‘A total dream’: the mother-and-daughter stars of Les Mis and The Lion King
Is talent inherited or something that has to be learned? Twelve-year-old Chanai Owusu-Ansah, currently playing Young Nala in the West End production of The Lion King, thinks it is a bit of both. “I’ve been singing and dancing with my mum for as long as I can remember,” she says. “My whole life revolves around listening to music and performing.” Just down the road at the Sondheim theatre, her mum, Chanice Alexander-Burnett, has the role of Fantine in Les Misérables, which means mother and daughter are starring in two of the biggest shows in the West End simultaneously. “People always predicted she’d follow in my footsteps. But it has some logistical challenges,” Alexander-Burnett laughs.
We meet in one of the backrooms of the Lyceum theatre. On the evenings when her daughter is playing Nala, Alexander-Burnett has the operational task of dropping her off while also having to prepare for her own show. “Chanai comes home from school, gets changed, does any homework that she can, and then we both have to run to our theatres to get Covid tested for 5.30pm,” she explains. “It can be very hectic.”
Both managed to find time in their busy schedules to watch the other perform on their opening night. “I cried and cried when I saw Chanai walk on stage,” says her mother. “I know how much she wanted it and how hard and long she’d worked, so I couldn’t contain my emotion. I was a mess.” Owusu-Ansah set herself the goal of being part of The Lion King long before she was offered the role of Nala. In the years before her casting, she attended the show’s drama academy Cub School twice a week and she has previously performed in Evita at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre. “Evita was my first show, so it was tiring, but it was great training. It taught me to be aware of myself in a theatre space, and how to stay focused.” Young Nala features in the first half of The Lion King. Her favourite moment? Wearing a baby elephant costume for Circle of Life. “The elephant is absolutely huge, probably the size of this room! It is a really special song,” she says.
In the leadup to starring in Les Mis, Alexander-Burnett admits she was a “nervous wreck”. Though she had performed in Book of Mormon and as a swing in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Fantine is her first lead role in the West End. “I was longing for a part I could really get my teeth into,” she says. “Singing I Dreamed a Dream is extraordinary. I remember waiting in the wings on opening night and feeling really honoured I’d been trusted with such a classic.” Owusu-Ansah describes her mum as her “critic, best friend and idol”. When she sees her in her costumes, “I just think, oh my gosh, wow!” she says. “I feel so proud watching her.”
It’s “magic” when she performs on stage herself, she adds. “Most of the time I can’t really see the audience, but when I see the outlines of people, I have to really tell myself that I can do this and that I won’t mess it up. I have to properly concentrate.” Alexander-Burnett’s own love of performing started late. “I didn’t grow up in a stagey family.” She enrolled for a course at London School of Musical Theatre when her daughter was a toddler. Balancing parenting with her training “did mean that Chanai always grew up around music,” she says. “She’s been immersed in it her entire life.”
Do they regularly get to perform together? They mention a time they sang “their song” Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing (Tori Kelly’s version of the Stevie Wonder song) as a duet. “I think she’d like to film videos and put them on Instagram or TikTok,” Alexander-Burnett says. “But we probably won’t get to at the moment because we are always at work!” Owusu-Ansah chimes in, adding: “I would love for us to be on stage together, but it might be a little bit awkward!” Her mum admits: “I used to want us both to be in The Lion King together. So she could be baby Nala and I could be big Nala. That would be incredible.”
Owusu-Ansah enjoys performing so much, she says, that she would “sleep in the theatre” if she could. Still, in the future, she hopes to have a career as a lawyer. “Acting is my hobby, it makes me so happy and I love being around people with the same interests as me. I guess, if being a lawyer doesn’t work out, I would consider it.” But right now? “Us both being in these two shows at the same time is a total dream.”