The people who brought Aladdin to Broadway did so without the help of a genie.
Capitalizing off the success of the 1992 animated film of the same name, Alan Menken and Chad Beguelin began working on a stage version of the Disney musical. Aladdin premiered at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in 2011. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar in the movie, reprised his role in the stage adaptation, while Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed played Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, respectively. James Monroe Iglehart played the pivotal role of the Genie.
Adapting the film for the stage was no easy task. "When people say, 'We knew Aladdin was going to happen,' I say, 'I'm glad you guys did!'" Iglehart told E! News in New York City while promoting the release of the movie on digital, Disney Movies Anywhere and Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. "I wasn't worried, but I said, 'If it's going to happen, we needed to do it right.'"
Reed said everyone felt the pressure to deliver. "We were kind of nervous that we weren't going to be as successful. The expectations were so large," the actress explained. "We knew that the movie was a big hit, but the musical has to live up to it and that's such a tough thing."
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Jacobs, who said he was "handpicked to do the first readings" of Aladdin after starring in The Lion King, channeled his character's spirit from the very beginning. "I thought, 'I'm just going to tell the story. I've just got to relax and do it and be as loose as possible, because that's Aladdin.' He's very loose and very effortless, and that's what I did," he recalled. "I was able to pull it off."
Freeman, the only person to ever voice Jafar in film, was the obvious choice to play the villain. "I happened to be in the building working on Mary Poppins at the time and they said, 'Alan Menken's going to be at the reading today. Would you like to come and play your old part?' And I was like, 'Yeah! Why wouldn't I?' You know? I just think it was meant to be, I guess," he told E! News. "Once they determined that they wanted to do a musical and I happened to still be alive and still be healthy enough to do eight shows a week," he joked, "I think that was it."
For Iglehart, there was another challenge to playing the Genie: he didn't want people to associate his performance with that of Robin Williams, who inspired the animated character that could do literally anything and everything.
"People say, 'You have big shoes to fill,' and I always say, 'I got an out.' Because of the brilliant, wonderful, late, great [composer] Howard Ashman, I didn't have to actually put my feet in Robin's shoes," he explained to E! News. "Howard had this other idea of the Genie and that was for him to be more of a Cab Calloway, Fats Waller type of cotton club big band leader, this consummate, giant performer. So, when they told me that I was able to go in that direction. It kind of made me feel confident enough to go crazy over on the left field instead of staying on the Robin Williams one. There's a rule in stand-up comedy: You don't steal other people's stuff. To step into Robin's shoes and try to do his shtick would be a dishonor to the project he worked on and a dishonor to his spirit and what he does."
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Reed, meanwhile, decided to approach her role from a different perspective. "I always wanted to stay true to the film. When people come to see the show, they see iconic characters like Jasmine; they don't want you to necessarily 100 percent reinvent it. You want to bring the cartoon to life, right? So, I wanted to stay true to the film, but when you portray a character, you can't help but be a little bit of you as well. You add a little bit of you to it, because you can't not," she admitted. "That's basically what I did. I didn't want it to be this whole different thing."
But before Aladdin headed to the Great White Way, it had a pre-Broadway tryout at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto. "I'd like to say somebody said 'Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo' and it all worked," Iglehart said of needing to retool the show, "but the truth of the matter is we have the best team in the world."
Everyone from director Casey Nicholaw to the set designers analyzed each detail, and Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, would give notes.
"They all said, 'What is wrong with it? Because if we're going to make it, it's got to be good.' And they looked at the situation like they do with every show and they said, 'This is what we can do to fix it, and this is what needs to happen.' And they did it! We watched them do it," Iglehart recalled. "There were scenes where they said, 'You know what? We love this scene, but it has to be taken out.' Which is funny, because in the cartoon the story wasn't flowing, and what did they do? They took out 'Proud of Your Boy.' In our show, the story needed to flow, and what did they do to make it flow better? They put in 'Proud of Your Boy.' And Adam Jacobs sings for the gods every single night. There's not a man in the world I want to hear sing that song except for him. When he does it, it's magic. There's not a dry eye in the house when that boy does that. They saw the situation and they got to it and fixed it."
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"It was fun to go through the process, because opening night, when the curtain went up and then the curtain came down, we were like, 'All that work was exactly the way it was supposed to be. All that sweat, all that time in the hot room dancing over and over again, it was all worth it because we did something right. It's so much fun to watch people enjoy what we did right."
For so many, bringing Aladdin to Broadway in 2014 was a dream come true.
"It's completely changed my life. It's the biggest role I've ever played. My sons were born the first day of rehearsals here with Aladdin. I feel like that's going to be the year in my life where everything really changed," Jacobs said of his 20-month-old twins, adding, "Hopefully it's going to keep going that way."
It's a sentiment the entire cast shares. "When I was 10 years old, my favorite character was Baloo [from The Jungle Book]. When I turned 17, my favorite character became the Genie. I'm 41 years old and I'm playing the Genie. It doesn't get better than that," Iglehart said. "Playing my favorite Disney character, it's hard to put into words. You get emotional when you think about it, because I remember sitting with my mom watching this film. I remember buying the VHS when it came out. I remember playing the cassette, breaking the cassette, buying a new one and playing it again. The only parts of the tape that were worn out—don't get me wrong, I love 'A Whole New World'—were 'Friend Like Me' and 'Prince Ali.' Those songs were worn out, and I get to sing those every single night. And people are enjoying it! I get to be the character that I always loved. It is the coolest job ever."
Walt Disney Pictures' Aladdin: Diamond Edition is available now on digital, Disney Movies Anywhere and Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Aladdin the musical is now playing on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre.