Playing Pumbaa the warthog in the national touring production of "The Lion King" for 13 years has been both a blessing and a challenge for this South Jersey native.
Like many people in this region this time of year, Ben Lipitz’s thoughts are revolving around the Poconos and road trips. Unlike most people, though, thinking about the Delaware Water Gap and long drives is something he does year-round.
That’s because the 50-year-old Cherry Hill native now calls the Poconos home — a home he is constantly traveling to and from as he enters his 13th year playing Pumbaa the warthog in the national touring production of The Lion King, which is now showing in Philadelphia.
Despite the rigorous cross-country touring, an eight-shows-a-week schedule, extended stretches away from his family — wife, Rosalie, 10-year-old son, Matthew, and 6-year-old daughter, Mikaela — and revisiting the same role somewhere around 4,500 times, Lipitz’s voice takes on an almost reverential tone when he talks about performing with the touring company.
“It is incredibly gratifying; people want to sign your playbill and are moved by the performance,” says Lipitz, who also performed in the Broadway production in 2009 and 2014. “We see people lining up a year in advance to buy tickets, we see what the economy is — we owe it to them to give the performance of our lives. What better validation and gratification could I ask for as an artist? The very fact that I can make an impact in people’s lives” through his performances “is an act of tikkun olam.”
Lipitz, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, says that what drives him to make his portrayal of Pumbaa feel as electric today as when he first strapped on all 48 pounds and 8 feet of the Pumbaa puppet/costume back in 2003 is simple: “Performers are encouraged to create their performance as if it’s the first time, because it is the audience’s first time seeing the show,” he explains. “After a few years, you can wear that out. Then, you can focus on the nuance, deepening and getting actively engaged” in the more esoteric aspects of the role. But when that technique is no longer effective for an actor, he says, “what I have come to learn is that to keep the show fresh and the stakes high, I perform every time as if it is my last. I can put myself in a place where it is vital and high stakes — it allows me to be present in a way that fulfills me as an artist.”
The theater also allows Lipitz to fulfill what he says is his need to perform tzedakah. He is the show’s longtime coordinator of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the leading industry-based HIV/AIDS fundraising and grant-making organization in the United States. In that capacity, he organizes audience appeals twice a year and puts on numerous fundraising cabarets. He also reaches out to Jewish federations in the cities where he appears to see if he can do anything to help raise money for the Jewish community.
Closer to home, Lipitz focuses on the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, where he produces Broadway Live, now in its fifth year. The annual fundraiser brings in Broadway performers and raises close to half a million dollars for his childhood community center.
“I think my involvement in the Jewish community growing up is what has stuck with me, about being involved in something bigger than yourself,” he says, noting that he was also involved as a teenager in both the precursor to BBYO and USY, the Conservative movement youth group. “That is reflected in The Lion King. You have to make yourself right before you can do something for a larger community. I’m grateful for the opportunity to give back.”
Lipitz pays it forward through education as well as fundraising: He teaches master acting classes at schools across the country. It is a way for him to provide the same kind of spark for young, aspiring actors that he once received as a student at Cherry Hill West High School.
“I can vividly remember sitting in the auditorium as a freshman in 1979, and actors from the McCarter Theatre came down and did a residency visit,” he says of the Princeton institution. “They rehearsed Moby Dick on our stage for a day. Classes would watch the rehearsal and ask a few questions, then that evening they would perform what they were rehearsing. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat and being enthralled!”
While he points to that moment as the beginning of his commitment to an acting life, Lipitz says he was first bitten by the bug years earlier when, as a third grader, he was cast as Saul, the Jewish reindeer, in a production of Santa Claus and the Magic Boots.
Perhaps that’s why, despite knowing how challenging the life of an actor can be, he is kvelling about his son Matthew’s recent debut as a member of the River City Orchestra in the local high school’s production of The Music Man. As much as Matthew enjoyed the experience, Lipitz says, he’s not convinced that his son should go into the business, nor is Michael. When Lipitz asked Matthew if he wanted to become an actor, he recalls, the response came quickly. “He still wants to be a dentist.”
IF YOU GO
The Lion King
Now through June 14
Academy of Music
240 South Broad Street, Philadelphia