‘The Lion King’ star Nia Holloway talks making history, getting high school diploma on tour

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At only 21, Nia Holloway is playing her dream role, and she’s just getting started.

Holloway is the youngest woman to play adult Nala in the 19-year history of “The Lion King,” the smash-hit musical adaptation of the classic 1994 Disney film. It opened in 1997 and has never stopped playing, making it the third-longest running Broadway show of all time, not to mention a six-time Tony Award winner.

“The Lion King” has been around since Holloway was a toddler, and Nala has always loomed large as a theatrical goal. “Nala was my ultimate dream in terms of theater,” said Holloway in a phone interview. “Honestly, I’m not just saying that because I’m in the role, but Nala was really the one character where I was like, “I’d love to do that.’ ”

Nala is Simba’s (the protagonist) tough, spunky, no-nonsense best friend and betrothed. If “The Lion King” is “Hamlet” with animals — as it is often called — Nala is no poor, tragic Ophelia. As Holloway puts it, she’s a “fierce princess warrior,” squarely in the tradition of Disney’s strong 90s heroines.

Her role is also significantly expanded in the musical. It’s almost a shame Nala can’t rule on her own, but dynastic monarchy isn’t going anywhere in the Pride Lands so Nala sets off to get some help — as her kingdom looks apocalyptically incompetent under the rule of Simba’s evil uncle Scar (R.I.P. Mufasa). This is where Nala gets her big solo moment with the song “Shadowland,” a song specifically written for the musical version.

“Shadowland” is naturally Holloway’s favorite moment to perform, as it showcases her incredible vocal chops as well as Nala’s strength and determination. “That’s when I feel most powerful in the show,” said Holloway.  

How Nia Holloway nabbed the role was through a combination of hard work and mild rule breaking.

She’s been a performer since she could walk and talk, and her family quickly graduated young Nia from singing in the car to proper voice and dance lessons. It wasn’t much of a surprise  —  Holloway is carrying on “a legacy of divas” as she puts it on her website. Her grandmothers were the disco star Loleatta Holloway and Sylvia Shemwell, a member of the Sweet Inspirations. By 10, she was going in auditions and even performed at the Apollo Theater shortly after. At 14, she was a contestant on the short-lived Hub Network reality singing competition “Majors and Minors,” produced by none other than Cinderella herself: Brandy.

By the time a casting call went up in 2013 for an adult Nala for the tour of “The Lion King,” Holloway was a seasoned veteran. Yet, she was also a year younger than the open call auditions stated the cut off age was. Holloway’s parents took her anyway, and at 17, the high school junior got the role and made history.

Touring is hard on anybody, but it was particularly tough for Holloway. She was closer in age to the cub cast than to her fellow adult cast members. She was also determined to finish her high school education — not a GED, but a diploma from her Atlanta high school like all her peers — a point she made clear to Disney when she got cast.

“Disney made sure I was able to go home and go to prom and graduate with my class,” she said. “I went back to actual school for all the fun stuff.” Disney also surprised her with an onstage graduation ceremony when she’d finally gotten that diploma.

With the balancing of all this demanding work, she cites her parent’s support in helping her keep everything in perspective. She also made sure to follow some age old, but much ignored health advice: “I was making sure I was getting a lot of sleep.”

It’s a good thing she maintains a healthy sleep schedule, because Holloway is nonstop. In her downtime, she enjoys intensive workouts and perfecting her craft by working on her own music. Earlier this year, she released her debut mixtape, Rookie and a Vet, a confident set of R&B/pop bangers she wrote herself.

Holloway wants to do everything — continue her education, pursue music, television and film and keep doing theater, but for now, Holloway is happy to be touring with “The Lion King.”  

What really makes it all worth it is when she encounters young aspiring performers across the country who tell her she is their inspiration. Holloway calls this ability to inspire “the greatest gift that we can receive.”

Holloway seems poised to do a lot more of that in the future. Asked about her post-Lion King plans, she concluded: “People can expect to see my name for a long time.”

“The Lion King” will be playing at SHN Orpheum Theatre through Dec. 31.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.

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