KJ Johnson's Young Simba in "The Lion King" on Broadway. (Courtesy of Kenneth E Johnson)

Cab student plays Young Simba in ‘Lion King’ on Broadway

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KJ Johnson (center) as Young Simba in "The Lion King" on Broadway. (Courtesy of Kenneth E Johnson)

KJ Johnson (center) as Young Simba in “The Lion King” on Broadway. (Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

The first Broadway show that KJ Johnson saw was “The Lion King.”

And now the Cab Calloway School of the Arts student is in the hit Disney musical, as one of two actors playing Young Simba.

When KJ and his father, Kenneth E. Johnson, got the news that he was cast, “There was a lot of jumping and screaming and being teary-eyed,” Kenneth said. “In that moment, it was all worth it.”

That “it” included multiple auditions by Zoom, many late nights rehearsing and filming more than 100 takes of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”

KJ (he’s credited on the show’s site as Kenneth E. Johnson Jr. but uses KJ for his performances and Instagram account) debuted on Broadway on Dec. 14.

His contract with the musical runs through June 4, and it could be renewed, his father said.

KJ – who’s 4-foot-7 and 68 pounds – will eventually outgrow the role.

They have moved from their Bear home to an apartment in Weehawken, New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from the Minskoff Theater.

“We’re trying to have the most normal semblance of life possible,” Kenneth explained.

“We created this new schedule for him,” he said, referring to their online lessons and thanking Cab Dean Anthony Gray-Bolden for working with the family so he could remain a student at Cab, where he is a vocal major. Also helping was the expertise of his mother, JaMeta, a school counselor.

“He’s a student actor,” Kenneth said, “and I’m proudest that he’s still on the honor roll.”

KJ Johnson, with his parents Kenneth and JaMeta and sister Gigi (Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

KJ Johnson, with his parents Kenneth and JaMeta and sister Gigi. (Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

The road to ‘The Lion King’

The road to Broadway began when KJ was 6 (he just turned 12) and saw “The Lion King” and started acting. That “Lion King” performance included a backstage tour by James Brown-Orleans, who, as Banzai then and now, is now KJ’s cast mate.

KJ’s first performance was at the Wilmington Drama League Summer Stock camp, where he played Peter Pan and other parts in “Shrek Jr.” Playing Tiny Tim in a Candlelight Theatre “Christmas Carol” taught him a lot about discipline, in handling 22 shows in 30 days.

“Five plays and five shows later, he’s in the show,” his Broadway bio reads.

His journey also included his father’s return to acting. KJ convinced Kenneth to try out for “The Color Purple” at the Drama League. Kenneth got cast but almost didn’t accept the part.

KJ Johnson backstage with James Brown-Orleans. (Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

KJ Johnson backstage with James Brown-Orleans. (Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

Lucky for KJ, he did, because a cast mate in that show suggested that KJ audition for “The Lion King.” Just before the deadline last fall, they submitted KJ’s video.

“I loved it,” the assistant casting director said, asking that they rerecord it, lighter. Which they did. A lot.

The night before the next audition, KJ screamed so much while playing a video game that his voice was weakened.

“I can’t do this,” he said at one point.

“I’m a believer,” the casting director said at another point.

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The incident generated two life lessons. One was about considering his voice as a valued instrument that shouldn’t be damaged or broken.

The other was about what the family calls “curse words that aren’t,” Kenneth said. “We don’t say ‘can’t.’ We don’t say ‘try.’ The moment you say ‘can’t,’ you let your brain shut down.”

Two more Zoom auditions followed, and another incident involved forgetting a line. KJ’s response after that awkward pause: “I messed up. I apologized. And I said I could do better.”

The final audition – at Kenneth’s financial advising office in Newark – included the words “big energy” on the board to inspire KJ. And inspire it did. He did better.

(Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

(Courtesy of Kenneth E. Johnson)

On Broadway and in Weehawken

Although Kenneth is trying to instill normalcy in KJ’s life, Broadway’s standard schedule of eight shows a week means he regularly works much later than most sixth graders. His only regular day off is Monday.

He plays young Simba on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights but also has to be at the theater as an understudy for all the other shows as well.

As a performer, his workday is 4½ hours; as an understudy, when he can leave at intermission, it’s 2½ hours.

Kenneth has been able to conduct a lot of his financial business online while living in Weehawken. While KJ is at theater, he parks himself across the street in the lobby of a Marriott, which has the amenities he needs to pass the time.

In addition to acting, singing and dancing, KJ is also a self-published author.

He was 5 when he started to learn about finance from his father, 7 when he started to speak about it at church and 9 when he self-published “3 Little Piggy Banks,” the story of KJ and Gigi (that’s his sister) learning about investments. The 43 ratings on Amazon average out to 4.5 stars.

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