When members of the press went to meet the stars of the new Broadway musical #Aladdin, James Monroe Iglehart — who stars as the show's larger-than-life Genie — gushed about the first day of rehearsal. Stage and screen actor Jonathan Freeman (who originated the role of Jafar in the famed 1992 Disney film and reprises his performance on stage) said his first lines, and the cast, Iglehart explained, erupted. The actor, who appeared in numerous movie-musical adaptations — including Beauty and the Beast (Cogsworth), Mary Poppin (Admiral Boom and Bank Chariman) and The Little Mermaid (Grimsby) — is back for more Disney on Broadway and returns to Agrabah, the fictional Middle Eastern setting of Aladdin. Freeman chats with Playbill.com about returning to the stage, revisiting Jafar and exposing a new generation to Aladdin, which officially bows at Broadway's New Amsterdam March 20.
Did you ever think, when you were voicing the character of Jafar, that you would reprise your performance on stage?
Jonathan Freeman: I'm not sure I did… I don't think that Disney Theatrical [Productions] had started yet. I'm not sure Beauty and the Beast was on Broadway yet, so no, I didn't know. [The company was founded in 1993, the year after "Aladdin" was released, and Beauty and the Beast opened in 1994.] I mean, I always thought, though, that the last 50 years of the Disney cannon were all stage-worthy. Having grown up doing children's theatre in Cleveland, OH — where I grew up — and doing musicals, we did a lot of the same fairytales, the same epic stories, so I always thought that they were very worthy. And, now it's happened — when they started with Beauty and the Beast. I think that we're probably looking at a time when we can be able to see most of Disney's [material] brought to Broadway. I think it's going to happen.
When they approached you about recreating the role of Jafar for the stage, were you apprehensive at first?
JF: That is a very good question. I was a little apprehensive because I knew that I was going to be coming into a room with a lot of new people — with new ideas, new energy — and I wasn't entirely sure that I'd have anything new to bring to the project. Maybe what I had to bring to the project was enough, but when you're going into a room with a lot of new people and new energy, you want to be able to step up to the same plate… So I had a lot of trepidation about it, but I was talked out of that trepidation, and I'm so glad that I was because it's a great, great project. It's a fantastic company. We have the best — Bob Crowley sets, Natasha Katz lighting, Gregg Barnes costumes… It's absolutely delicious. It's just like the movie — that beautiful, color-saturated movie — except it's brought to the stage, and it's very energetic. It really is great. I think you'll fall in love all over again.
James Monroe Iglehart said the cast was so excited to hear your voice in the rehearsal room. At the same time, as an actor, I'm sure you want to bring something new and fresh to the table. What are you rediscovering, and what are you finding out about Jafar over 20 years later?
JF: Well, they've given me new material. We're not dogmatic about doing the film because the film was a big action-adventure movie. This is a big musical comedy, so they've given me new material, and I actually have a new song. Jafar's had many songs throughout these different incarnations, but the song that I have now is a wonderful song. I have new stuff to do, so it's challenged me in a different way, and I'm working face to face with people. When you work in a vacuum doing voicing… I mean, I worked a little bit with all the other characters in the film, but primarily, you're in a studio with a reader or the directors or just by yourself with people in a booth, so it gives you a lot [to work with by] just having somebody right there.
What kind of insight are you bringing to the cast? The creative team expressed how they are reincorporating plotlines and songs that have been cut from the film. What have you brought to the rehearsal room, having been there for the beginnings of "Aladdin"?
JF: Another good question… I guess the only people in the room right now [who were there during the film in 1992] are myself and Alan Menken [and Disney Theatrical Productions president and producer] Thomas Schumacher… I'm not sure that I have any better insight than anybody does. I do feel, though, like I'm a little bit of a guardian for the piece. I've been very clear that I want to make sure that Jafar remains a real villain because I think, without a good villain, you don't have enough gasoline for a project to push against, and that's been very important to me — to make sure that he isn't made too "musical comedy" and that he remains a hard-edge villain. That's something that I hope that I brought to the project, and I know that they thought that was valuable. I think that's really about it. I can't say that I'm a great "guru" of the project, but I do feel like I have some kind of guardianship over it. It's a very precious project to me, obviously, because it's been in my life. It's been a long job.
Because it's such precious material for so many people, what excites you about bringing Aladdin to a new generation?
JF: Well, it's interesting because I guess every few years or so — every ten years — there's a new influx of people who want to go look at the movie… Well, most people — I don't know if they realize it… Aladdin, as you know, is a centuries-old story, and it's a great story. It's a great boy's story, which is, I think, one of the great things about the film and why kids are attracted to it — there's a big influx of guys who wanted to be Aladdin like our Aladdin, Adam Jacobs. But, it's old material. We didn't invent it. We've been handed this great story. Disney took this story and recreated it, and now, here we are, once again, taking it another step further, so it's exciting, [and] it's been a good challenge.
(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.)
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