Sitting in his tutor’s house in Hunting Ridge, three weeks after his debut as the young Simba in “The Lion King” on Broadway, 8-year-old Jerome Stephens Jr. is strikingly mature. But the inner child bursts out briefly when he recalls his reaction to the news that he won the part. “I jumped up and clapped my hands, and yelled YEAH!!!” he says. “And then I had to go get fit for the costume.”
After attracting the attention of a drama teacher at The Montessori School in Lutherville, Stephens began taking acting and singing lessons with local acting coach Eleanor Wyche in May 2007. (Another student of Wyche’s, Jamani Epps, won the role of Nala in a touring production of “The Lion King” last year.) In summer 2007, Stephens attended Disney’s performing arts camp in New York City, called “Cub School,” to audition with 1,000 other boys and girls for leading children’s roles in Disney productions. One of just two finalists in the audition, Stephens was told to return in a year. Last June, after another week of auditions, he was cast in the role of Simba, the young, ambitious lion cub whose signature song, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” is a highlight of Act One.
For the six months of his contract, Stephens has relocated to New York, returning to Baltimore every week to meet with a tutor who assists him with his reading and to visit with his father, who has remained in Towson. He and his mother, Tracey, who left her job as assistant manager at Benetton in Towson to home school Jerome and support his career, stay in a basement apartment in a house belonging to relatives in Long Island. Each afternoon they take the Long Island Express to Times Square, arriving at the Minskoff Theatre at 6:20 so Jerome can begin putting on his $4,000 costume, a process that involves intricate face-painting and getting into a tight corset. At 8 p.m. sharp, he steps into the footlights.
For one hour, as the young version of Simba, Stephens is the central figure in the musical. “I don’t get any breaks in the first act,” he says. “I just spend all my time running from one side of the stage to the other.” He performs in three songs, including the famous solo. After he’s replaced by an older version of Simba, he has the rest of the night off, at least until curtain call. “I get to eat dinner and play video games.” Later, he says, without a trace of affectation, “I sign a lot of autographs.”
In just a few weeks, Jerome has already learned the reality of live theater: anything is possible. On his opening night, his mic fell on the floor. “My dad had cut my hair too short, and the mic came off!” he says with a laugh. “So I had to use the spare mic.” On another occasion, he found himself guiding a lost dancer back into the complex dance routine. As he describes the process— carefully counting beats and reintegrating himself into the elaborate choreography— one is reminded how much is being placed on the shoulders of an 8-year-old Baltimore kid.
For his mother, Tracey, and his father Jerome Sr., who works as a utilities contractor, Jerome’s career is a challenge, as well— they’re as new to the theater world as he is. They’ve hired an entertainment lawyer, an accountant and an agent to handle the legal and financial issues, and they’re juggling his future prospects. Jerome has finished his first film, “This Must Be the Place,” directed by Sam Mendes, and he recently did a promotional for the Nickelodeon show, “iCarly.”
At moments he sounds a little like the lion cub he plays onstage. “It’s a lot of work, but when you keep rehearsing, it gets easier,” he says. “Maybe I’ll be the older Lion King someday. We’ll see.”