Aladdin Tony Nominee Casey Nicholaw Recalls the Airline Attendant Who Changed His Life, Raising Him to New Heights

At the April 30 Tony Award nominees press junket, Casey Nicholaw — who earned his sixth Tony nomination for the choreography of Disney's Aladdin, including a 2011 win for The Book of Mormon — recalled a time when he felt his lowest and remembered the airline attendant who changed his life.

Casey Nicholaw
Casey Nicholaw (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

Before becoming a celebrated director and choreographer — Aladdin marks his sixth Broadway credit at the helm (not to mention the sole choreography of Spamalot and direction of To Be Or Not to Be) — "I was always a really poor kid," Nicholaw confessed. In the 1980s, the West Coast native made his way to New York City and began to pound the pavement as a performer.

"I literally had no money in the city, I couldn't get work, and I was dressing as a clown," he recalled with a laugh. "I remember… I flew to Chicago for $200 for the weekend to do what they called a 'shazam' — it's like dancing at a bar mitzvah. When I got there — I [recently] got a new answering machine, and I wanted to check it — it turned out I had a callback for Crazy for You for a dancer, and they [said], 'Come back. You need to be back here tomorrow, and rehearsals start in a week. We lost someone; we moved someone up.'"

With Broadway on the brain, Nicholaw quit his clown job ("They said, ' You'll never work for us again!'") and rushed to the airport. He was determined to make the callback for the George and Ira Gershwin musical, which would open in February 1992 at the Shubert. The only problem was — lacking payment from his clown gig — Nicholaw had no money.

"I had no idea how I was going to get home, and I needed a one-way ticket," he explained. "It was like $400, and I had a credit card, and I said, 'Here' to the lady. She said, 'It's declined. They want to talk to you.' I had one more credit card that I knew wasn't going to work either, and she looked at me — and she knew why I was going back [to New York] because we had talked a little bit — and she acted like she swiped it through. She goes, 'Oh, it works!' And, she ran it through without actually running it through, and I got to go. I flew back to New York — one way — went straight to the audition the next morning and found out an hour later that I had Crazy for You and started rehearsals a week later."

Aladdin star Adam Jacobs
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Landing the role of Junior in Crazy for You paved the way for roles in The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Victor/Victoria, Steel Pier, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Saturday Night Fever, Seussical and Thoroughly Modern Millie. In 2005, Nicholaw took on his first Broadway endeavor on the other side of the table — choreographing Monty Python's Spamalot and earning a Tony nod for Best Choreography.

Following that first nomination, Nicholaw earned Tony nods for the direction and choreography of The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon (winning for Best Direction) and, this year, for the choreography of Disney's Aladdin.

"I followed my instincts," he admitted. "I knew that I had to get back for that audition, even though the casting director said, 'Don't worry about it. You're out of town. Don't worry about it. It's okay.' I just think that things are destined. I needed to do that. I needed to be there for that audition, and it worked."

Aladdin, Nicholaw explained, has been a labor of love, and the most exciting part of the show's journey was being honored with a handful of (five, to be exact) 2014 Tony nominations, including Best Musical.

"The most exciting time, honestly, is right now," he said. "[The show] didn't go as well as we wanted it to in Toronto, but we learned from it, and we really changed it a lot before we got here, so the journey ending here — or hopefully beginning here because it's going to be a big success — is the best part of it. "Like the show says, everyone is a diamond in the rough — you can shape and figure out how much you're going to sparkle, and how you're going to sparkle… You have to be honest to yourself and honest to that diamond inside you. I think that's what the message ultimately is in the show… You can be a prince!"

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)