On Sunday, The Lion King celebrates its 25th Broadway anniversary. That will also be a milestone for Ray Mercer, who's been with the show for 20 years, making him one of the longest-running male dancers in Broadway history. In addition to playing the 14-foot-tall giraffe in that iconic "Circle of Life" opening number, Mercer plays a number of other ensemble roles throughout the show, as well as being fight captain. But his work doesn't start and stop with The Lion King. An award-winning choreographer, Mercer has choreographed for companies, universities, and theaters around the world, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Smithsonian Museum. Ahead of the anniversary festivities, we caught up with Mercer to talk about his inspiration, the impact of The Lion King, and his exciting dual career of 20+ years.
Can you tell us about some of the other animals you perform in The Lion King?
I have between 13 and 15 different costume changes in the show. I’m a giraffe at the top of the show and then I’m grass, then I’m a hyena, which involves a lot of jumping and tumbling around. I get to be a wildebeest, I get to be a human for a little bit. But the giraffe is my favorite.
How long does it take to put on that giraffe costume?
I’ve been doing it for 20 years so at this point my dresser and I have it down to a science. I can do it in about two minutes.
The Lion King is full of incredible moments, is there one in particular that you’re especially fond of?
I think my favorite moment is “The Circle of Life.” It’s just that iconic opening number that will probably go down in history. It really captures what the whole show is about and the audience always loves it. We’re all there, the processional, all the animals that you see at the beginning. I think one of the most iconic visuals is when the sun is rising and you see the two giraffes walking across on the diagonal in front of the sun. It's just stunning.
And you recently got to perform that number on The Late Show with Steven Colbert.
We had rehearsed that probably a week prior to going on the show. I was wondering how we were going to fit everything on that stage, but once we got there it was fantastic. The audience was so amazing, so receptive, and Colbert and his staff were very nice. We had so much fun.
You’ve choreographed a lot of projects over the years, all while performing eight shows a week. How do you keep up the energy to do all that?
I’ve been so fortunate that I’ve been able to have a dual career. As a performer, I get to perform eight shows a week, and I’m also a choreographer. I think what’s really important to me is that both those jobs are equally important. I stay busy but I’m so grateful that I’m able to do them both. I’ve been able to choreograph for companies around the world, I’ve been able to choreograph musicals, I’ve worked in conjunction with Howard University, and I have one of my works archived in the Smithsonian. And The Lion King has been great about giving me time off occasionally to do other projects. So I am extremely grateful to have a dual career both as a performer and also as a choreographer.
Has your time with The Lion King influenced your choreography at all?
Absolutely. And my time at The Lion King has been a blessing in that I have access to so much: musicians, composers, wardrobe designers, dancers--we have some of the most incredible dancers in the world here at Lion King--and set designers and carpenters. Most choreographers would have to go reach out to people like that, where I have the advantage of having all of that in-house with me.
What or who else has had an influence on your work?
I think that being here in the city, being here in New York, has had an influence on me. As a choreographer I’ve always been attracted to things that touch the human spirit, things that affect us all as human beings. The fact that we all fall in love, we all get angry or sad, all those human emotions. New York is a very vibrant, live city with a whole lot of inspiration, so I’m always being inspired by the things that are happening in the city, and things that are happening socially. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about speed dating and that ended up inspiring a show I choreographed. So really anything that's humanistic.
Any recent project you’ve worked on that you especially enjoyed?
I choreographed for Theatre Aspen in Aspen, Colorado. I worked with Hunter Foster, he was the director, and I choreographed Jersey Boys. We had an amazing time. The cast was fantastic, the creative team was fantastic. We had a really good time building and creating that show.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I’m just really proud of the fact that I’ve been able to sustain a dance career with one of the biggest shows in Broadway history. Being part of The Lion King for 20 years, dancing in the show for 20 years, is really quite unheard of. I'm one of the longest-running male dancers in Broadway history, so I am extremely proud of that. I’m also proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do both: I’ve been able to choreograph around the world for many different companies and dancers. I’m really grateful.
Looking ahead, is there any opportunity you haven’t had yet that you’d like to?
Yes, I’m going to choreograph a Broadway show. I’m very excited to do that.
Do you have something lined up or are you just willing it into existence?
I’m just putting it out into the universe.
For tickets to 'The Lion King' on Broadway, visit lionking.com.