In the plot line of the musical The Lion King, the relationship between characters Pumbaa and Scar is adversarial at best, but behind the scenes, two of the actors playing those opposing characters share a friendly bond through their alma mater.
Abilene Christian University alumnus Ben Jeffrey (’06) has starred as Pumbaa in the Broadway production for more than a decade, and this fall he was joined in The Lion King world by ACU alumnus Peter Hargrave (’12), who recently took on the role of Scar in the North American tour production.
Hargrave debuted Oct. 13 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Lion King holds special significance to him, as it was the first large scale professional production he attended, 21 years ago at age 11.
“Playing Scar couldn’t be more fun or challenging,” Hargrave said. “I get to build on the iconic performances of Jeremy Irons in the animated feature and many incredible actors who have since held the role in the musical. But I still had to find the essence of where Scar sits in me. Playing villains, you’re always looking for the humanity of the character. We understand his actions are horrible, but why? If you can find that answer, you start to uncover a depth and understanding that makes the play even more interesting.”
Prior to The Lion King, Hargrave’s acting work includes appearances on TV shows FBI, Law and Order SVU and Madam Secretary, as well as other regional theater and film appearances. He’s worked for many years in New York before this role; however, he said this company is one of the most prestigious he’s ever worked for and a dream come true.
“Joining the world’s most successful musical is intimidating, especially when the people doing it with you are so incredible at what they do,” Hargrave said. “Their support, however, was humbling. Their smiles, connection and words of encouragement are such a gift. I make my first entrance right after our opening number, “Circle of Life.” There couldn’t be a more beautiful opening, musically or visually. I click right back into my 11 year-old self sitting in the audience, experiencing the awe and wonder of it all. It’s the best job in the world.”
Hargrave is a passionate advocate of ACU’s Department of Theatre and starred in several Homecoming musicals and other productions as a student. He said he’s always known who he is because of the lessons he learned from ACU.
“ACU invested as much in our artistry as they did in our integrity,” Hargrave said. “As in any profession, we are focused on using our gifts for a greater purpose. My wife and I carry that with us in our work today – we’re invested in being a light to everyone we’re fortunate enough to interact with. The New York theatre community is such a supportive, kind and giving one. We try to give as much back as it gives us.”
Dawne Swearingen Meeks, chair of the theatre department at ACU, taught Peter and his wife, Kat (Bailey ‘12) Hargrave, when they were students. Over the years, Meeks and the Hargraves have worked together on numerous projects, including the senior showcase in 2020, just before COVID-19 disrupted life in the U.S.
Kat is a talent agent for Douglas, Gorman, Rothacker and Wilhelm (DGRW) in New York, one of the most prestigious boutique talent agencies in New York City. She was able to bring in several major talent agents to ACU’s senior showcase. More than half of the nine students had a casting by the end of the process.
“I am so beyond proud of both Peter and Kat. I applaud their success because it’s all been through diligence and intentional hard work,” Meeks said. “But more importantly than anything, these are really rooted people with a deep faith. I love that our students have had the opportunity to see that exemplified.”
The Hargraves also helped lead several virtual workshops and departmental chapels during COVID-19 to discuss how their faith has shaped their journeys while working in secular environments. Last May, Meeks reached out to Hargrave to teach a course as an adjunct instructor. Hargrave was able to help illustrate to his students what the entertainment industry is like and how to incorporate faith into their everyday work.
“He is excellent in everything that he does: his attention to detail, the way he is able to engage with students in a classroom space, whether that’s virtually or in person,” Meeks said. “He’s dynamic, he’s authentic in the way in which he works with the students. He’s always well-prepared, and he exhibits such joy and excitement. I was just delighted when he said yes.”
Dualing Characters, Artist Friends
Jeffrey has starred as Pumbaa on the Broadway production of The Lion King since 2010. Eight times a week, he dons the warthog costume and performs in the third-longest running Broadway show in New York. Hargrave remembers the moment during his sophomore year tap class when Adam Hester, then-chair of the department, informed his class Jeffrey would be making his debut in The Lion King.
“It felt like a win for all of us,” Hargrave said. “Now I feel really lucky that I get to call Ben a friend and mentor – and even luckier we share this show.”
Hargrave met Jeffrey for the first time in 2018 through an audition for The Lion King, and since then, the two have stayed in touch, even though that audition didn’t result in a part for Hargrave. Jeffrey noted that Hargrave internalized the feedback he received from his first audition for Scar and came back stronger than ever.
“What I love about Peter is he is a remarkable artist, dedicated to his work,” Jeffrey said. “There are so many people who want to be artists and so few people who want to be a good artist but also a good person. We are lucky to know Peter because he is both, and I am so excited for him and the journey he’s had. He’s going to be outstanding.”
— Connor Mullins
Jan. 29, 2023