"Can Your Friends Do That?" James Monroe Iglehart on Playing the Genie in Aladdin

Special Features   "Can Your Friends Do That?" James Monroe Iglehart on Playing the Genie in Aladdin
James Monroe Iglehart, who took home the 2014 Tony Award for his performance as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, chats with Playbill.com about his early love for the Genie and taking on the role of a lifetime.

James Monroe Iglehart
James Monroe Iglehart Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The hulking, happy genie uncomfortably ensconced in Aladdin's lamp — James Monroe Iglehart — is there waiting for you when the curtain goes up at the New Amsterdam Theatre in the latest animation-turned-musical from Disney, evidently cajoled by the Disney elves to provide introductory notes on the characters and conflicts ahead.

The notes are in song form ("Arabian Nights" — words by the late Howard Ashman, music by the prolific Alan Menken), and, in the 1992 animated movie, they ran all of 78 seconds over the opening credit-crawl, sung unseen by the late Bruce Adler.

For Broadway, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has created his own — well, "Arabian Nights," a spectacular four-minute curtain raiser set in the Old Baghdad marketplace (designed by Bob Crowley, drenched in hot pink by Natasha Katz's lighting and populated by dancers in Gregg Barnes's cartoon-colored costumes).

A bountifully exuberant tour guide, Iglehart introduces us to his master-to-be, Aladdin (Adam Jacobs), a low-born scamp aspiring for better things; Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), the better thing; her father, the Sultan (Clifton Davis); the evil Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and his parroting sidekick, Iago (Don Darryl Rivera) — and, at the end of his "out-of-bottle experience," he says, "Don't miss me too much," then poof! — he's gone for what seems like an eternity, but what is actually 25 minutes.

When he returns, the pent-up fizz factor sends him forth in all his abracadabra glory. "Hello, my name's Genie. What's yours?" he announces, launching into a glitzy, quite literal showstopper — an intense eight-minute rendition of Ashman and Menken's Oscar-nominated "Friend Like Me." (It lost the Oscar to "A Whole New World," which Menken wrote with Tim Rice after Ashman's death.) "I know it sounds like bull, but the truth of the matter is that I've been in love with the Genie since I first saw him when I was 17," admits Iglehart. "The fact that I get to play him now sends me out on that stage with such joy — that's what keeps me going.

James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"When we started the show, I had sinusitis, and I still went out there because I wanted to do it so bad. Even when I'm sick or sleepy, there's this thing in me that wants to do the role because I love it so and I want people to see how much fun it is."

Boy, do they ever. The audience at the New Amsterdam looks on in awe as the burly 39-year-old showman — standing six-feet-tall and weighing 295 pounds — deftly prances and parades around the stage, going all out eight performances a week.

"It's a nice feather in my cap that I'm a larger guy who can move the way I do. I don't call myself a dancer. I call myself an actor who moves well. All the things regular dancers do are impressive — the dancers in our show are among the best on Broadway — but you expect it. When you see those abs, you know they can dance. When you see me start to dance, it's an amazing spectacle. People completely lose it. That's the fun for me — seeing the surprise on people's faces when I start to move."

Another nice "feather" in Iglehart's cap is the 2014 Tony Award he won last month for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.

Iglehart started surprising people in his previous Broadway show, Memphis, in which he was the hero's sidekick, Bobby, a radio-station janitor. "In that show, also, I had a solo where I danced and did the splits and cartwheels and stuff like that."

So are choreographers gunning for The Big Guy? "It's not the choreographers. I do it to myself. I walk into a room, and my ego gets to me, and I go, 'I can do this,' and they go, 'Really? Well, now you can do it eight shows a week.' It's kind of my own fault."

James Monroe Iglehart
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

By comparison, Iglehart's third Aladdin number is a breeze. He opens Act Two with a big drumroll for the arrival of "Prince Ali" — in reality, Aladdin bogusly disguised as a royal to seem worthy of Princess Jasmine.

"It's a lot easier than 'Friend Like Me,'" he admits, "because I pretty much just stand in the center of the stage like a circus barker and sing the song, but it's hard work for everyone else on stage because our cast is in a revolving costume change. They're all underdressed with four different costumes, and each revolution is a layer less." He just sings until his costume change: with one yank from the chorus, his aqua-blue zoot suit becomes a white genie getup. "It's the best feeling in the show for me. The white costume is lighter than the zoot suit. When they take it off, it's like a gush of cool air." "Prince Ali" is the last song Howard Ashman wrote. Menken took a portable keyboard to the hospital room, and they finished it there.

"To be in a show that was Howard's last really means a lot to me," says Iglehart. "Those two guys changed animation. They brought Broadway to that world. The fact it's come full circle—that [it's] on Broadway and that I've been picked to be the Genie — is awesome."

So, perhaps it's true: James Monroe Iglehart may be the James Brown of Broadway — the hardest-working man in show business — and he wouldn't have it any other way.

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