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."
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).
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"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.
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"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.
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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.
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
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.