Jason Raize should be starring on Broadway as George Washington in Hamilton right now. He should have a couple Tony nominations under his belt and maybe even a win. He should have been a regular fixture on shows like Law & Order: SVU or Blue Bloods. At the age of 41, he should be one of 42nd Street’s most popular leading men.
Not dead at the age of 28.
Last week, the cast and crew of The Lion King, both past and present, gathered to celebrate the show’s 20th Anniversary. But missing from the party, the reunions, and the onstage Elton John performance was the show’s original Simba.
Jason’s rise to stardom came fast. It seems confounding that a career that had started so successfully, with so much potential, that took a young man all over the world, would end tragically in a barn on a stud farm in New South Wales, Australia.
But it did, and all we're left with, is what if?
Jason Raize Rothenberg was born on July 20th, 1975 in upstate NY. He found theatre as a teenager when his mother enrolled him into a summer Shakespeare workshop. There he played roles like Feste and Orlando. He learned that on stage, he could let out all of the emotion within him. It was also during this time that he realized he was dealing with depression.
After enrolling in AMDA, he left the school to audition full-time, getting cast in national tours of Jesus Christ Superstar, Miss Saigon and The King and I. It was here when he decided to audition for The Lion King.
The audition process was grueling. He once described it as a game of survival rather than a theatre audition.
"It was more the sense of who can take the challenge and not be daunted by the task," he said.
He ended up winning the coveted role and starred in the show opposite another future Broadway star, Heather Headley as Nala. Jason would remain with the show throughout its Tony-winning run for an additional two years until 2000.
After he left the show, Hollywood and the music industry came calling. He was immediately signed to a record deal with Universal Records. He starred in a live concert with Jessica Simpson and released four singles. Later, he starred in Keeping it Wild with Jason Raize, a TV program in which he visited exotic locations to learn about animals in their natural habitats. In 2003, he voiced the character, Denahi, in the Disney animated film, Brother Bear.
But it was around this time that Jason's mentality towards his career began to change. While filming his show in Australia, he fell in love with the area. So in late 2003, he returned to the country with the goal of taking a step back and reevaluating what he should do next. However, friends recall seeing a different Jason Raize than the one they initially met.
According to friend Peter Crisp,
"Jason found things very difficult after finishing The Lion King,'' Crisp said. "It's a roller-coaster for a period of time and then suddenly you think, 'Crumbs, where am I up to?' There was a lot of self-assessment going on."
Jason didn't even tell his family he was going back to Australia. He had become much more introverted, so much so his sister, Lisa Williams, would later say that she felt her brother died two years before his actual death.
While he was staying in Australia, Jason went to work on a stud farm doing various odd jobs in exchange for food and boarding. Jason was last seen the morning of February 2nd, 2004.
"Friends were concerned about his whereabouts, but thought he might have been in Sydney for a party," Inspector Bernie Ryan of the Goulburn Police said. A missing persons report was filed with Yass police at on February 3rd.
Sadly, his body was found in hanging in a barn in the back of the stud farm on February 7th. His death was ruled a suicide.
A public memorial service was held on April 8th. It included stories from friends and family. It also included performances from former co-stars such as Ms. Headley. The service ended with a traditional South African celebration of passing into the next world led by cast members of The Lion King.
Jason has been gone for 13 years now, but his name still often comes up in conversation. I actually spoke about him with a friend of mine who knew Jason during his days at AMDA.
"It's unreal to think about where he could have ended up. All the roles he could've played," my friend said. "I look at a lot of the leading men on Broadway right now and I keep thinking that Jason would easily be among them."
But while the the memories of his performances fade, thankfully, there are ways to keep his legacy alive.
"Thank God for cast recordings," my friend stated. "This way we can listen to that voice forever."