Wonderful as Disney’s entire production of The Lion King is, Syndee Winters stands out in the role of Nala.
Nala, for anyone who might not know the show, is the feline lady love (and conscience prodder) of Simba, the brave little lion cub whose rite of passage takes him to eventual self-discovery and reclamation of his dad’s throne. In the stage version of the famous Disney film, she also is a plumb assignment for an actor, featured in the show-stopping number “Shadowlands” and the popular duet “Can You See the Light.” It’s a part that calls for a performer who can emote, articulate and, in short, just plain bring it.
Winters’ qualifications to get the job done are documented. As is her skill as a dancer. Between both she has worked with Def Jam, MTV, Universal, ABC, Grandmaster Flash and more. Her stints include a stay as Madison Square Garden in-house featured vocalist, singing the national anthem for New York’s Knicks, Rangers and Liberty as well as recently at Target Center for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Now, the vastly accomplished profession kicks things up a considerable notch, starring in the current national tour of The Lion King. Between shows, Syndee Winters spoke with MSR about her craft and career.
MSR: How did you come by the role of Nala?
SW: My agent called and told me about the audition. I didn’t get a callback. Then five years later, they called my agent again and asked me to [come] back in. I auditioned and got a callback. Came back in and got another callback, [then] I auditioned for their creative team. Then they offered me a contract, and here I am!
MSR: A part like this, in a musical, is pretty much cut in stone. You don’t, as a vocalist, get to use a great deal of interpretive phrasing. So, how did you go about your approach to the role; how’d you go about bringing your own artistry to it?
SW: It isn’t really cut in stone. The greatest thing about theater and performing arts is it takes the artist to create the role and tell the story. Every night I tell Syndee Winters’ interpretation. It’s very special to me..
To have the opportunity to sing the songs eight shows a week for an audience and tell that story and bring the role of Nala from the feature film into the musical [and] have it be more prominent is really a joy for me. The notes are there but it’s about the feeling, the storytelling and what to expect as an artist to get from the songs and the story.
I sing it from my heart and tell the story from my heart. That’s how it feels fresh, and [I am] able to tell the story the way it should be told.
MSR: You anticipate my next question: Showing up for work six days a week with matinee and evening performances back to back on weekends, how do you keep it fresh for yourself?
SW: Like I said, it’s definitely something that comes from within. I’ve wanted to sing [these songs] for many years. And having the opportunity is a blessing.
Also, you keep in mind that the audience out there you’re performing for has never seen the show before. So, you don’t want to cheat them of a good story if you’re tired or if you’ve sang it a million times. You want to give them the story they deserve. [Also], keeping my voice at optimal level — you know, taking care of myself and all of that — helps me further tell the story to its fullest extent, to its full potential.
MSR: You anticipate me again. At the curtain call, you have a ball. You don’t just soak up the applause but seem to truly appreciate the audience’s appreciation.
SW: Yeah, it’s fun! Without the audience, we don’t have a show. It’s nice, when the lights go up, to see [their] faces. To see their appreciation. Wave and say hello, thank them for coming. Thank them for sharing in the experience. And I have a really great bow partner at the curtain call, young Nala [played by Sade Phillip-Demorcy and Kailah McFadden]. We have fun.
MSR: Your background is heavily singing, dancing and modeling, which makes the acting job you do in this show all the more impressive. Did you train or just pick it up?
SW: I did go to school for acting. Growing up as a kid in performing arts, I’ve always looked at acting, singing and dancing as one particular package. They’re all under one umbrella for me. [Studying] at Five Towns College in New York, I went to school for theater, and this is my first professional production. And I’m glad and fortunate that Disney is giving me the opportunity to bring my take on this character to life.
MSR: Disney went all out to make The Lion King culturally authentic — the choreography, costuming, puppetry, and African languages the songs are sung in. How impressed are you?
SW: I think it’s one of the reasons this show continues to be so successful throughout these almost 15 years. Because it’s so culturally rich. It’s the first of its kind. [Director] Julie Taymor did a wonderful job of depicting and bringing out true artistry from other cultures and introducing it to the Broadway scene and introducing [it] to theater in America.
The Lion King is at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis, through Feb. 12. For tickets, call 1-800-982-2787 or go to or www.Hen nepinTheatreTrust.org.
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