinions. "The transformation to Scar was surprising to me, and when I first got cast, I couldn't picture myself in the role," he says. "But bit by bit through rehearsals, costume, and makeup, I slowly and surely thought, This is where Dan fits into this whole picture, but it's been a slow process."
That process: adjusting to a 45-pound costume (complete with leather pants, body armor, and mask), enduring 45 minutes of makeup application each night, and exercise to prepare for the rigors of the show. That's just the physical part. Emotionally, he tries to soak up Scar's traits, conveying danger balanced with relish for Scar's bad behavior.
The Lion King already had fans, both children and adults, through the animated film. Success is pretty much guaranteed, so actors have to measure their performances by their own standards. Donohue rates his Scar experience as unique and educational, with daily lessons on acting in a musical. He measures this role each day, as he does all others, on whether he will ultimately be a better actor.
"There are very specific kinds of technical things that are in this show, but essentially they are in all shows. With the puppets and masks, all we need to do is find out what the character wants and how they go about getting what they want," he says. "It does take a bit more imagination, but the work remains the same."
Donohue is contracted with Disney through August 2004 and has no plans yet for his next role. While this show may be the largest of his career, he takes the attention and success in stride. A 1976 postcard from the Showtime version of The New Mickey Mouse Club is posted on the actor's Web site. "Since Showtime will feature youngsters who have an exceptional singing, dancing, or musical ability, with a marked degree of performance experience, we regret that you do not qualify," reads the postcard.
"Most of the time with acting, it's about rejection," says Donohue. "The things they say in the postcard ... sometimes I feel that they are true because I really don't see myself as a singer or dancer. But I'm fortunate to be able to do these things now without falling off the stage."
The Lion King runs through January 4th, with performances each night except Monday and two matinees on weekends.