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How I survived passing on ‘Lion King’

Justin Guarini surprisingly passed up an opportunity to star in the huge Broadway hit “The Lion King” while competing on “American Idol” in 2002 — but he now feels hakuna matata about that decision.

The 44-year-old Season 1 runner-up chose to stick with a potential shot at superstardom on the then-little-known reality competition, despite getting an offer to appear in the iconic Broadway musical after “years and years” of auditioning, he recently told Yahoo! Entertainment.

Guarini wound up placing second to first-season winner Kelly Clarkson, who is now the host of her eponymous talk show, and subsequently faced numerous career setbacks in the following years, including a failed debut album and the 2003 movie bomb “From Justin to Kelly,” which also starred Clarkson.

“Oh, just say it: My album was a flop. The movie that I did after that was an absolute flop,” Guarini said. “It was really painful. Like, I remember it being something that just crushed me, because I had always wanted to have a record deal. I had always wanted to be a recording artist.”

He has now come to grips, though, with how the industry works.

“I have benefit of 20 years of hindsight to be able to see that, oh my goodness, this business is truly cyclical,” he said.

Not that Guarini’s early decision-making process was an easy one.

“I did master classes, which is like the step that you take before you get onto the actual stage,” he said of his shooting for his goal to eventually appear in “The Lion King.” “And everyone in the company management was like, ‘Look, we want you, but we just don’t have the place for you right now. Just hold on, hold on.’”

Guarini waited but in the meantime got a slot on a “show that nobody’s ever heard of called ‘American Idol,’” the Georgia native recalled, nabbing a “golden ticket” to Hollywood.

“And I remember sitting in my car, and it was about a week before I had to go to LA — a place I’d never been before. And I get this call and they’re like, ‘Hey, we finally have the role for you. We want you. How soon can you start?’”

Justin Guarini placed second in the first season of “American Idol.”
Getty Images

While Guarini knew he “might get cut” from the competition, he felt he had to make the decision of a lifetime, as he had already advanced to the show’s top 30 roster.

“I looked up at the stage. I saw the ‘American Idol’ logo, the smoke, the lights, the dais where the judges sit, and I just started crying,” he said. “And this little voice said to me, ‘Go with this.’”

He stood on the platform of the Pasadena Civic Center and pondered how it was the same stage where Michael Jackson performed on at one point.

“So many of my heroes have been on this stage. I don’t know why, but I just have to go with this,” the “Dr. Pepper” commercials icon said.

AMERICAN IDOL  516 (The Great Idol Reunion)  In celebration of the milestone 20th season, American Idol greats Ruben Studdard, Scotty McCreery, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Lauren Alaina, Kris Allen, Maddie Poppe, Laine Hardy, Willie Spence, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Grace Kinstler, Laci Kaye Booth and additional surprise guests will reunite on the Idol stage for a night of unforgettable performances. American Idol airs MONDAY, MAY 2 (8:00-9:01 p.m. EDT), on ABC. (Christopher Willard/ABC via Getty Images)
Guarini has since starred in stage in productions including “Romeo and Juliet,” “American Idiot” and “In Transit.”
ABC via Getty Images

Despite turning down “The Lion King” for “American Idol” two decades ago, Guarini wound up appearing on Broadway anyway, in “American Idiot” — about a decade after his debut on the reality singing competition show.

“The bow on this story is that 10 years later, after my season of ‘American Idol’ ended, I would open my very first Broadway show in New York City, and we would have our opening night party in the hotel in the conference room where I first auditioned for ‘American Idol,’” he told Yahoo! Entertainment.

“I feel so lucky to be a part of the Broadway community because there has been no community that I’ve been a part of that’s been more accepting, more loving,” he added. “They don’t care where you come from — as long as you show up, you do your job, you’re kind and you tell the story, they love you.

“And I love them for that as well.”

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