Jason Raize (July 20, 1975 - February 3, 2004) was an American actor, singer and former Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme. He was best known for his roles as the adult Simba in the Broadway stage musical version of The Lion King and Denahi in the animated Disney film Brother Bear.
Born as Jason Rothenberg, Jason grew up in the Catskills in upstate New York and started acting as a teenager when his stepmother enrolled him in a summer Shakespeare workshop. In high school, after moving with his father to Oneonta, New York, Jason performed in high school plays and with Oneonta's Orpheus Theatre. He moved to New York City after high school where he briefly attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
In the summer of 1994, having changed his surname to Raize, Jason performed at the Bucks County Playhouse in Oklahoma! (as Jess/Dream Curly),The King and I (as Lun Tha),Phantom (in the title role), and The Rocky Horror Show (as Rocky). His other regional credits include Gypsy: A Musical Fable,The Sound of Music, and West Side Story.
When he was just 19, Jason succeeded Dennis DeYoung of Styx in the national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Ted Neely and Carl Anderson. Next he toured with Miss Saigon, and had been cast as a swing in a national tour of The King and I starring Hayley Mills when he decided to audition for Julie Taymor's upcoming Broadway production of The Lion King (1997).
Winning the role of "Simba" in The Lion King's original Broadway cast, Jason became part of one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1990s. During his three years with The Lion King, Jason performed "Endless Night" and "He Lives in You" on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, as well as "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" on Good Morning America. He was also featured twice on the cover of InTheater magazine.
In September 1998, Jason appeared on The Paul Simon Album: Broadway Sings the Best of Paul Simon singing the Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence". The album also featured Christiane Noll, Jose Llana, Lauren Kennedy, Jane Krakowski, and Sal Viviano.
In May 1999, Jason co-produced a benefit for refugees from Kosovo at the Kit Kat Klub. In October 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme appointed Jason a Goodwill Ambassador "for his commitment and dedication to furthering the cause of the environment through the use of his creative talents to inspire respect for our natural heritage and to promote the conservation and sustainable use of the earth's resources."
Jason signed a deal with Universal Records and released two singles ("Taste the Tears" and "You Win Again"), both produced by Desmond Child who had recently produced Ricky Martin's hit "Livin' la Vida Loca." In summer 2000, Jason and Jessica Simpson starred in a Disney Channel special called Jessica Simpson and Jason Raize in Concert. The concert was filmed in Disneyland and featured Jason's songs "I Can Make it Without You," "You Win Again," "Lovin' You Lovin' Me," "Run Away Girl," and "NYC." His debut CD on Universal was titled NYC, but it was not officially released.
Jason returned to the New York theater scene in January 2001 for a concert performance of Carmen Jones. He starred in the made-for-TV-movie The Kitchen which premiered on PBS in June 2001. That same fall, Jason's television series Keeping it Wild with Jason Raize premiered as a nationally-syndicated program in which Jason visited exotic locations such as Africa, Costa Rica, and Australia to learn about animals in their natural habitats. The show was produced by Sue Ann Taylor of Blue Heron Films.
Jason also provided the voice of Denahi in the Disney animated feature Brother Bear, released in fall 2003.
In 2003, Jason returned to Australia without his family's knowledge to rethink his career path. Sarah MacArthur, his stepmother, said "Jason needed to step back and catch his breath. I don't think he had figured it out yet what to do next". He took a job working as a general hand at a stud farm in Yass, New South Wales called Hardwicke Stud, owned by olympic gold medalist Lawrence Morgan. This was also a place where he had friends whom he met while filming there in 2001.
At 11:15 am on February 3, 2004, Jason's body was found hanged in a shed on the farm property. A missing persons report had been filed on February 3, also believed to be the date of death. Jason's death was ruled a suicide.
Memorial and legacy:
A public memorial service for Jason was held on April 8, 2004, at Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre, where Jason had performed as Simba for almost three years. The service included speeches by Jason's sister, Lisa, and Disney Theatrical's Thomas Schumacher, a performance by Jason's former The Lion King co-star Heather Headley, a slide show and home movies from his younger days, clips of Jason performing in The Lion King, and a montage from his Keeping it Wild television series. The service ended with a traditional South African celebration of passing into the next world led by cast members of The Lion King.
Today, the Orpheus Theatre in Oneonta issues two annual Jason Rothenberg Raize Scholarships which underwrite tuition to the theater's summer music theater workshops for youths with financial need.