Casting director Eric Woodall knows a little something about Disney magic. He works for Tara Rubin Casting, which casted Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid on Broadway. And Woodall has been in charge of finding actors for Aladdin since an early reading in 2010. Woodall was familiar with the animated movie, but the primary challenge lies in creating relatable people onstage from the animated characters in the beloved films. “Any time something is brought to life from an animated movie, everyone is asking questions,” he explains. “‘How do we do this? How do we put this onstage and protect the piece but also give it new life with real people?’ That’s where casting comes in and the conversation starts very early on with the creative team and with the producers there at Disney.”
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Though Aladdin is set in the fictional, Middle-Eastern kingdom of Agrabah, it’s a mashup of different styles—buddy comedy, romance, camp, political drama—and filled with Disney references (the song “Friend Like Me,” for example, contains bars from “Beauty and the Beast” and “Part of Your World”). Similarly, different characters require different acting styles and techniques. The main characters, Aladdin and Jasmine, call for traditional triple-threat, musical-theatre types. “We have to go to the practicality of what songs do they sing?” explains Woodall. “How high do they sing? What are the dance needs? And certainly their acting abilities and all of those elements that are always there certainly plays a huge part.”
By contrast, the villain Jafar requires an actor with a Shakespearean background. And Jafar’s sidekick, Iago, a parrot in the movie and a man in the musical, requires more of a clown. “The character does these huge physical comedy pratfalls,” says Woodall. “The actors we had playing that role, both in New York and on the tour, many of them have had an extensive background in clowning and commedia dell'arte.”
According to Woodall, the hardest role to cast in Aladdin is the Genie. When developing the character, creatives knew they wanted a character that would stand on its own next to Robin Williams’ original. Instead, the team went back to basics. The Genie’s songs, composed by Alan Menken, were originally inspired by jazz performers like Fats Waller, so Woodall looked for actors who had a background in jazz and comedy. “It takes so much physical energy and it takes someone who is a star and who just exudes joy, and positivity, and light,” says Woodall. “And then they have to have incredible movement skills and comedy skills and be amazing singers. They’re serving as the drive and the motor of the entire place, and they go a mile-a-minute through the entire show.” Those demands led to James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony for the role. Major Attaway currently plays the Genie on Broadway.
Though the characters don’t always look like their animated counterparts, the essence remains the same, and that’s the priority. “One of the wonderful things about working with Disney Theatricals—although there’s a source material from these popular movies,” he explains, “there’s a freedom to explore and create and let these characters come to life in a new fresh way.”