PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Aladdin — The Ashman Cometh (Again)

By Harry Haun
March 21, 2014

Playbill.com goes behind the scenes on opening night of the new Broadway musical Aladdin.

*

How far can you go on three wishes? Well, if you happen to be Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions — with Bob Crowley doing sets, Gregg Barnes doing costumes and Natasha Katz doing lights — you can pretty much go the distance.

Aladdin, the lush and lavish Arabian Nights musical fantasy that made itself right at home March 20 in the equally ornate and sumptuous New Amsterdam Theatre, is actually the dream of composer Alan Menken, who apparently rubbed Tommy's tummy — and voila! The musical comedy that Menken and his late lyricist, Howard Ashman, started for the Disney animators has at last come to life as they intended it.

The 40-year-old Ashman died of AIDS March 14, 1991, six songs into the show, and it has taken 23 years and six days to get the project back on the right track.

With Ashman no longer at the controls, his original musical-comedy concept withered and suddenly became an adventure romp in which the animation elves whipped up a flurry of dazzling effects. Only three Menken-Ashman songs survived: "Arabian Nights," played over the 78-second credit-crawl and now a lollapalooza curtain-raiser; "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." Four songs were shelved, and Tim Rice was brought in to provide words for the lively "One Jump Ahead," a lyrically revised "Prince Ali" and the Oscar-winning "A Whole New World." For the Broadway production, book writer Chad Beguelin got in his lyrical licks in four new songs.

When it was first suggested that Aladdin pitch tent at the New Amsterdam, said Schumacher, "Alan came to me and said, 'Here are all these trunk songs that Howard and I wrote. Why don't we restore them into the show and start with that as a structure? So, that's just what he and Chad went about doing. They felt they could build a story — pretty close to what Howard started out with — by using these songs."

View the Entire Photo Gallery
Courtney Reed and Adam Jacobs
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Beguelin, a Tony-nominated book and lyrics writer for The Wedding Singer, figured he has been working on Aladdin off and on, between nonmusical plays like Harbor, "for four or five years. Originally, it was going to be a straightforward adaptation of the movie, but, when Alan brought forth all these cuts songs, we had to put back characters who were to have sung them or add new characters who would sing them. Aladdin had a mother in the movie but doesn't in the musical, so he sings a moving Menken-Ashman song, 'Proud of Your Boy,' to her in heaven. It's really the heart of the show."

Aladdin's three sidekicks — played here by Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz (no, not that one) and Brandon O'Neill — are back in the picture, dispatching two Ashman numbers, "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" and an exuberant swordfight dance, "High Adventure," plus a new contemporary ditty, "Somebody's Got Your Back."

The latter is by Beguelin, who penned the lyrics to a new love ballad for the leads ("A Million Miles Away"), a villainous cackle of a song for Jafar and Iago ("Diamond in the Rough") and Princess Jasmine's new "I want" song ("Beyond These Palace Walls," replacing the one Ashman song that didn't make the cut, "Call Me a Princess," which got as far as Seattle and Toronto before being officially dropped at the doorstep of Broadway).


Buy this Limited Collector's Edition

"The great thing about working for Disney," Beguelin pointed out, "is that they have so many smart dramaturges and writers on staff. You get smart notes — which is not typical, let me tell you. They really know their characters and their stories. It's been reassuring to know that they're very clear about the stories they want to tell."

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, paced the piece like a house-afire and with infectious silliness, pulled out all the stops for "Friend Like Me" (aptly, the last Oscar-nominated song by Menken and Ashman). By the time the Genie, played by James Monroe Iglehart, finished demonstrating all the magic he can do for Aladdin, the new master who rubs him the right way, the entire New Amsterdam audience was on its feet, applauding wildly.

"I love that number," Nicholaw didn't mind admitting, "and what I'm proudest of is that people laugh all night, then suddenly have tears in their eyes and they don't know how that happened. It's magic! You got magic carpet, you got magic tears!"

The magic carpet ride in the second act — an amorous metaphor if ever there was one for pauper-pretending-to-be-prince Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) and the regal real thing, Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) — is another occasion for a standing ovation for the audience. To the show's big hit, "A Whole New World," the two lovers float about a darkened stage brightened only by Christmas-light stars, taking them and the audience no place in particular except possibly into a world of enchantment.

"It's not quite a Mary Poppins trick," said Reed. "It's a beautiful moment in the show the same way that it is in the movie. We're up there so we know what it feels like — to be on it feels really exciting — but we don't know what it looks like. We have to rely on cast-mates and other people to tell us. Everybody thinks it's just breathtaking. It's really a moment that we come together as co-stars, and I think, because it's such a big moment in the show, it does exactly what it's supposed to do. when we did it in the rehearsal room for the first time, I got really emotional and could barely sing the song. It's about the two of them falling in love and connecting."

From his point of view, Jacobs said, "There's very little turbulence up there so it's a very smooth ride. There's no landing gear, either. It's not necessary. I love flying on the magic carpet. It's a magical ride every time. And I love the end of Act One, which sets up the second act. That's the moment when he first becomes Prince Ali and he realizes that everything is going to start happening for him."

Jacobs, who became the father of twins on the first day of New York rehearsals, plays Aladdin, drenched in hot-pink by lighting designer Katz and proving himself a limber, live-wire presence. For no apparent reason than to prove he can do it, he is repeatedly thrown into the chorus line and keeps up as well as anyone since Daniel Radcliffe's turn in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Jonathan Freeman
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"Yes, I've had to work a little bit on my tap-dancing," he conceded. "It wasn't originally like that, and I think Casey discovered I could move a little bit and then he said, 'I think I'll make a little bit more choreography for you,' and he did just that."

The only person in the show you'll recognize from the film — and it was an animated film, you'll remember — is the imperious Jonathan Freeman, reprising the wicked royal adviser, Jafar. The reason you'll recognize him is he was photographed delivering the overripe dialogue so animators could accurately draw him.

"My recollection is going to the corner of Dopey Drive and Goofy Lane — to Studio B, where I did most of the work," Freedman recalled. "There was no phone-patching back then. Now you could be anywhere — in your closet, in your apartment in your pajamas, and people will set up studios — but at the time I had to get on a plane and go to L.A. There were two cameras — one for a full-body shot, and the other for close-up — and you'd stand at a podium, basically reading. I just approach it as I approach any character: I physicalize it. I think anyone who does these voiceovers does that."

Jafar's second-act song is really a reprise of the Menken-Ashman "Prince Ali," which is used at the top of Act II to introduce Aladdin to the city in his royal disguise — only sinisterized with new Tim Rice lyrics. "Jafar's had, over the years, seven songs that have come and gone in different versions. Working on that film was like working on any musical: Two steps forward, one step back. A scene goes that doesn't support the song anymore so the song goes. Then they find a new place for you to have a song."

The triple-somersault exit that Jafar makes at the end — from his flowing black robe to a white one to a red one — is something Freedman chalks off to "Disney magic. Musical comedies are great collaborative efforts, so that magic effect at the end is a collaborative effort of costuming and lighting and direction and writing and pyrotechnics. Those few moments are really the collaboration of American musical theatre at its best."

Jafar's yes-man sidekick in the movie was an ominipresent parrot named Iago, who was voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. In his musical transformation, he takes human form as Don Darryl Rivera, a Seattle actor making his Broadway debut, wearing feathery homages here and there and drawing complaints from Jafar about his "squawking," along with the question,"Must you parrot everything I say?" It's a cleverly reconceived cartoon, delivered with determined panache and an overly eager smile not to be believed. He also captures Gottfried's sand-paper rasp and strident annoyance.

James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The aforementioned "entire New Amsterdam audience" — said to be nearly 2,000 fun-filled first-nighters — apparently made it to the elaborate after-party held at Gotham. Every possible room, anteroom, mezzanine and main dining room was taken up with tables and stools. And there was a room upstairs rumored to be gripped in gridlock.

John Lasseter, the Pixar prexy and the principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, and Disney CEO Bob Iger with his wife, Bloomberg correspondent Willow Bay, led the big parade of Disney suits. The artistic heavyweight was director Julie Taymor, who brought Disney's New Amsterdam Theatre magically and spectacularly back to life with the opening march of animals in The Lion King and became, because of it, the first female director to win a Tony (there are now three).

Casts from past Disney-Does-Broadway shows passed proudly in review on the red carpet: from Beauty and the Beast: Bryan Batt, John Tartaglia and Patrick Page; from The Lion King: Page again and Alton Fitzgerald White; from Aida: Sherie Rene Scott; from The Little Mermaid: Scott again, Sierra Boggess, and Heidi Blickenstaff; from Mary Poppins: Gavin Lee, Rebecca Luker and Laura Michelle Kelly; from Tarzan, Josh Strickland and Merle Dandridge; from Newsies: Andrew Keenan-Bolger and, currently, Corey Cott, Liana Hunt, Andy Richardson, Luca Padovan and Zachary Unger.

Then, there were Emmy winner Carla Hall of TV's "The [daytime] Chew"; Tina Fey; Tony winners Harvey Fierstein, Cady Huffman, Gabriel Ebert and Laura Benanti; Cabaret's Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey; Newsies' Tony-winning choreographer Christiopher Gattelli and lyricist Jack Feldman; actor-producer-director Michael Arden; The Wedding Singer producer Margo Lion, and easy smiler Cheyenne Jackson.

Courtney Reed
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Plus: Richard Kind, bound in July for Bay Street Theater in Travesties; Marsha Mason preparing to direct Chapter Two at George Street Playhouse ("What would you know about that?" I asked the second and ex-Mrs. Neil Simon, who laughed); producers Fran and Barry Weissler, pursuing more Diane Paulus-created Tony magic with a three-week workshop of Finding Neverland; director Lear deBessonet, a woman in the year of Lear, casting Pump Boys and Dinettes for its City Center Encore July 16-19; Actors' Equity's Nick Wyman, doing a TV pilot next and always tending his chickens; director Jack O'Brien, preparing his April 3 reprise of Guys and Dolls and bracing for a little Shakespeare in the Park this summer; Rodgers & Hammerstein's Ted Chapin prepping his bosses' debut in the 92nd Y's "Lyrics and Lyricists" series April 5-6 and promising a R&H debut — Lt. Cable's "My Friend," cut from South Pacific ("How did it not get into Cinderella?" I asked); Richard Skipper, one of our better Carol Channings, on the verge of saluting Channing's Minnie Fay and Mary Martin's Tiger Lily, Sondra Lee, March 25 at the Spiral Theatre on West 36th St.; director Michael Mayer sporting a cane from a gym mishap just as he is starting to show Neil Patrick Harris his moves for Hedwig and the Angry Inch; and James C. Nicola, artistic director of the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop, seeing how the other half live.

Side Man's Tony-winning author, Warren Leight, said that he had a crack at the last project Ashman had propose to musicalize with Menken: The Big Street. It was Lucille Ball's favorite performance and starred Henry Fonda as "Little Pinks," a scruffy Damon Runyon character. "We were actually planning to do it," Leight admitted, "but we really only had one wheelchair musical in us, and that was Leap of Faith." More's the pity.