DIVA TALK: Aladdin's Courtney Reed Charts Her Journey from Abu to Jasmine

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Courtney Reed
Courtney Reed (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Courtney Reed
Courtney Reed, who made her Broadway debut in the long-running international hit Mamma Mia!, is currently starring as Princess Jasmine in the critically acclaimed new Disney musical Aladdin — directed and choreographed by Tony winner Casey Nicholaw — at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The Illinois native has been with the project since a 2010 reading; however, her connection to the material dates back to her childhood. Although Reed played Carla in the Tony-winning In the Heights, Jasmine marks the first role the young singing actress has created on Broadway. Prior to the 2014 Tony Awards, I had the pleasure of chatting with the good-natured Reed, who spoke about her role in the family-friendly musical, which was nominated for six Tonys, including Best Musical; that interview follows.

Question: Since we've never spoken before, let's go back to the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Courtney Reed: I was born and raised in Elgin, IL.

Question: When did you start performing?
Courtney Reed: I think I was six, actually.

Question: Do you remember what show that was?
Courtney Reed: I played a mouse in Cinderella at my community theatre, which is called the Children's Theatre of Elgin. That's kind of what I did all growing up. I did a lot of Children's Theatre of Elgin.

Question: Were there any singers or actors that you particularly admired growing up, anyone who influenced you?
Courtney Reed: I was actually really big into pop artists like Britney Spears. I think she was my idol. [Laughs.] Question: Was there a moment or a show when performing went from a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
Courtney Reed: I was cast as Annie in Annie when I was 11 or 12, and I just remember feeling, "Oh my gosh, this is the best thing ever!" People would recognize you… I remember hearing the audience and their reaction made me feel like the coolest person ever! [Laughs.]

Question: Fast-forwarding a bit, when did you get to New York?
Courtney Reed: I graduated from college at the Chicago College for Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. I was in the theatre conservatory there, and I was a musical theatre major, and I did a couple shows right as I graduated in Chicago and had kind of been planning on moving to LA because I thought, "I'll never make it on Broadway unless I'm some famous TV actor, so I gotta move to LA."

Reed and Adam Jacobs in Aladdin.
photo by Deen Van Meer

I got cast in some shows right away. So I thought that I would stay in Chicago for a little bit, and then I was there for a couple months, and I did three shows, and I auditioned for Mamma Mia! in Chicago. I thought it was for the tour or for Vegas, and I ended up booking that, and my agent called and [said], "You're moving to New York in two weeks." So I packed my bags — I had never been to New York, I had never seen a Broadway show or anything like that. I went to a performing arts high school, and every year the performing arts kids used to go to New York and see shows, and I was never really able to do that. I don't know why, maybe scheduling or maybe my parents just didn’t want to pay for it. [Laughs.] So I never really got a chance to go to New York, so my first New York experience was going to my first day of rehearsal. Mamma Mia! was at the Winter Garden at that time – it's kind of crazy to think that it's now not there anymore. But it was at the Winter Garden, and I got off at 42nd Street – I had to take the 7 to get into the city – walked past all the Mamma Mia! billboards and went to my first day of rehearsal, and I met one of my greatest friends still now, Frankie Grande. We joined the show together, and it was crazy. I saw the show that night, and that was my first show I'd seen on Broadway. They gave me seats; it was really awesome.…When you're going into a show, they never let you sit. You just have to stand and watch in the back. But they actually gave me fourth-row seats – that was a really huge experience for me.

Question: How did your first night on Broadway live up to what you thought it might be?
Courtney Reed: I think it was everything I thought it might be and more because I hadn't anticipated a cast being so inviting and welcoming. They really supported me throughout the whole thing. And,  Mamma Mia! is the type of show where, at the end, the audience gets really excited for the big "Megmix" — it's like this big finale, where the ensemble is up onstage the whole time. The audience gets up on their feet and they start cheering – it was kind of like a rock concert. I do remember leaving the stage after my Broadway debut and thinking, "Wow! What a rush," and kind of looking around me and seeing the rest of the cast being like, "Oh well. Ho hum." For them it was their job, and for me it was like, "Wow, this is the best thing in the entire world! Why isn't everyone else freaking out right now? That was crazy; it was like a rock concert!" And they're just kind of like, "Alright, see ya! No big deal." [Laughs.]

Reed in Aladdin
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Question: I saw in your Playbill bio, you say that you "can't believe" you're playing your favorite Disney princess. Can you tell me a little bit about your own history with "Aladdin"?
Courtney Reed: I grew up as the Disney princess lover, for sure. And my sister and I used to watch the classics on repeat, like "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast" and "Lion King" and "Little Mermaid," but I think especially the princess ones, like "Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," too. Even though it's not about Princess Jasmine, she's still in it a lot. And for me, she was my first experience seeing a Disney princess who looked like me. All of the other princesses I used to watch had light hair and light skin, and I couldn’t really identify with them as well, and Jasmine came along, and she was the first real ethnic Disney princess. So I thought, "Wow, I can be like her." And we loved the movie so much.

My parents made this mural in our basement. We loved making murals in the basement, I don't know why. And there's this hidden room, and we called it the "Aladdin" room, and my mom and my sister drew the Genie and Abu, and we used to put all of our toys in there. "Oh, yeah, just put it in the Aladdin room." And my friends freak out, "You realize you grew up with a mural in your basement that was 'Aladdin'-themed, and now you're playing Princess Jasmine on Broadway!" I have so much history with this show, even growing up. We did a Children's Theatre of Elgin production, and I played Abu because I was young. I really wanted to play Jasmine, but I knew they'd never cast me. And so I was happy enough to play Abu. That was my first principal role, playing Abu. And I was just dancing around and doing cartwheels and stuff. It's pretty hilarious.

Question: How did this role come about? What was the audition process like?
Courtney Reed: Well, you know, it's funny because it started as this small reading – I mean, nothing with Disney is ever really small – it was this little reading, and I know Tara Rubin called in a really select few girls to audition for it. I was so lucky that she thought of me or that they thought of me. Because usually with readings like that you just bring people in; like Adam Jacobs, my co-star, he was playing Simba at the time. Disney knew he would be a good Aladdin, so they thought, "Why don't we just fly him in from the tour? He can do this little reading." And, Jonathan Freeman was attached to the project at the time. I think I may have been the only person who auditioned because I don't think they had anybody that they could just pull from the Disney family that could play Jasmine. … I guess I had a good audition, and I did the reading and the rest is kind of history. I re-auditioned for the Seattle production for Casey [Nicholaw] because he had never seen me before. And, luckily, he kept me on board… Adam Jacobs, Jonathan Freeman and I were the only ones who have been with it since that reading in 2010, [and] four years later, here we are. And, thankfully, I didn't have to re-audition for Broadway. We had done workshops and table readings after Seattle, so I just had to wait while they auditioned everyone else in the world before they could call me and tell me that I got it. It was probably the most stressful three or four months of my life. It seemed like an eternity.

Reed on opening night
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: How much has the show changed since you first started to the recent out-of-town run to Broadway?
Courtney Reed : Oh, a lot, a lot, a lot — and significantly from Toronto to Broadway. It changed a lot from Seattle to Toronto, but I think the biggest changes were made from Toronto to Broadway and especially my character. I actually feel like my character changed the most. I mean, my character was changing after we opened in Toronto. We didn't get enough time in Toronto to apply some of the changes that we had wanted to make because the tech process was very difficult. As you could imagine, any big show like that, the tech is going to be pretty crazy. So that ended up taking a little more time than we had hoped, so we had anticipated on making some changes, but we didn't have enough time before we opened. We didn't get reviewed very well in Toronto, and I think we opened kind of prematurely. I got a brand-new song, so the song that I had been singing for three years completely changed on me right before we went to Broadway. But I think it really sets up my character a lot. And the three friends used to narrate the show, and now the Genie does. And, I think the changes were really smart and really great and really pulled the show together.

Question: What's the new song that you got?
Courtney Reed: It's called "These Palace Walls." It's pretty crazy. Alan Menken wrote this song, and they're like, "Yeah, Alan Menken wrote this song for you, no big deal." [Laughs.] It's just a really beautiful song, and it really sets up her character. It's called "These Palace Walls" because she really wants to see the world, and she's just stuck behind the walls. Her father won't let her leave — it's dangerous… [but] she just wants to see more. She expresses to her attendants the frustration that she has. She's so grateful for everything that she has, but she wants to see the world. That's what she sings in the song – maybe there's more behind these palace walls. And she ends up finding out there is – it's a "Whole New World" out there. [Laughs.]

Reed at the Tony Awards
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Speaking of which, was it kind of daunting to tackle "A Whole New World" since it's the most well-known song from the movie?
Courtney Reed: Oh my gosh! Absolutely. Playing these iconic roles that people grew up with, everyone has these very specific ideas of what they think it should look like or sound like or what the musical should be like on Broadway. It's huge, I think, for anyone involved to take on something like that and especially "Whole New World." It's impossible to not think of the original recording and Lea Salonga, and her voice, to me, is perfection. It's crystal clear. It sounds like something not of this world; she sounds like an angel. You know, I listen to her Miss Saigon recording on repeat, and she's just incredible. So I think it's impossible to not hear her when you're singing the song. But at the same time, when you stage it and when you have your co-star there and you have your musical director there, and they're guiding you, and you go back to the original lyrics and you're on the magic carpet and you're feeling it, then you can really see why the song was written in the first place. You can go back, kind of, to the drawing board and discover these new things about it and maybe when she's "soaring, tumbling, freewheeling," she's actually tumbling and soaring through the sky – she's actually singing it, so she's kind of discovering it. So I think going through that with my co-star and rediscovering the song was so beautiful and magical, and we can only hope that people like it.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Jasmine?
Courtney Reed: It's difficult [to choose]. I laugh a lot while watching this show in the wings and watching James [Monroe Iglehart] and Babkak [ Brian Gonzales], Omar [Jonathan Schwartz] and Kassim [ Brandon O'Neill]. There are always these moments that I think I'm going to get sick of, but I never get sick of. I got really emotional singing "A Whole New World" on opening night and could barely get through it. I had to really push myself not to tear up during that song. It sounds kind of cliché… and I still get kind of emotional when I think about it. The orchestrations are just unbelievable, and they really take you there. So I think "Whole New World" is probably my favorite moment.

Question: Talk to me about working with Casey Nicholaw since he directed and choreographed the show.
Courtney Reed: Casey is the best. I always admire directors who were actors first because I think they think about their actors and know where their actors are coming from. So it was really nice – he gave us a lot of freedom to discover new things, and I was able to approach him and say, "You know, I don't know if Jasmine would necessarily say this," or "I'm not sure if her intentions are completely clear here." And he would say, "Okay. Let's talk about it. Let's figure this out." He wanted to make his actors happy in that way. It's a collaborative process, and it really gives any actor a safe environment to feel that they can discover things and fail, and I think that that's so great. I think it's every actor's dream from a director because you want to be able to fail and succeed, and you still want to be able to trust that he's going to guide you in the right direction, and I feel like he really did that. His vision was amazing for this show. And, audiences – you know, the proof is in the pudding. [Laughs.] Audiences are loving it, and they're coming to theatre, and I think that says a lot about him as a director.

Recording the cast album
photo by Matthew Murphy

Question: What was your reaction when you learned that Aladdin had received a Tony nomination for Best Musical?
Courtney Reed: I woke up in the morning, and I was sitting there with my boyfriend and watching the live stream online. I kind of screamed and covered my face. I mean, this is my first original show. Of course, I want to experience all of the waking up and watching the announcements instead of sleeping through it and reading it online somewhere. So I've been doing all of that kind of stuff. It was so exciting, and I feel so proud, and I couldn't be happier for the success of the show and even being recognized for Best Musical. And it was such a tough competition this year. The shows were, like, insane. The creative teams for all the shows – it's like the best of the best on Broadway this year, and to get recognized for this show that I consider the surprise of the season. I don't think people necessarily thought it was going to be as successful as it is, and I couldn’t be happier.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on this right now?
Courtney Reed: My first, sort of, feature-length film …just premiered at the SoHo Film Festival. The film is called "The New York Love Story," and I play a supporting principal role. I get kind of a lot of screen time, which is nice. I'm not the main character, but it was the first time seeing myself on the big screen, and it was kind of cool. I've done some TV work, and I've seen myself on TV, but this was kind of different. When you're watching yourself at home on you DVR, it's different than being in a 300-seat theatre with this huge screen and seeing your face up there blown up 500 times the size that it is. [Laughs.] The film is going to be premiered in LA as well, at the Dances With Films Festival, and depending on the distributor, it might do more festivals or it might be a Netflix type of thing. I'm definitely open to the TV/film world, which I've been a part of for a couple years now, dabbling here and there. And, "Submissions Only," I'm on that, and I'm playing a character named Deborah Lee, which is really fun. "Submissions Only" is such a great web series, and it's done so well. The production value is really great. Kevin McCollum signed on last year, and that's a really fun process to be a part of. So I'm a part of all of these families, including my Aladdin family… It's fun to see your face pop up here and there for wherever it is.

Visit AladdinBroadway.com.

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Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.

View Courtney Reed's photo journal from the Paper Mill production of Once On This Island