Last month, an incredible story hit the web about a young autistic child who was able to connect with his father because of a shared bond over Disney movies. The story went viral, but there was someone behind the scenes who is perhaps the reason it was ever written in the first place—Jonathan Freeman, a celebrated member of the Disney family who met the father and son after a performance in Broadway’s Mary Poppins.
While chatting with EW about his role in Disney’s latest Broadway outing Aladdin (in which he’ll reprise his original voice part as the villainous vizier Jafar), the story of Owen and Ron Suskind was just one delightful anecdote that Freeman offered when it comes to his Disney roots. And in fact, the veteran stage actor has kept his Mouse House relationship close to his heart.
Since voicing Jafar in 1992, Freeman has frequently returned to reprise the role whenever the villain pops up in the Disney realm (which is, surprisingly, fairly often). On stage, Freeman has appeared in three of Disney’s Broadway musical endeavors, but his fourth outing is particularly special as he takes up Jafar’s iconic turban once again in the big-budget live-action musical Aladdin, which opened on March 20 at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You said when you first were presented with the idea of reprising Jafar on stage, you were apprehensive. What was your initial hesitation?
JONATHAN FREEMAN: Except for Alan Menken, there wasn’t going to be anybody on the project from 23 years ago, and although that seemed like a great thing for the show and a challenge even for me, I wasn’t sure that I had anything new to bring to the table. And I think that was all it was. And then the first time we had a read-through with the company in Seattle three years ago, I heard all these new voices with all these new ideas. I heard things differently.
How did the cast react to meeting you? Some of them were kids when the movie came out.
The reaction was pretty amazing. Don Darryl Rivera, the person who plays Iago, we were sitting next to each other at the table during the read-through and he actually gasped. I mean, listen, I know that it’s a great character, and I almost always speak of Jafar as “we” because I’m one part of the equation. Andreas Deja, the principal animator on the film, and the two original directors Ron Clements and John Musker are of course part of the equation as well. It’s a very powerful character.
How have kids been reacting at the stage door?
I think very young kids may be frightened. I know they were very frightened in the movie and they tamed certain things down after an early screening. There were a couple scenes they tamed down. That last scene was pretty brutal, when Jafar turned himself into a cobra and lifted Aladdin up into his tail and was dripping venom all over him. I remember being at some function in L.A. and there were a couple of kids being carried out crying. [laughs] That was a little harsh, but I have to say, when Don Daryl and I hear even the slightest little whimper in the audience, it makes us feel like we’ve done our job properly. Most kids are excited. I think it’s a villain that people love to hate more than just are terrified of.
What are the ingredients of Jafar?
The time period, for one thing. Once upon a time and long ago in some far off kingdom in Arabia that no one’s ever heard of called Agrabah. That alone makes it exotic. He’s not your average everyday villain, he’s not someone in a suit and a tie, and that time period kicks it into a place that makes it really mysterious. I think also the physical aspects—that turban, those pointed shoulders. And his voice. They gave me that great, crazy, scary silhouette and you have to figure out a way to fill it up. The language that they give him too is different than other people’s language, even within Aladdin. It’s a lot more refined and very oily and mercurial.
In the 20 years since this movie was made, you’ve stayed connected to the character, voicing Jafar in shows, video games, and other projects. Where was the most surprising place the character popped up?
You mean like on a tie? [Laughs.] He’s around. He’s always on the list of the top ten Disney villains, and most often he’s in the top five. It’s a great feeling. I never imagined in a million years that he’d become such an iconic character. There was some guy [at Aladdin on Broadway] last night that was in a full Jafar costume, and somebody told me that at the first preview somebody was wearing a Jafar hat, to which I said, ‘I hope he took it off so the people behind him could watch the show.’ Oh, here’s a funny one… a few years after the movie came out, Guyana issued a whole series of postage stamps. I thought this was very unusual, a whole series of stamps, and Guyana! Who would think in a million years that Guyana would even be interested in Aladdin, number one, and number two, they were very beautiful stamps! I have some of them in an envelope somewhere. They’re very beautifully done. Isn’t that strange? Usually you have to become Ella Fitzgerald to get on a stamp.
I bet you have all sorts of crazy merchandise from over the years.
I’m not a collector of things, but what I do I have quite a substantial collection of by now is kid art. I have a million drawings, paintings, crayon, watercolor things that kids paint and send to me, and what’s important to them—the details that they pick up and put in—has become important to me. My most recent one was from this kid in Toronto, a colored pencil drawing that has Jafar holding the big diamond ring, which he sort of teases Aladdin with when they try to coerce him into the cave. So that stuff is interesting to me. There’s a new book that Ron Suskind wrote about his son Owen, who’s on the autistic spectrum…
I read about that! Actually, the whole Internet was talking about it recently. The story on it went viral.
I actually had been working with Ron on that for quite a while. It’s coming out April 1, it’s a fantastic story, I urge you to go out and get it. Anyway, long before I knew Owen, he was a great aficionado of all things Disney. He knows the names of every actor who’s voiced every animated character for the last 50 years of the Disney pantheon, he knows the names of principal animators and directors, and after I started a conversation with Ron about this project back in 2009 or 2010, I started getting drawings from Owen. One is actually framed and in my dressing room at Aladdin. It’s a little bit like Jafar deconstructed, it’s almost Picasso-ish.
I had no idea you were involved in Owen’s story.
Chapter ten! What happened is they came to see Mary Poppins and Owen sat down, opened the program, saw my name, and said, “Dad, it’s Jonathan Freeman, that’s the voice of Jafar.” Afterwards, they came to the stage door and I guess I’d slipped out that night but they left me a very nice note and Ron asked if I would consider calling Owen for his birthday, and as you can imagine, I get a lot of crazy requests for Jafar’s voice, but this one, I checked out, and I did in fact call him, and he told me the story about their son who fell into autism and taught himself how to join the world, how to speak, and how to relate by watching Disney animated features, which could not have happened before the advent of the VCR. And I said, “This is an incredible story, and I understand you’re this big fancy Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, why haven’t you written this story?” And he gave me some very good reasons—number one, it’s very personal, and he wanted to make sure it was the right time, but he had indeed been wanting to write it. He said, “I’m just waiting for somebody to push me into it,” and I said, “I think I’m the person, pushing you into it, let’s go!” I really hope that one day it will be a film because it is a fantastic story, Marc, it’s like a real-life fairy tale, and that got me very hopped up and excited because I couldn’t imagine anything more fantastic than the story he was telling me, truly. When you read the book, and I hope you will, you’ll be amazed. It is gorgeous, and heartbreaking and heartwarming and the whole nine yards. It’s like a Disney story.
This is your fourth Disney show on Broadway. Aladdin, Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid — why do these all work on stage?
Kids love to see things they’re familiar with. Adults love the stories because they’ve grown up with them and they know them, and it doesn’t matter what it is when it comes to Disney. We’ve all grown up with very strong images from Disney animated films. If I said to you right now, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, you’d know exactly what that looked like. If I said the caterpillar, or any other character, you would know and you would remember because they’re very strong images. People are reminded of those things from a time when they were young and things were fresh and new. And also the stories are great. Aladdin is timeless, around for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s always been a great story. We know that because a lot of different people have told it. I think people go for the story in the same way that they go for these big fantasy movies, and also the way they make you feel. Don’t they make you feel good? You get a buzz, I think. A Disney buzz!
In the years since, have you stayed close with others in the Disney voiceover family? Is there a Disney circle of villains who text each other?
That’s funny. A club, you mean? What I should really do is just tell you that yes, there’s a clubhouse, you don’t know about it? Everyone has a key, and we meet once a month and we exchange outrageous stories! You know what? Sadly I don’t [keep in touch]. For a while I stayed in touch with a couple of people from Aladdin, Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin, who voiced Aladdin and Jasmine. I worked with Brad Kane, who did the singing voice of Aladdin, and when the movie came out in 1992, I was coincidentally doing a Broadway musical with Brad. I did go to a villains’ convention. There used to be a thing called Disneyana, and it’s called something else now.
Yeah, that’s it. So I once went to a villains’ convention and I had a fantastically hilarious weekend with Pat Carroll [who voiced Ursula in The Little Mermaid]. We had to judge a costume ball. A costume ball! Everybody came in different costumes and we were the judges. I can’t believe I’m remembering all this so clearly. We sat on these enormous oversized ridiculous rococo thrones, and people paraded by us and we’d have to decide who was going to win first prize.
Which costume won?
Oh gosh, I can’t remember. People are very creative! Civilians that have just regular lives, I think that they, when given an opportunity to become another character, they really are very resourceful.
Doing Aladdin on Broadway, how do you feel when you slip that Jafar costume on?
I get a little Disney buzz sometimes. It takes a team of people—Gregg Barnes designed these incredible costumes, and Cheryl Thomas does my makeup every night, and Gary Martori gets me into my beard, and then my dresser Barry Hoff gets me into that big outfit and those metal cuffs and I put on the turban, I look in the mirror, and I’m like, “Yes, that’s him.” And then we go downstairs and put the cape on because it’s too big to travel back and forth on. And the shoes. Oh, the shoes.
And are you just having the time of your life?
It’s pretty delicious, I think. Not to sugarcoat it, but I really do like the “Persian Room in Las Vegas 1949 presents Aladdin” part of it, you know? I mean, “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me,” they’re so extravagant. It really is like working the big room in Vegas.