Gay Pride on Pride Rock — 'The Lion King' cast member & manager share tales from the road

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
Share this Post:
Eric Bean, Jr. (photo Troy Jennings)
Eric Bean, Jr. (photo Troy Jennings)

"Sometimes you get surprised," said Eric Bean, Jr. of the 50-odd cities he's visited as one of the 134 members of "The Lion King" touring company that opens an engagement at the Orpheum Theatre this week. "In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there are four different drag brunches!"

Being a gay man whose job relocates every two to nine weeks has both upsides and downsides says Bermuda-born Bean, 38.

"There are a bunch of us who try to get out and explore the scene wherever we're playing, which is fun," he said. "We played two months in Toronto, which actually gave us a chance to make friends, develop a bit of a social life beyond the company itself and start to feel a little more like locals."

But Bean, who is currently single after the amicable end of a long-term relationship that formed during the decade he lived and worked as a dancer in Philadelphia before joining the tour, says he feels fortunate to have had the experience of building a partnership while rooted in a shared home base.

'The Lion King' North American Tour  

"I can't imagine how hard it would be to find love on the road," he said in a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter from Reno, Nevada, the tour's last stop prior to San Francisco.

"People often ask me if I've tried to date within the show company, but I feel like you need to have a degree of separation of work life and personal life. I've been in this company for six years. I'm with these people at work every day. We travel together. And we socialize together as friends, but there's a limit to mixing business with pleasure, especially when you're moving from city to city in a very sex-positive gay world."

Eric Bean, Jr. in a regal bird costume backstage on tour with Disney's 'The Lion King' (photo: Eric Bean, Jr.)  

In his physically and mentally demanding position as company Swing, Bean covers for five ensemble dancers as well as the speaking role of Ed the hyena.

He says that, once the company returned to the road after an 18-month pandemic hiatus, enhanced sensitivity to members' physical and mental health has led to his being on stage for more performances than he is off.

Bean has focused much of that off-stage time pursuing a recently completed master's degree in Arts and Cultural Management online supported by Disney Aspire, a program that allows company employees to pursue fully funded higher education. "Eventually," he said, "I want to shift my work to behind the scenes."

This is not the first time "The Lion King" has provided a way forward for Bean.

"I am a Disney child through and through," he explained. "I had seen the animated 'Lion King' movie, of course. But when I started taking dance classes as a kid in Bermuda, it was just for fun. Then I saw the 'Lion King' Tony awards performance on TV. Seeing this huge contingent of people of color singing and dancing was a game changer for me. It was the first time I ever understood that I could possibly pursue this as a career."

Disney's 'The Lion King' Company Manager Jose Solivan (photo: MurphyMade)  

Managing on tour
In working to build a backstage career and support healthy relationships on the national touring circuit, Bean could take cues from Company Manager Jose Solivan, who has been with the "Lion King" since just before the start of the pandemic shutdown and traveling with tours since 2001.

Coming aboard "The Lion King" for a South Bend, Indiana run that in fact never ran, Solivan, a former performer himself, quickly became skilled at a range of COVID-created new job tasks — testing and distancing protocols, quarantine logistics — in addition to his core competencies managing payroll, housing, and generally maintaining order within what amounts to a transient small town.

"I was suddenly wearing a lot of new hats," he told the Bay Area Reporter, "but everyone does with this show. Dancers have to learn to walk on stilts, musicians have to learn to play new instruments, singers need to practice five different African dialects. This work ethic is something that makes 'The Lion King' company particularly strong."

During the tour's furlough, Solivan met his future husband, Matthew Buckingham, who works in personnel recruiting. He proposed live on a broadcast of 'Good Morning America' during Pride Month 2022.

Given that the lion's share of Buckingham's job can be done remotely, he has been able to travel with Solivan about 75% of the time since touring resumed while also maintaining the couple's home in Dallas.

"I've only ever been in long-term relationships," said Solivan, who was with one former boyfriend for 11 years. "I actually can't imagine beginning a relationship on the road. I never really even used dating apps like all the young gay guys in our company are so comfortable with."

Jose Solivan (right) with his husband Matthew Buckingham in December 2022 (photo: Jose Solivan/Instagram)  

"I remember being in a gay bar on tour in Philadelphia before I met Matthew," he recalled. "This guy kept looking at me across the bar and I was pretty sure that he was flirting with me, but he kept going back to his phone. The friend I was with explained that the guy was looking for me on the apps to send me a text! But I'm not on the apps. And he was too shy to just say hello. It's so strange how people don't talk anymore!"

That's very much not the case within "The Lion King" company, for which Solivan serves as a de facto community builder and den mother.

"When the guys are going out to bars and clubs while we're on tour," he says, "I make sure that they always keep someone in the company informed about where they're going and who they're with. It's incredibly important. Disney also provides us with a security director who travels with us and can help deal with safety getting to and from the theater, over-enthusiastic fans and other issues that could arise."

Solivan, Bean and the rest of the queer members of their roving company look forward to a warm welcome during their weeks in San Francisco. Solivan and Buckingham are planning an anniversary dinner at Foreign Cinema and Bean is on a quest to find the city's best brunch.

In addition to their "Lion King" performances at the Orpheum, Solivan will lead cast members in a one-night benefit performance supporting the Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation at Club Fugazi on Monday, Dec. 4 (

Disney's 'The Lion King,' through Dec. 30. $137-$307.50 Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. (888) 746-1799

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.