Although the character that actor Ben Lipitz has been playing in Disney’s “The Lion King” since 2002 — a pungent but easygoing warthog named Pumbaa — may not be kosher in the traditional sense, Lipitz nonetheless finds a connection between his alter ego’s essence and his own Jewish faith.
“Pumbaa is the walking embodiment of hakuna matata, no worries,” said Lipitz, speaking from Cleveland, where he was performing in the touring production of the show before heading to Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center.
“Pumbaa literally sees the best in everything and just wants to make it a little better. There is an everyman quality that we all identify with, and I think, especially Judaically, we all wish we could be like Pumbaa.”
Lipitz, who as chalked up more than 6,000 performances as Pumbaa on Broadway and in the touring production, grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, at a Conservative synagogue, and was active in BBYO and USY. As a teen, he considered two possible paths after high school: acting or a career as a Jewish communal professional.
“It was such a formative part of my youth, being a part of the Jewish community where I grew up in Cherry Hill,” he said.
His passion for theater ultimately won out, as he caught the acting bug in third grade when he played his first role, “Saul,” a Jewish reindeer in a holiday production.
“Saul was one of the lesser known reindeer,” Lipitz quipped. “It was a comic relief bit. And once I heard an audience laugh, and I knew that I could do that, the bug bit me from a very young age. So I grew up in the performing arts, always having a passion for it and I was fortunate to study for a Bachelor of Fine Arts at California Institute of the Arts, and I’ve been very blessed to have a career.”
He has maintained “very, very deep ties to my hometown Jewish community,” and when he is on the road, he often reaches out through the Jewish Community Center network to offer acting workshops to youth in the towns he visits.
Although he did not envision a career of being mostly defined by a single character, Lipitz has wholeheartedly embraced his destiny and is grateful for it.
“I never anticipated a career with one production quite like this, but it speaks to how unique and special this show is that I stayed with it for so long,” he said.
“When I was in college learning about theater and acting, I was possessed with the idea of doing theater that made a difference, that really spoke to audiences, that had a profound impact on their lives,” he continued.
“This is the kind of theater I dreamed of doing my entire career. All my formative years I wanted to have an impact on an audience in telling a story and changing people’s lives through the art and ‘The Lion King’ does that and a little bit more, I think.”
His current appearance at the Benedum is his fourth run playing Pumbaa in Pittsburgh. The show, which opened on Sept. 4, will run through Sept. 29.
Lipitz has connections to Pittsburgh. His niece lives in Squirrel Hill, and he has friends here as well. News of the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life building hit him hard, he said, and he is pleased to come back to perform here in its wake.
“As big a world as it is, it is also very small,” said Lipitz. “And like everyone, I was shocked and saddened, then proud of the resilience and the strength that was shown.
“It could not be more present for me, the awareness of coming back before the anniversary and performing this particular show, which reaches across cultures and beliefs,” he continued. “There is a universality in it that I hope this is the kind of theater that brings people together to create a new dialogue, with its shared story, because everyone identifies with the story, with characters in the story.”
Lipitz is married with two children, who are not only proud of their father’s work, but have taken the lessons of the show to heart.
He recalled his son’s first day of first grade, when a new teacher asked the children to draw a picture illustrating what their parents do.
“My son, decked in all ‘The Lion King’ swag — as you can imagine, he loved the show — thought it was the coolest thing that his dad was Pumbaa,” Lipitz said. “So he drew a picture describing his dad as Pumbaa, and the teacher didn’t quite understand because he couldn’t articulate ‘my dad’s on Broadway.’ He just said, ‘my dad is Pumbaa.’”
The teacher ended up sending his son to see the principal, who was aware of Lipitz’s role in the show.
“The principal returned him to the class and the teacher, very authoritatively said, ‘Are you ready to rejoin class, Matthew?’ And the principal said, ‘We have something to tell you: Matthew’s father really is Pumbaa,’ and then proceeded to explain I was starring in the Broadway production.
“To the teacher’s credit, she recovered quite nicely, I’m told, and said, ‘Do you realize how special that is? That’s very rare that your dad does that. I’m very sorry.’ And my son’s response to that was, ‘Hey, hakuna matata.’”
The messages of the show “are reaching people, at least my kids,” Lipitz said. “I find there is a really beautiful Judaic lesson in that. It’s about tikkun olam, it’s about generosity of spirit, just to make the world a better place. And I think that’s what ‘The Lion King’ really does.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at