6 Things We Learned Backstage on Broadway at Disney’s The Lion King

Beyoncé, take notes

Disney’s animated feature, The Lion King, launched on the big screen to rave reviews in June of 1994. (As one of the original pint-sized critics who watched it in theaters, I can attest to the fact that the classic film took my nine-year-old self on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.) Naturally, the iconic story transitioned seamlessly to the stage and a musical of the same name opened on Broadway three years later in 1997. While it seems like yesterday, the show has continued to enrapture audiences for over two decades. Behind the scenes, MAC Cosmetics has remained firmly in the spotlight for the past 20 years, providing the vivid paints and pigments used to create the cast’s vivid looks that can be seen from the cheap seats. With Beyoncé set to play Nala in the live-action reboot of The Lion King alongside Donald Glover (as Simba), James Early Jones (as Mufasa), John Oliver (as Zazu), and Seth Rogan (as Pumba) in July 2019, we thought we’d tap Brenda O’Brien, the lead makeup artist responsible for readying the entire Broadway cast in 60 minutes, for some quick tips. Bey, you’re not the queen of the jungle just yet, so consider this your beauty cheat sheet.

Layering actually allows you to use less makeup.

To achieve the vibrant, mandrill-inspired face paint seen on Tshidi Manye (the woman who has played Rafiki for the past 17 years), O’Brien uses two different formulas—MAC Chromacake layered with tear-proof MAC Acrylic Paint—for added depth and staying power. “If you try to get all that on in one layer it gets goopy and streaky,” explained the pro. “Each layer is thin, so you actually use less makeup in the end.” In order to create that signature “Lion King yellow,” O’Brien blends a bit of red Acrylic Paint with yellow. As for getting a face full of multicolored makeup off at the end of the night, Manye said it doesn’t take her more than five minutes with a wipe. Asked if she’s ever hit the streets of New York City or the subway wearing her Rafiki makeup, the performer noted she’s saving the social experiment for Halloween.

Perfection is overrated.

“The hardest thing for me to get used to was not having all the makeup exact,” said O’Brien. “The key is to let it be organic and do its thing!” When Michael Ward designed the looks for the show in tandem with Julie Taymor, he envisioned pros applying with sticks, leaves, and fingers much like “ceremonial tribal makeup.” While O’Brien often opts for art brushes over jungle debris, the goal is for the characters to look hand-done and organic—not airbrushed. And with only one hour and two other makeup artists to ready all the principal actors before curtain call, there’s no time to “futz.” (For the dancers and cast members responsible for painting their own faces, there are lots of lessons involved to get them up to speed behind the scenes.) Even after the show begins, there’s plenty of beauty action happening in the wings. “We do a lot of cues on deck,” explained the pro. “For example, we change people from a wildebeest to a zebra before running upstairs to do another principal. It’s active and you don’t get bored!”

Try unconventional tools.

One of O’Brien’s must-have tools for crafting perfectly round dots in seconds is the plastic cap of a lip liner. “I’ve had people ask me to send them the ‘dotting tool’ and I didn’t have the heart to tell them what it was!” The pro also saves the plastic forms wrapped around brushes and uses them as face stamps. MAC’s Chromaline is her ink of choice. To create the flower on the side of Nala’s face and the dots above her brows, she reaches for Q-tips in lieu of brushes to quickly lay down pigment.

Look to animals for lipstick inspo.

MAC’s cult-favorite Cyber Lipstick, a unique blackish-purple shade, is O’Brien’s go-to for The Lion King cast. “It happens to be very close to the lip color of animals in the kingdom,” she explained. “If you look at a lion, you’ll noticed they’re wearing goth lipstick!” For a more “pouty mandrill effect,” she pops the cupid’s bow and center of Rafiki’s mouth with MAC’s Gold Pigment and shimmery Mineralize Skinfinish powders.

Work out like an antelope.

After admiring singer and dancer Kimberly Marable’s abs from afar, she revealed her tummy-tightening secret: Burning calories with“antelopes” like S’bu Ngema. “I did not have abs like this before I joined the show four years ago,” laughed Marable. “Both of our antelopes are very, very strong and one of them is my personal trainer.” Five days a week, a few of the cast members do everything from sit-ups to planks to stability work on Bosu balls for 30 minutes before the show.

No matter what happens, the show must go on.

“There have been times when Rafiki had to suddenly drop out of the show,” explained O’Brien. A former makeup artist on Saturday Night Live, she has the quick-change down to a science and was able to replicate the look on an understudy in two minutes with the help of an assistant. “Each of us did one side of the face and it was a little crazy, but it looked pretty cool,” she said. “We did not stop the show and that was all that mattered!”

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