Shaun Escoffery is the happiest corpse I have ever met.
It is 15:15 on a Wednesday afternoon, and the matinee audience of The Lion King has just witnessed Escoffery, playing lion king Mufasa, being unceremoniously trampled to death by a herd of stampeding wildebeest. He doesn’t look too bad for it, to be honest, and is a bundle of excitement, enjoyment and laughter when he nips upstairs to the offices above the Lyceum theatre.
Escoffery originally auditioned for the part of young lion Simba when the successful show was first cast nine years ago. Unlucky at that time, he has since forged a reputation that saw The Lion King’s producers come knocking when they needed a new Mufasa to lead the popular Disney musical towards its tenth year in the West End.
“There’s so many times I speak to people and [their job’s] a chore,” Escoffery states with a smile as wide as his face. “This is definitely not a chore.” He doesn’t really need to say this. It is obvious from his demeanour, his attitude and the fact that throughout our interview he barely stops grinning or laughing, that he loves his job. “I feel part of the family after three weeks,” he beams.
The Lion King is famed for its design and choreography, which recreates the flora and fauna of the African savannah. As part of the training for his new role, Escoffery has had to learn how to move in a Balinese fashion which he describes as “cat-like, but regal”. He has had to learn how to work the puppetry of his crown-like mask. And he has had to do this under the scrutiny of an audience that expects certain things from this world famous production. “I suppose it’s become a bit of an institution,” he admits. “People come to London; see The Lion King, see St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s become a landmark, so the pressure was huge.”
"If I don’t do what I love doing then what’s the point"
If it weren’t for the smiles and the laughter, Escoffery could be a frightening figure of a man. He has an imposing frame that makes him ideal for playing the king of beasts. During the second half of the show in which, due to his untimely death, he is largely unneeded, he works on his fitness in a shared work out room. He might seem like a pussy cat, but I have an idea his bite would be very much worse than his joyful bark (if you’ll excuse the mixing of metaphorical animals). In addition to the physique which, even when wearing striped dungarees and face paint, is intimidating, Escoffery has a background in martial arts. Karate, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, kickboxing, Thai boxing; Escoffery likes his contact sports, which he succinctly describes as “all very kind of ‘argh’”.
The physical training, body control and idiosyncratic stances that are integral to so many of these fighting techniques proved invaluable when learning the stylised movements for The Lion King. They helped less with learning to both wear and operate the striking headdress that doubles up as the awesome face of king Mufasa. But with practice, explains Escoffery – “and you don’t realise when it actually happens” – the puppetry of it becomes second nature. “Now, for me to go up on stage without the mask, I’d feel extremely naked, where before it was extremely alien.”
The Lion King comes as a stark contrast to Escoffery’s last West End production. Jason Robert Brown’s dramatic musical Parade, which was staged at the Donmar Warehouse in autumn 2007, saw Escoffery playing three different characters; a septuagenarian slave, an educated servant and a “nasty rogue”. His performance earned him a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best Performance In A Supporting Role In A Musical.
“I was all over the place,” he says, laughing as he thinks of the moment he received the news of his nomination from the Donmar’s Artistic Director Michael Grandage. “To be recognised for something you just love doing… I was not expecting it at all, not even in the slightest.
“Just actually to be on the table and just have my name read out,” he says of the ceremony. “Just to be in amongst some of them real great actors, I just thought, ‘Okay, do you know what, I actually feel like I’ve achieved something tonight, win or lose.’ Just to be nominated was fantastic.”
"Theatre gives me a buzz, it scares the hell out of me"
On the night, the award went to Hairspray star Tracie Bennett, but in her speech she singled out Escoffery for praise, saying she wished she could share her award with him. “I felt like I’d definitely won something that night,” he states humbly.
The jump from Parade to The Lion King, however, is a mere trifle compared to Escoffery’s previous career leap.
Though they both involve singing, there is a world of difference between appearing in musical theatre and earning a living as a cutting-edge, urban, soul recording artist.
Escoffery’s rich, engulfing, wrap-it-round-you-like-a-blanket singing voice and singular artistic vision saw him heralded and supported by leading music industry figures including DJ Trevor Nelson. His career to date has included recording three albums and jetting around the world on tours. But there is a suspicion that if he had been a little more financially minded, he could have rattled out commercial R&B instead of his more sophisticated sound and made it a lot bigger in music. That, Escoffery argues (with a smile on his face), would be “a bit like gaining the world but selling your soul. Then I’m not an artist. I know financially I might be a bit better off, but my thing is; if I don’t do what I love doing then what’s the point, if its going to stop exactly what I am setting out to achieve, and that’s expressing myself in the purest way I can?”
The recording career, which, though he is still writing and gigging, has been placed on the back burner for a while, left Escoffery with more than a few unique memories. He was, for example, flown first class to America to sing the National Anthem before the Lennox Lewis / Mike Tyson fight. The only downside was that because this was when Tyson was more volatile than a hungry hyena, the anthems had to be sung before the boxers were in the ring as they did not know what might happen. Subsequently, Escoffery wasn’t televised. “I was gutted, absolutely gutted, because I wanted all my friends to see me singing the National Anthem; I’d always dreamed about doing it.” Similarly, he has also been able to meet one of his idols, Muhammad Ali: “I felt like a gooey little kid. I went ‘Um, um, um… hello?’ A big man, and I turned absolutely proper star struck.”
Escoffery laughs again – a big, hearty laugh, the kind of laugh that stands up to be counted, a laugh fit for a king – as he talks about his family and growing up in a house full of music. His mother was a singer who would write and rehearse with her group on a Sunday while Escoffery and his sister watched. While his mother sang, his Dad would be “blasting out tracks” from Phil Collins to Bob Marley. “I never thought I’d be a singer,” Escoffery sighs, “I never thought I’d be a performer, I just enjoyed what they did.”
"He pushed buttons that just completely wrecked me"
Though he is still involved in making music – he is also teaching himself to play the guitar when not working out offstage at the Lyceum – his focus is now, more than ever, on acting: “Theatre is just… It’s just done something to me. Maybe I’ve just grown up or matured more, but I’m so in love with it, it’s ridiculous. It gives me a buzz, it scares the hell out of me: it’s new characters and new ways to try and explore a character, and ‘How am I going to portray it on stage, how am I going to interact with my fellow actors?’ It just lights me up, it just gives me a real buzz. I’m just in love with it, with the acting, the art of it. I’m diving more into the acting and really exploring it. That’s where I want to go; that’s definitely where I want to go.”
As Escoffery’s exuberant nature suggests, he throws himself into whatever he commits to. Doing things by halves, I venture, would not be an option. He certainly revelled in working with director Rob Ashford on Parade: “He just pushed certain buttons that just completely wrecked me, so he brought out a lot in me. To be able to play a character with no inhibitions [Jim Conley] and just get out there and be as wild and as nasty and as sarcastic as I wanted to be was wicked.”
Whether it be martial arts, pull ups in the fitness room, creating music or playing Mufasa in The Lion King, Escoffery is one of those people who, with a wealth of good humour and abundance of energy, throws everything into being as good as he possibly can. It could be sickening, but its not. Just spending time with him is life-affirming and should probably be available on the NHS.
As the interview ends, he jokes with the office workers before being reminded that he has an off-stage voiceover to perform in five minutes. He runs off down the hall; not too dissimilar to a lion across the plains, but with that resonant laugh reverberating, rather than a roar.