With the colorful world of Agrabah, an Academy Award-winning score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and some of the most memorable lyrics of Disney’s golden age, it seems like Aladdin — the 1992 animated classic about a street rat and his magic lamp — was always destined for stage treatment. And next week, the flying carpet will soar at the New Amsterdam Theatre, when Aladdin begins previews ahead of its March 20 opening.
At a recent “meet the press” event, EW chatted with the show’s director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, co-lyricist/book writer Chad Beguelin, and principal cast — including Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), Courtney Reed (Jasmine), Jonathan Freeman (Jafar), and James Monroe Iglehart (Genie) — about bringing the musical to Broadway.
“The show delivers all of the things that people love from the movie, but makes them theatrical,” explained Nicholaw. “You get to see ‘Friend Like Me’ live on stage, and you get to see what we can do with that number, which is so awesome and fun to do.” “Prince Ali,” too, is a huge production number “where the dancers wear four costumes each.”
Musicals from the Disney Renaissance era are known for their Broadway-esque showstoppers, including “Under The Sea,” “Be Our Guest,” and “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King.” But Aladdin featured fewer musical numbers than normal, which made it a challenge to transform into a two and a half hour mega production. “It was really about supplementing it…we’ve added a lot of buoyancy,” said Nicholaw. “No animals, and no people in animal costumes. It’s really making it a human story.”
“I think what we really wanted to do was make sure that people who loved the film and loved the characters got those big moments,” added lyricist Chad Beguelin. “Of course, we’ve got ‘A Whole New World,’ ‘One Jump,’ ‘Prince Ali’…we wanted to make sure that fans were really satisfied and happy, but we also wanted to bring in a lot of other themes and characters to sort of flesh it out.”
Case in point: Aladdin on Broadway features three characters that were originally in the film but ended up being cut from its final version. So while viewers won’t see the familiar faces of Abu the Monkey or Rajah, Jasmine’s pet tiger, they will get to meet Aladdin’s friends Babkak, Omar and Kassim. “To add them back in adds a whole other level to Aladdin’s journey, and sort of helps steer him in the right way,” Beguelin said. “And they’re played by three hilarious actors, and each time I write a joke, they spit it into a funnier joke and make my job really easy.”
Both Beguelin and Nicholaw praised the cast for their collaborative and inspired work, which, for the actors, has felt like nothing short of the opportunity of a lifetime. “It’s such a dream come true to be able to get up there and put the costumes on and even sing those iconic songs,” said Courtney Reed, who plays Jasmine. As leading man Adam Jacobs added, “it’s an iconic role, so you’re going to have that pressure of people expecting something…but to be able to take that character from the beginning of the creative process and make it your own, all the way from Seattle up to Broadway, it’s a dream for an actor. I get to put my own stamp on it, be the first person to ever do it.”
Of course, there was one actor who didn’t have to worry about making the role his own: Jonathan Freeman. In addition to being a veteran of three Disney theatrical productions, Freeman is best known for voicing the Sultan’s snake-staff wielding, evil vizier in the animated Aladdin. “I got to copy myself,” he joked, laughing. “But my biggest challenge was being surrounded by all these new ideas, new energy, new people and taking this old product, this old character — and dropping him in the middle of this new suit. It’s been a great experience. It’s been a challenge, and I like challenges, and I like being surrounded by people who are challenging.”
Things were a bit different for James Monroe Iglehart, who had the tricky task of stepping into shoes made famous by original Genie Robin Williams. “The one thing I had to do was step away,” he admitted. “I love stand-up comedians, he’s in my top five of all time, and I have all of his albums. But in order to do a role like this, you can’t do what he did — because it’s so iconic, you kind of have to step away from it.”
Iglehart’s take on the Genie is inspired by a roadmap for the character laid out by Aladdin lyricist Howard Ashman, who died before Aladdin‘s release. “He originally wanted it to be a Cab Calloway type character,” Iglehart explained. “So once I figured that out, that was where I started, and I just let my silliness come through. I’ve had all this stuff I’ve wanted to do on stage, and all this stuff I wanted to say in class that I couldn’t, or all this energy I always wanted to put when I walked through the mall with my wife that she won’t let me do. I’m able to do on stage, and that’s kind of where I took it. And this kind of the continuation of the family of Disney’s Aladdin – there’s the movie and there’s a theatrical version, and I get to be the theatrical version of the Genie.”
With its dazzling musical numbers, large cast, and beloved following, it’s no secret that expectations for the musical’s success run high. Aladdin remains not only one of the most critically acclaimed Disney films, but also one of the company’s biggest successes period, having spawned various sequels, spinoffs and theme park attractions.
And it’s about to get even bigger. We asked the cast what they could tease for audiences preparing to take their own journey into Aladdin’s world, and, well, we’ll let them speak for themselves:
Jonathan Freeman: “We have the most beautiful shoes and props…you won’t believe it, you just won’t believe how absolutely spectacularly it’s being produced.”
Courtney Reed: “All of the boyfriends that take their girlfriends are going to be super happy at how happy their girlfriends are. Bring your girlfriends!”
Adam Jacobs: “They’re going to see what they expect to see, plus a whole lot more. We’re bringing back stuff from the film that wasn’t in there. A lot of Disney nerds will be super happy about that.”
James Monroe Iglehart: “If they ever wanted to live in the world of Agrabah, they would be able to finally do it. You get to see the amazing story brought to life, and that’s what people will dig about it.”
Or, as the Genie might say: “It’s a feast for the eyes. It’s a wonderful Christmas present in the spring.”
Aladdin begins performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre on February 26 with an opening night set for March 20.