Ben Lipitz is taking the world by storm as the LONGEST running Pumbaa in Broadway history. He has played the character for over 12 years both on the road, and on Broadway. A New Jersey native, Ben talks with me about his life in the arts while growing up, his character, life on the road, and much more!
What has it been like to be a part of THE LION KING company for over 12 years? Do you ever get tired of it?
Who could get tired of playing Pumbaa? Actors are fond of saying they play each night as if its their first performance. Thats great, but after a while even that can wear out. Honestly after more than 4,000 performances, I admit I can’t remember one performance from last month versus one from one year ago, let alone ten. If I never get to play THE LION KING again, what I can remember is last night’s performance. I’ve learned to play each night AS IF it is MY LAST performance. If thats the one show Im going to carry forward for the rest of my life, then thats it. That idea demands that I be authentic, in the moment, present with high stakes. I can’t imagine any other way of looking at it now.
In the 12 years what has been your favorite/defying moment?
There’s a couple. Before my father passed away, he travelled with me on tour for what was supposed to be one week. He stayed almost three months. He was my best friend and we had such a great time together, he couldn’t think of leaving. My friends on the tour took him as a best friend and we shared so much together. That time with him will be with me forever. Besides that, the first time my wife and two children came to see THE LION KING while I was performing in the Broadway company. They’d seen the show many times, but now they were seeing it on Broadway. Seeing them standing during the ovation at curtain call cheering simply broke my heart with joy and happiness. I don’t ever need anything else. That moment was absolute magic.
How is playing Pumbaa on Broadway different then playing him on the road? Are there more difficulties with bringing him on tour?
Definitely harder on the road. I miss my bed. I miss not having to acclimate to different cities and local allergens. Finding a good gym, the better supermarket, favorite bar or restaurant to hang. Traveling is hard. But that could be what makes it so rewarding. That’s not to say, Broadway is any less rewarding, its just different. I remember on maybe my second day with the Broadway company I was walking on 44th street and I ran into my friend Bill Irwin—he’s a pretty huge celebrity and genius actor, who was playing in Bye Bye Birdie at the time—and it was just two friends walking to their respective Broadway theaters, going to work. It could not have been any more a normal moment, and it yet, it was as if a fairy tale.
How did you end up being cast as Pumbaa?
Practice, practice, practice. Just auditioned like any other actor.
What has been your favorite stop while on the tour?
Philly is always number one for me..its home... after that. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC. Biggest surprise for me was Greensville, SC. Such a beautiful city, vibrant old fashioned downtown. I loved it.
You are a local Cherry Hill, NJ native. Were you active in the arts growing up? Where did you get your first start at acting and theatre?
I’ve always loved performing. Since the third grade. I grew up performing in high school and decided to pursue a BFA in Acting and just never looked back. Playing the Academy of Music has the most meaning for me. We grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ and my father would take us to the orchestra. He thought that was the height of culture. Only later did I learn that as a child in the Depression, he and his older brother would hop on the back of a trolley car from South Philly to Center City and hustle for tips as men in tuxedos and women in gowns would get out of limousines. He’d hold the door open for them and get a nickel tip. When I think about the pride he felt in bringing his wife and children to the Academy, it reminds me how lucky I am, and how my success is the hard work of my parents and grandparents that bring me back here as a performer.
This show uses a lot of puppetry in the production. I know you can't reveal the magic behind it, but can you tell us how you operate your costume and character?
It’s like juggling several balls in the air at once. But so long as I stay authentic and tell as truthful a story as possible, everything else does indeed happen by magic.
What have you learned about yourself as an actor while playing Pumbaa?
Musicals are harder than anyone thinks.
What is the best advice you can give to aspiring actors?
Be open to the possibility that you can learn from every experience. Give up the idea
that you’re the exception to any rule. Admit you don’t know everything and everyone at some point is immensely talented and just as deserving to work. Your artistry should be about something bigger than yourself…”Get a bigger problem.” If you’re worried about landing a job so that you can land another job etc etc…”GET A BIGGER PROBLEM!” Think about how you as an artist can a make a difference. Let the little stuff be just that, little stuff.
If you could describe the show in three words what would they be?
Universal. Imaginative. Spectacle.