The last time Nick Afoa sang in a musical, it was in high school. Now the former New Zealand rugby junior and Mangere-born social worker has landed the lead of Simba in an Australian production of the world's top-grossing musical, The Lion King, which opens in Sydney in December.
1. What was that last musical role?
I was a lieutenant in South Pacific at King's College, where I had gone on a sports scholarship. I loved it actually, though it wasn't so much the cool thing to do. I was playing for New Zealand at the time anyway but I also loved singing. I think that there's so much room for Maori and Pacific Island kids to get into musical theatre. It's in our blood and our heritage - it's how our grandparents and parents passed stories on, through song and dance.
2. There is some disquiet over private schools offering scholarships to young sportsmen to boost their rugby credentials. What was your experience?
At first I was really, really anxious about going. I had my preconceptions (about King's College) and had people tell me "you are going to be used, they won't really care about you" but my first week there I just loved it. My judgments were totally stripped away. Of course we had very different backgrounds but they were all still kids like me. We still laughed at the same things. I think private schools get a bad rap actually. I was a bit of a rascal, thought rugby was all I needed and I probably wouldn't have passed my School C and gone on to study at university from any other school.
3. What happened to the rugby career?
Being an All Black was pretty much all I was fixed on. You have this dream and you are almost getting there and then just like that it was gone. I injured my knee, pretty much ripped my anterior cruciate ligament and I tried rehab but as a back, one of your strengths is your speed and after the knee injury I was never as quick. It was really tough. It's like a grief really. You experience the same symptoms as if you've lost someone really close to you.
4. So you ended up singing for the All Blacks?
Yeah, my dad had a hookup with someone at Counties rugby and they had an opportunity for a young singer to do the national anthem before a game and (New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive) Steve Tew was there. He was looking for someone to sing before a Rugby World Cup game in Australia so it just happened. I've done it a bit now, and sometimes I look over at the guys [All Blacks] and see people I used to play with . . . it doesn't worry me any more. Watching the All Blacks now just gives me joy.
5. Did you go off the rails after the rugby dream was over?
I strayed a bit. Like Simba, I had my time in the wilderness but it was more Ponsonby Rd and K' Rd. Ha! I guess I was searching for happiness in a lot of different areas that don't end up in happiness. It wasn't crime or anything. Just the clubbing scene. You live for the weekends and partying. That's where I met my wife actually. We didn't meet in the most holy place.
6. How did your family cope?
I come from a very loving family, the only boy with four sisters. My father was the pastor of a Pentecostal church - yeah, a happy clappy. Dad put a lot of time and effort into me and my sport and when I was off the rails he was still always encouraging. He'd tell me I could do better and give me advice but like a lot of sons sometimes, I didn't always listen. I'm not a parent myself so I wouldn't tell other parents what to do, but I think one of the best things my parents did was to always be open to talk about things. Big things. To listen, and not over-react.
7. You're now a social worker in schools, when you're not singing. What's the most common problem you deal with?
There's the gang culture. Drugs and alcohol. Misbehaviour. The problems are probably the same in every school. Every child is a product of their upbringing and you can't always fix the big stuff. In my role it's not always the drastic changes but the little steps you can make. Like when a kid says "Sir, someone asked me for a fight but I said no". That makes your day. Mostly it's about being an adult they can trust. Someone who won't let them down. A lot of kids have so many people let them down.
8. Did you beat a lot of other singers to get the Simba role?
Apparently there were about 400 people going for that role. I really relate to the Lion King story, to Simba being in the wilderness and finding a way back. I just happened to be online one day and saw it was coming up and there would be auditions. It felt like it was meant to be - I know in the auditions I wasn't the best vocalist there nor the best dancer. But I was singing a song called Endless Night, it's about Simba asking "why did you leave me" to his father Mufasa. I have a son who I have never met before, who lives across the other side of the world and I don't know what it was but when I sang that song, I put myself in his shoes. I sang it like he was singing it to me. I broke down and couldn't carry on and I told (the auditioners) this. I ended up pouring my heart out to them.
Yes. I was 18. And they were amazing. I think that's the thing about the show, why it has been so successful. It is the story that people are captivated by. It's very personal and powerful.
10. Do you pinch yourself, about getting the role?
I still can't quite believe it. God is pretty much what I put all my success down to. I devoted myself fully to God and the church and the blessings I have seen happen in my life in the past year - it's amazing.
11. What if your musical career doesn't work out long term, like rugby?
I have always tried to stay grounded no matter what accolades will come my way or have come my way. I know that this isn't going to last forever and I don't want The Lion King to be the pinnacle of my career, I want it to open more doors. Long term I want to work with young people, tutor or be a vocal coach. I want to give back.
12. You've sung the national anthem dozens of times in public now: do you like our national song?
I didn't used to like the song but when I think of the words, of how it's thanking God for protecting our country ... I think we are protected from a lot of evils in the world, though of course we have our problems too. So the words are good. Maybe the tune could be a bit different.