By Alec Harvey
The last time Brandon A. McCall was on stage as Simba in “The Lion King” was Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in South Bend, Indiana, just as COVID-19 was becoming prevalent in the U.S.
“We had a show that last night, and we had a meeting to talk about what was going to happen,” he says. “We were going to shut down for two weeks, but that, of course, didn’t happen.”
Three weeks later, it became permanent, and the cast and crew scattered. McCall, a graduate of Jackson-Olin High School and Alabama State University, came back to Birmingham, where he spent the pandemic with his wife, child, mother and sister.
“The only positive was that it gave me time to be with my family, and I love them to death,” he says.
During the summer, McCall received an email about the tour starting back up, and he was excited. But then a call came – the general manager of the Broadway company asking if he’d like to play Simba on Broadway.
“I said, ‘Are you serious? Don’t play with me,’” McCall says. “I told him, ‘I can’t tell you how happy I am to receive this call.’ He said, ‘I can’t tell you how happy I am to make this call.’”
When the curtain rises at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre on Sept. 14, McCall will be making his Broadway debut as Simba in “The Lion King.”
“The Lion King,” it turns out, was one of McCall’s favorite movies growing up in Birmingham. It also was McCall’s first exposure to Broadway-caliber theater, when the national tour came through and the JCCEO Yes Ambassadors – a youth theater troupe – was able to see it.
McCall was a member of that troupe from age 12 until he graduated from Jackson-Olin in 2007. At ASU, he was head drum major in 2009, but he left the band his last two years to focus on his theater studies.
“I realized that being a drum major was not going to be a profession, a thing that provided food for my family and a house over their heads,” McCall recalls. “It was a reality check for me.”
He honed his craft further at ASU and, after graduating in 2011, worked for a year in Sacramento, California, where he earned his Equity card. Being a member of Actors Equity allows actors to audition and be cast on Broadway and in other Equity productions.
In 2012, Equity card in hand, he came home to Birmingham, married his college sweetheart, Denika Whitt-McCall, and found Red Mountain Theatre. There, he not only appeared in shows such as “The Wiz,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Dreamgirls,” but Executive Director Keith Cromwell introduced him to Lynn Marks, who became his agent.
The first audition she sent him to? “The Lion King.”
“I didn’t get it then, but the casting director saw potential in me,” McCall says.
TRY, TRY AGAIN
A year later, McCall auditioned for the role of Simba again.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had,” McCall says. “Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ had just come out, so we were excited about that, and it was a bunch of young black men rooting for each other. We were all in this room, rooting for each other. There was a lot of support and encouragement and pride in the room that day.”
Again, McCall fell short of being cast. “But I remember leaving that place, not feeling defeated but feeling like it was some sort of victory,” McCall says.
A few months later, it was a real victory. McCall was cast in the ensemble and as understudy to Simba on the national tour. He joined the tour in June 2018. Sixteen months later, he was no longer an understudy – he was cast in the role of Simba in the national tour.
“I remember calling my wife, my mom and my sister, and I think I said something like, ‘Hey, this is Simba speaking,’” McCall says. “They got quiet and then yelled, ‘You got it!’”
That was October 2019, and five months later, everything came to a halt.
LIGHTS OF BROADWAY
McCall spent the bulk of his pandemic time in Birmingham with his wife and now 4-year-old daughter. (They also have a 1-month-old daughter). And though he loved being in Birmingham, he’s excited to be in New York and getting ready to get back on stage again.
And not just getting ready to get back on stage. Making his Broadway debut. In one of the biggest shows on Broadway. In a show whose anthem, “Circle of Life,” takes on a whole other meaning these days.
“That opening number will be something that no one will ever forget,” McCall says. “The crowd will feel the energy. The cast will feel the energy. I’ve already told people that I’ll probably just be a big baby when Rafiki does her opening call. Just bring the tissue.”
Simba, too, has a song, “Endless Night,” that will be emotional for McCall. In the show, Simba is singing about his father, who has died even though he assured Simba everything would be OK.
“When I first got the principal role on tour, my mother-in-law passed in 2018, and when I sang that song, I thought of her,” he says. “Now, going through the pandemic has added to the song. I’m talking to those who might still be unemployed or lost a loved one. I think about all the people that need to hear that. There’s not a night that I can go out and sing that song and just sing it. I need to feel it and be able to convey that message to the audience so they can leave the theater knowing that the sun will rise and they can get through it.”