Ben Lipitz could be called the master of chill.
After nearly 17 years and 6,000 live performances as Pumbaa, the beloved warthog in Disney’s “The Lion King,” Lipitz knows a thing or two about “hakuna matata,” the Swahili expression for “no worries.’”
It’s the show-stopping song by Elton John and Tim Rice that Pumbaa sings with Timon the meerkat, the two carefree characters who befriend Simba, the young lion cub who’s about to be king.
“I love that Pumbaa is an everyman,” Lipitz told the Journal in a recent conversation. “Pumbaa is the walking embodiment of hakuna matata. One minute he’s being chased by a lioness, next minute we’re going to be best friends. I think that kind of joy and simplicity is something that everyone identifies with. I think we all wish we could be like that.
“He’s absolutely a mensch,” Lipitz added. “He wants to do well and be loved. He wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s no guile. Judaically, I found that there’s an element of tikkun olam. He’s just trying to heal the world. He wants it to be a better place.”
Local audiences have the chance to welcome Lipitz back to Boston in “The Lion King,” Broadway in Boston’s production that runs through Oct. 27 at the Citizens Bank Opera House. It’s Lipitz’s fourth Boston performance in the show that has garnered six Tony Awards, a Grammy, and has been seen by more than 100 million people around the world since opening in 1997.
Lipitz has fond memories of his previous performances in Boston. In 2004, “The Lion King” touring production was in residence for nine months. During the run, Lipitz lived in a condo in Nahant. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” said Lipitz, who grew up as part of the Jewish community in Cherry Hill, N.J.
To keep his performances fresh, Lipitz turns a tradition among many actors upside down. Instead of imagining his performance as if it were his first, Lipitz embraces it as if it were his last.
“So if … the one performance I’m going to remember was last night’s show, then I’m going to perform every night as if it’s my last … and give the best performance I can every single night,” he said.
For the show’s staying power, Lipitz credits director and costume designer Julie Taymor for her vision and on the play’s “spectacular, dynamic storytelling, live on stage, every night.” There’s excitement, energy, and a connection between the performers and the audience.
“The representation of life that is being created out of silk and wood and puppets and people transports the audience,” he said. “For a moment they forget they are watching actors embodying puppets.
“This is the kind of theater I grew up dreaming about doing. The kind of theater that can really make a difference in someone’s life.”
Growing up, Lipitz discovered the thrill of making audiences laugh. From grade school through his teens, Lipitz performed in school plays, in family skits, at his local Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill and in Jewish summer camp.
He cherishes the opportunities he had at the JCC and some 50 years later, maintains friendships he developed though USY and BBYO, Jewish youth groups that were formative in his teens. Later, he worked as a counselor and later served as a BBYO adviser.
“The connection to community is so important to me,” Lipitz said.
Lipitz founded and produces an annual show for the JCC camp’s special needs inclusion program. Last spring, for its 10th anniversary, he produced a full staging of “Fiddler on the Roof,” starring as Tevye, and recruited other notable actors – including Tony award winner Debbie (Shapiro) Gravitte, who played Golda. The production involved scores of kids and campers, including many from the special needs program.
“It’s not an obligation, it’s a privilege to be able to give back,” said Lipitz, who with his wife is raising two children.
At one time, before setting firmly in the path of professional acting, Lipitz considered a career in the Jewish communal world.
Has he imagined a later-in-life, second career as a rabbi?
“You know, someone recently said to me, ‘It’s not too late, Ben,’” he revealed.
And with a good chuckle, he added, “I think I got another couple thousand performances of “Lion King” in front of me.”
Disney’s “The Lion King,” presented by Lexus Broadway in Boston, through Oct. 27 at the Citizens Bank Opera House, 539 Washington St. For tickets, call 844-379-0370 or visit broadwayinboston.com.