'The Lion King' is bringing performer JoAnna Ford back to the city that kickstarted her career.
In December, JoAnna Ford stepped onto the stage of Seattle’s Broadway at The Paramount and was transported to the Serengeti.
The former Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe artist was joining the latest national tour of “The Lion King” — the show that has won six Tony Awards and been seen by more than 95 million people.
To say it was a big deal would be a tremendous understatement.
“As soon as you hit the stage and you have those lights on, you have to be the best you can be,” Ford says. “It’s another level when everyone is doing that and they’ve been doing that for years, so it’s second nature to them. It’s a challenge and it’s great to be challenged in this way.”
Ford is a classically trained soprano. And if it weren’t for her roles in five WBTT mainstage productions, she’s not sure she could leap across stages around the country like a graceful gazelle.
After studying at Humboldt University Berlin as a Fulbright Scholar and obtaining her Master of Music in Voice from University of Michigan, Ford started her career by veering from her classical roots.
In 2016, she joined the cast of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ production of the Broadway show “After Midnight” as a soprano trio member and female swing. She also sang in two cabarets as part of her contract with the cruise line, which is where she met WBTT Founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs.
Jacobs was the Norwegian cabaret director at the time, and when he first heard Ford sing, she recalls him yelling, “Stop the music! I have a show for you!”
Although she was doing musicals and cabarets aboard the ships, Ford had yet to have a role that required her to learn traditional choreography. The movement required of her in the Norwegian shows was limited to the occasional step-touch and jazz hands, Ford says, but Jacobs brought her into a whole new world at WBTT.
“I really got a chance to grow because Donald (Donald Frison, resident WBTT choreographer) wasn’t going to change his choreography just because I couldn’t keep up,” Ford says. “So I grew up ... the ability to work on that made me a stronger mover, which prepared me for my audition for ‘The Lion King.’”
So prepared, in fact, that the “The Lion King” choreographer later yelled, “More energy, like JoAnna” during the group dance call part of her audition. She’d made it, and she largely credits WBTT with her preparation.
“Westcoast gave me extreme opportunities I didn’t deserve,” she says. “I got to understudy Melba Moore, and I had never acted (before).”
Her acting experience was limited to classes before her understudy role as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” but she says Jacobs saw something in her — something promising enough to trust her with a show that required 90 straight minutes alone onstage.
“I would have never gotten that in New York City,” Ford says. “I may have gotten in the room, but once they looked at my resume they would have said, ‘She’s not ready,’ but at Westcoast they are giving people chances.”
LANDING THE ROLE
The audition process for “The Lion King” started right after she finished performing in WBTT’s “Girl Groups: The ’60s Explosion” in April 2017.
She walked into the audition at Pearl Studios with suitcase and her new equity card in hand, having just flown home to New York City from Sarasota, where she earned proof of membership in the Actors’ Equity Association.
Because of her equity card she could be seen instantly, so Ford walked right into the audition room led by Mark Brandon of Binder Casting and had three minutes to prepare. They wanted her to sing an R&B song, so she started with “Natural Woman.”
They didn’t seem impressed. They wanted to know what else she had up her sleeve.
“Then he said, ‘Got any Whitney?’ and I don’t usually carry Whitney Houston in my book,” Ford says. “Even though I can hit the notes, I’ll never be Whitney.”
However, she listened and started singing “At Last.” Brandon asked her to take out her ad libs, to sing it straight, and that earned her a pass to the next round with the warning “you better sing some Whitney.”
Next was a dance call, which she also passed. She was through to the next round.
Ford had just finished WBTT’s “Lady Day” at the time of the next audition in April 2018. She felt stronger — her acting was better than the first time around — and she was told there were only five performers left in the running for three ensemble roles.
Brandon told them it was the “dream team” and he wished he could take them all, and not to be surprised if the rejected two were asked to come on later.
“We’ll probably call you later when it’s least convenient,” he told them.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Ford says.
She had just finished WBTT’s “Raisins” and was supposed to play the leading role of Sister Margaret in the company’s upcoming production of “The Amen Corner.” She told Jacobs she had to leave for the opportunity to be in “The Lion King,” and he fully supported her.
LIVING THE DREAM
To Ford — and seemingly its million-some fans — “The Lion King” is more than a musical. It’s a cultural phenomenon produced in cities around the world.
“Even if the language doesn’t necessarily translate, the spectacle of it (“The Lion King”) does. There’s something universal about the majesty of it all and that’s really something to be a part of.”
— JoAnna Ford
“Even if the language doesn’t necessarily translate, the spectacle of it does,” she says. “There’s something universal about the majesty of it all and that’s really something to be a part of.”
This is the second iteration of the North American Tour, she says, which has been going on for nearly 20 years. It’s a top-tier tour that has her working with a “machine” of talented performers, producers and creators who have resources beyond her imagination.
“The Lion King” is a totally different ball game than past productions Ford has been a part of. It’s the big leagues, the best of the best, and she’s holding her own — and learning more than she could ever imagine in the process.
“Yes I have degrees and had a Fulbright, but nobody cares if you say you can sing,” she says. “How do you get better? By being on stage and working with excellent people.”
That work started with her first rehearsals in late October in Las Vegas. Because the show was already touring and she was being plopped into the middle of it, she had to rehearse solo. In two weeks, she learned all the music and choreography in sessions with just the choreographer and music director, and then she spent a week and a half rehearsing in Fresno, Calif., partially alone and partially with other peformers while the cast was peforming there. Her first performance was Dec. 13 in Seattle.
“(In rehearsal) I had to make pretend that I was onstage with everybody,” she says. “So when I got onstage with other people it was another thing — what’s backstage is a circus because there’s so much going on. Puppets being pulled down from the ceiling, … an elephant and gazelles and wildebeest — it really is a lot going on and (you need) the ability to know where you’re supposed to go and maintain focus.”
WBTT had the passion of what Ford calls “the little theater that could,” but she equates working in this Disney production to creating in an environment with that same work ethic and passion plus endless resources.
But she looks forward to returning to where she spent the bulk of her early career. She’ll reunite with her WBTT friends and even stay with her Sarasota-based acting coach.
“These people have become family,” she says. “It’s like home away from home.”
It’s the WBTT patrons that she interacted with after all her shows in Sarasota that Ford credits will building her self-confidence. They used to tell her she needed to be on Broadway — look where she is now.
Editor’s Note: JoAnna Ford is now on medical leave until March 26, but she will be back on stage by the third week of the Sarasota run