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Winter Arts Guide | Theater

An ensemble of two

‘Lion King’ cast members courted across continents

Sihle Ngema (left), 25, and Portia Magwaza, 26, members of the ensemble in “The Lion King’’ coming to the Opera House, married in South Africa in November after a backstage courtship. Sihle Ngema (left), 25, and Portia Magwaza, 26, members of the ensemble in “The Lion King’’ coming to the Opera House, married in South Africa in November after a backstage courtship. (Steve Miller for The Boston Globe)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

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Since Disney’s “The Lion King’’ first hit the stage in 1997, the musical has always featured South African performers who help bring the show an authentic sound and spirit. In the touring production that comes to the Opera House stage on Feb. 16, there are six South Africans, and two of them have been starring in an offstage romance as well.

Ensemble members Sihle Ngema, 25, and Portia Magwaza, 26, married in South Africa in November after a slow backstage courtship that unfurled across several continents and hundreds of “Lion King’’ performances.

They met in 2005, when she joined him in the company touring Australia. “Nothing happened in Australia, but I liked her, and I knew she liked me,’’ Ngema says, his grin somehow audible over the phone line from Hartford, a stop on the tour.

By the time the show got to China in 2006, where Magwaza played Nala, he was waiting every time she came off stage, and they talked and talked. Still just friends, though.

“Then the show closed, and we thought we would never see each other again,’’ Magwaza says. She went back to South Africa, while he got hired for an American tour. But a few months later she got an offer to join the same tour. “I [thought], Oh my God! I’m going to see him again.’’

“I told her, ‘I think you’re following me!’ ’’ Ngema says, laughing. “I said, ‘We should just go to dinner and eat and talk.’ We started talking, like, ‘I’ve liked you since the day I saw you.’ ’’

In early 2008, they began dating officially. Ngema says he proposed just two months later: “I said, I cannot do this. I need you to be my wife. You are what I need in my life . . . forever.’’

Still, it wasn’t until last November that they were able to coordinate time off from the show with the complexities of a big South African wedding, which includes both a traditional ceremony and a modern “white wedding.’’

Both sing in the ensemble for the Boston show, and Magwaza also understudies the role of Nala, played by Marja Harmon. André Jackson is Simba, and Brent Harris plays Scar.

The musical is based on the hit 1994 animated film about life among the lions and other animals in Africa’s “Pride Lands,’’ with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. There are currently seven touring companies of “The Lion King’’ around the world, says associate director John Stefaniuk, who oversees them all.

Disney requires that there be South Africans in every cast, including the actor playing Rafiki, in this case Phindile Mkhize. The rule goes back to the debut of the stage show, which was directed by Julie Taymor and features choral arrangements by the South African Lebo M.

“That African music is infused through the entire show and is really the backbone of the piece. And to maintain that authenticity, it was just a given that we had to bring South Africans to the piece,’’ Stefaniuk says by phone from London. “It’s something inherent in their culture, inherent in their voices, and not easily duplicated. But it’s something the production can’t do without.’’

Having South Africans “brings exactly the flavor they want in the show,’’ agrees Ngema. “When we sing [South African music], we go crazy. Even if it’s just a small part of the song, that small part means something to us, it brings something out, because it’s your own culture. . . . You have your own flavor, that African flavor, it’s something you’ve been doing your whole life. It’s something you’ve had since you were born.’’

He said he feels it the most during the song “Shadowland,’’ sung by Nala when she has to leave her family: “We are not with our families, we are on the road, so we understand what it feels like to go away and leave your family and work to support your family.’’

Now, of course, Ngema and Magwaza make their own family of two on the road.

Asked about the backstage romance, Stefaniuk references a different song from the show: “It’s part of the ‘Circle of Life,’ isn’t it?’’