Above: Nick LaMedica as Zazu. Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Disney.
By Ken Mammarella
Zazu on stage in The Lion King is a memorable hornbill, with that big beak and those witty words. The guy in that striking blue outfit and bowler who makes him come to life? Not so much.
“I use a very affected, upper-crusty voice that sounds not at all like my own,” Nick LaMedica says. “There have been times where I’ve been out to dinner with a friend from the show, and their friends who came to see them turn to me and say, ‘Were you involved in the production?’ ”
Nick plays Zazu in the national touring company of the mega-musical, which hits the Kennedy Center in Washington June 21-July 29 and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia Aug. 16-Sept. 10.
He is a Newark native, the son of Susan (who writes poems for his birthdays, creates games for Christmas and early on brought him to see live theater) and John (a former zookeeper known since 1988 as Jungle John, who performs with reptiles and other animals and also makes balloon art).
When asked if he has siblings, he answers: “I don’t. Just thousands of snakes, turtles and frogs.” He mentions more housemates later in an interview: wallabies, sugar gliders, alligators, fruit bats, tropical fish, dogs and (yes) a cat. “Bonding with my dad was visiting zoos together,” he recalls.
Nick was a student at the Charter School of Wilmington when he took a theater elective at the Cab Calloway School of the Arts.
“I really caught the bug, as they say,” he explains. Then “I suffered a really bad injury playing lacrosse, and I lost two friends in a car accident. At that point I came to terms with the idea that life is too fragile to spend it doing anything but exactly what you want.”
So he switched to Cab, majoring in acting and musical theater, graduating in 2006. In 2010, he earned a bachelor of fine arts in acting from Marymount Manhattan College.
“I grew up around performing, occasionally doing TV spots with my dad or helping him with shows. For a long time, I wanted to perform, particularly with animals. I wanted to be an animal trainer and do that through live productions. Looking back, it was inevitable I was becoming a performer.”
Nick was 8 when he joined his father for a magic trick that they performed for the Delaware Knights of Magic. One audience member was Marie Blood, the niece of Harry Houdini, who made of point of telling John that “Nick’s doing this because he loves it,” John recalls.
He was in third grade at Thurgood Marshall Elementary for his acting debut, playing the title character in Brian’s Brain, a play written by his classmates.
He was 12 when John took him to Los Angeles to help prepare for John’s Guinness record of being in a coffin with 20,050 cockroaches. Nick was so diligent about reviewing the script, the coffin and other details that John later pulled him out of school several times to help with his TV appearances.
“I knew then he would be a performer because he was smart, and performers are smart,” John says.
Nick’s résumé on NickLamedica.com lists more than a dozen plays, starting with War Horse. He toured in the drama for 2½ years across North America and into Japan and also credits it for developing his puppetry skills. Career highlights include five productions of Romeo and Juliet, leading roles in regional theaters across the country, leads in six film/TV/web series and episodes of the NBC series Chicago Fire and New Amsterdam.
Special skills on the résumé include combat (rapier, dagger, unarmed, kung fu), puppetry (handspring, hand-rod, full body), juggling, magic, basic guitar and piano, various dialects, experience with exotic animals and the ability to raise one eyebrow.
Nick was 10 when he first saw The Lion King on Broadway, with tickets that were a birthday gift to his mother. The show re-entered his life in 2015, when studying kung fu with an actor playing Mufasa. Then a cast-mate in the 2016 Pittsburgh production of Hand to God asked if he had ever thought of being in the show. “ ‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t even aware it had a part for me. And he said, ‘You would make a good Zazu.’ ”
He returned to New York, saw the show and told his agent he was interested. His chance came in the spring of 2022, and it took multiple auditions.
“It was more than 20 years in the making to end up in this show, in a part I never dreamed of,” he says. “It’s astounding, and now I do it eight times a week.”
“This part was written for him,” Susan says, also praising his comedic timing, physical comedy and dialect. “It’s totally his personality.”
Backstage and On Stage
Nick is the third Delawarean recently cast in The Lion King. Charlie Kahler of Newark played Young Simba on the national tour, starting early in 2020. Cab student KJ Jackson started playing Young Simba on Broadway in December.
Young Simbas quickly age out of the role. Adult cast members do not. Nick is now working with three performers that he saw on Broadway when he was 10.
Nick debuted on Sept. 26, and his contract runs a year. “There’s no reason to leave,” he says. “You have a great job.”
The union benefits include vacation and sick time and a housing allowance. Disney — the world’s largest entertainment company, which has so far grossed more than $9 billion with theatrical productions of The Lion King — also pays for college classes. On days with no shows, there are sometimes media appearances, professional development experiences and guest lectures, like a presentation by June Opal, often called “the grandmother of Juneteenth.”
Nick and his partner, Kate Hoffman, own a home in New York’s Hudson Valley. They recently adopted a Labradoodle named Okja (Oscar, kangaroo, Juliet, alpha, he spells out the name, channeling his interests in animals and entertainment), and Okja travels with Nick on the road.
His standard workweek includes two matinees and six evening performances. He has to be at the theater at least an hour before curtain, and his makeup takes 45 minutes to be applied. The show runs 2¾ hours, and it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get out of makeup and costume.
Zazu, whose name means “movement” in Swahili, is the show’s only true hand puppet, he says.
His costume’s color evokes the sky, he says, with magnets and other “cool things” hidden in it to offer interesting ways to move.
“I can do a lot of athletic things, jump up and down, kneel and fall and do all sorts of clownish things even though I’m in what appears to be a pretty restrictive, multi-layered suitcase. I spend most of the first half of this play running around, and it’s like cardio. I’m working with the fittest group of humans that I’ve ever met. The Lion King is a sport, hands down.”
No wonder that Nick (5-7 and about 150 during the interview) says he’s losing weight and calls the staff physical therapist “the most important person on the production.”
One of his favorite scenes begins the second act. “I just tell a lot of jokes at Scar’s expense, and it’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It has the DNA of Abbott and Costello.”
He also loves “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” Simba’s want song. “It’s over the top. It’s extremely colorful. There’s a ton of things happening on stage, and I’m just being bounced from one shocking, disorienting moment to the next. So it’s a wild roller coaster of a ride. It’s the hardest thing I have to do in the show because it’s singing and dancing and doing puppetry and diving and crawling and rolling around. It asks the most of me as a performer, but it has a great payoff, and it’s a lot of fun.”
“I just love these people,” Susan says of the cast. “It’s a family. They’re good humans. They genuinely care about each other, and they celebrate together whatever happens in their lives.”
Susan has helped them celebrate. “I’m the cookie mom,” she says, noting that she packed 515 chocolate chip cookies in her luggage when she saw the show in Chicago and that she’s thinking of what to do when they reach Philadelphia, besides organizing a group that already includes more than 120 people to enjoy a matinee.
Nick has developed such strong and deep theatrical skills that John now calls him to consult. “He’s like an encyclopedia of acting,” John says.
On two-performance days, Nick hangs at the theater for lunch, staying in makeup, and often playing card games like Uno, board games like Betrayal at House on the Hill or video games. He also works.
He has a business as a customer experience consultant, primarily for startups, and he is a solutions architect for lululemon Studio.
“It’s not very surprising to see [that title] alongside ‘actor’ because it’s a professional technical creative problem-solver,” he says. “That’s the same thing that you do in theater. It’s a highly technical art form but requires creative problem-solving, constantly bringing disparate systems together. How do you troubleshoot something that’s not going according to plan? On paper, it really sounds different, but I’m using mostly the same skills.
“If The Lion King was my only job, I’d be a happy, comfortable person. I have other interests and hobbies that I’d like to keep spinning as long as I can.”