Straight from the Hyena's mouth!

By: Jul. 03, 2024
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Forest Van Dyke is coming to Houston to play Banzai, the lead hyena in The Lion King. This is his off-broadway debut, and playing a hyena professionally must be really interesting! Broadway at the Hobby Center will run THE LION KING from July 11th through August 4th. The show promises something for everyone, including a wonderful design from original Broadway director Julie Taymor. This will be one of Houston’s hottest tickets of the summer!   

Brett Cullum: How long have you been on this tour?

Forest VanDyke: Oh, I started in January of 2022. So it's been about two and a half years now!

Actually, during the first year, we went to my hometown of Austin, which was really nice! That coincided with my birthday and allowed my parents and family to come and see me perform, which is a real gift.

Brett Cullum: Have you always played Banzai, or have you switched roles at all?

Forest VanDyke: Yeah, I've always played Banzai. I auditioned for Banzai, did the callback, and came to the role in January 2022. And actually, our director, Keith Bennett, was Banzai for about twenty years before I arrived, and was so great! I was intimidated coming in because I had heard so much about the great Keith Bennett, but as soon as I came in, he made me feel so relaxed and said, “You know everybody's Banzai is different. You make this your own.” And so we had a great time playing for about a month, and then I came to Detroit, and that's where I had my debut in February of 2022.

Brett Cullum: In the animated movie Cheech of Cheech and Chong, Cheech Marin was Banzai's original voice. Did you ever borrow anything from him? 

Forest VanDyke: You know, you can't discount the original animated film. I did go back, and I watched it, and I got inspiration from the way that Cheech and all the hyenas played with each other. There was this mixture of fun and camp and danger. So I pulled a few things from him, and in my first few performances, I was trying to channel Cheech's voice. But it's morphed into whatever it's become for me. It's a bit deeper, a bit more gravelly. But oh, my gosh! There's nothing like the original animated film.  

Brett Cullum: You know, when I was researching the hyenas from the film, they each have a name that means something. And did you know that what your name means?

Forest VanDyke: I'm embarrassed to say I don't know. I would love to learn.

Brett Cullum: They each have a different meaning in Swahili, and yours, “Banzai” means “to skulk.” To quietly and secretly stalk or hunt things.  

Forest VanDyke: Oh!

Forest VanDyke: Oh, that's great to skulk, 'cause you know, that makes sense when they're sneaking up on their prey. 

Brett Cullum: “Shenzi” (the lady Hyena) means “savage” in Swahili. And then there's Ed, right? That doesn't mean anything. Poor Ed is simply Ed! So, if anyone out there wins a trivia round, please thank me! 

What do you think makes The Lion King different from other Disney shows? What do you think is the contrast between this and the rest?   

Forest VanDyke: All of these shows have something very special to them. What I love about The Lion King is that it feels incredibly organic from the Earth. I think part of that is due to Julie Taymor's vision to translate everything through puppetry, which feels visceral and immersive. It feels… true. It feels beautiful and universal. 

I know these are such big concepts, but the show feels equally big and incredibly intimate. And I think that's why people keep returning to the show year after year. They're bringing their kids. Different generations are coming to see the show because there's something you discover. I think that's what makes the show incredibly special.

Julie Taymor honors the original vision and look of the animated film but makes it feel so real. And, of course, nobody can forget, you know, “The Circle of Life” when the elephant comes down. Big Bertha is what we call her, and I'm inside on one of the legs in the back. At that moment, everyone buys into the fact that this will be something different. Maybe life-changing!

Brett Cullum: The Lion King feels like it has staying power. It feels like a Phantom or a Les Miserables. Why do you think it has that same power? It’s now a legacy musical! 

Forest VanDyke: I think that's what it is. I still watch. There is something unspoken about the opening number. I still, if I'm able to sit out and watch the show, if I'm swung out, which means my understudy or swing goes on. I still get emotional watching that scene. I get emotional watching what we call “the apparition scene,” where Simba's crying out to his father and his father appears in the clouds. But the way it happens in the show! His face comes together via puppets and people in the show who bring a big mask together, and it is so magical yet tangible.

Then, there is the huge theme, the hero's journey. Simba goes away and finds things inside him: courage, integrity, and things he learns from others. He comes back to claim what is rightfully his.

Those are things that people can grasp onto and that will never go out of style. That's why so many stories deal with the hero's journey. 

And this is one story that is fully present!

Brett Cullum: I think it's interesting. When I go see a Disney show, I think some skew younger. There are some, like The Lion King, that reach a more diverse audience.

Forest VanDyke: Oh, yeah. There's something for everybody! Of course, all those large themes I was talking about. The complex themes are the things that adults can get. But then the kids, there's the comedic physical gags. There's fart jokes. There are bright colors, amazing dancers, songs, and the piece's momentum.

It keeps your attention. There's always something for kids. You're gonna see me hitting Ed upside the head. And you know what kid doesn't love that? I love it. I'm a kid at heart. 

Brett Cullum: Half the fun, I think, of going to see these shows is seeing the kids dress up. They're so excited! 

Forest VanDyke: I love it. Come on. Well, you know, it’s a cosplay moment. It's just great! And, of course, everyone loves to dress up as Simba and Mufasa. But when I see some kids who are dressed to be one of the hyenas, I'm like, “Smart kid, smart kid! You got taste.”

Brett Cullum: I gotta watch out for those kids. I will probably show up dressed as a hyena! 

Tell me a little bit about how you ended up in this role. What was the audition process like?

Forest VanDyke: Yeah, so this was after the pandemic. I had just done a show called Mystic Pizza, and I had come back to my little apartment in Brooklyn. I had just gotten a new agent. I was excited about that; this was the 1st thing they sent me out on. I had to make a self-tape for Banzai.

 So I sang “Chow Down,” and I did the scene right before that. I sang one of my own songs, and I sent it in. I got a callback. I was nervous and excited. This was the biggest thing I'd ever had the prospect of going in for. 

That evening, I found out that I booked it. My agent called and said, “How'd it go?” I said, “I think they like me!” She said. “Well, congratulations 'cause you booked it!” Two days before Thanksgiving 2021, I went home and told my parents! They were excited, and I started in January 2022.

Brett Cullum: What have been some of your favorite roles before The Lion King?

Forest VanDyke: I played David in the West Coast premiere of Choir Boy. I love that role. It was difficult. It was hard; it was challenging. That was my first time on the West Coast. Honestly, that's why I loved it so much! Beautiful sunshine! 

Peter, in Jesus Christ Superstar, which I performed in. I love that role. I love the music, choreography, and the people involved. I'll go with those two as standouts for me.

Brett Cullum: Are there any roles you've always wanted to play? Is there a bucket list role or two?

Forest VanDyke: Yeah, I mean, the one that comes foremost to mind is Angels in America and the character of Belize. I just find that role fascinating. And Jeffrey Wright is one of my favorite actors. So, seeing him in that mini-series on HBO was a life changer! 

Maybe something in Sweeney Todd. I'd love to be in Sweeney Todd; I love that show.

Brett Cullum: Have you ever been to Houston?

Forest VanDyke: I have, but I have to tell you. It's been so long. I'm so looking forward to coming back. I have family members there, but I spent a good amount of my time in Austin and Fort Worth. It's been years since I’ve been in Houston, but I can't wait to return.

 Brett Cullum: We're definitely excited to have you.


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