Ok, so last night I said don't expect anything soon and this morning I wake up to find an email from AKB in my inbox! Just goes to show how wrong I can be!
Kindly arranged by 5th Avenue, Andrew Keenan-Bolger generously gave up his time to answer some questions about his run in Aladdin: The New Stage Musical and bringing Omar to life!
Firstly just let me say congratulations on winning the role of Omar in Aladdin and thank you for agreeing to do this interview! I really appreciate you taking the time to interact with the fans in this way.
How did you come to be involved in the initial readings/workshops and what did they involve?
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with Disney on a number of productions so when it came to cast the ALADDIN reading, I guess the team was familiar enough with my work to offer the role to me. Originally when my agent called and said I got offered the ALADDIN reading, my response was, “No way! Please tell me I get to play the monkey!”
Having already played the role in the workshop, what was the audition process like for the Seattle production?
Although I had done the reading, there were a number of people involved with the production who were new to the project including our brilliant director, Casey Nicholaw. I auditioned like everybody else and went through a callback process before getting cast.
How did you learn that you had got the part and what was your reaction?
Haha, funny story. I actually found out I booked the job from my dressing room mate in MARY POPPINS, the incredible Jonathan Freeman (Jafar in the 5th Avenue producction). I came into work one day and he had this big grin on his face and asked, “How long did you think you could keep a secret from me?! Why didn’t you tell me we’re going to Seattle together?” I was totally confused. I guess news travels quickly. I heard from my agent shortly after.
How much has the show changed from that original reading through to last night’s official opening?
Quite a bit actually. There were 3 or 4 songs that were cut from the reading by the time we got to Seattle and a number of new songs took their place. There was a big overhaul of the second act as well. Up until our opening night there were changes going into the show on a nightly basis. The trio of guys (Babkak, Omar and Kassim) got a reprise of “High Adventure” put in just days before we opened.
What’s it like creating a totally "new" character in such a well loved story?
It was totally rewarding. Recreating a role like Aladdin or The Genie is difficult from the get go because the audience already has such a strong idea in their heads of what to expect. Luckily our actors tackled it brilliantly, but I loved being able to start from scratch. Also, having the writers in the process from beginning to end, they were able to develop the roles of the trio based on what the three of us brought to the table. Brian Gonzales (Babkak) brought such a dry, throw-away sense of humor, so his character started being written more in that vein. Brandon O’Neill (Kassim) emerged as such a natural leader so his part became more the fearless, guy in charge. And for me, well I was really scared of all the sword fighting in the stage combat sections, so it came as no surprise when my rewrites highlighted Omar’s scaredy-cat qualities, hehe.
|Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Omar (centre), Photo by Chris Bennion|
For those of us who can’t make it to Seattle, can you please tell us a bit about Omar, your approach to the character and his role in the show.
Babkak, Omar and Kassim are Aladdin’s best friends and members in his street band. They were originally conceived by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for the film. They were later cut but got to see a new light in the stage production. I adore the character of Omar. He’s the youngest member of the band, an ultimate optimist and a hopeless romantic. I found the more time I spent with Omar, the more I realized he was not at all that different from myself. I tried to think of what I’d do in the situations that Omar found himself in. (Example. When Omar cuts his finger in the sword fight, I thought, oh, he would totally faint. Personally, I can’t stand the sight of blood, especially my own!)
What’s it like working with Alan Menken and bringing to life the lost Howard Ashman songs?
It was incredible working with Alan! Not gonna lie, we were all a little intimidated at first. I mean, this guy is an absolute legend! But he couldn’t have been a sweeter, more positive human being. He was always asking us for our input which was both surprising and amazing. Even after 8 Oscars he still wanted to make it a collaborative process and that speaks a lot about his character. Being able to give life to Howard & Alan’s original vision was such an honor. Alan stressed how proud Howard would have been to see their concept onstage. That in and of itself was worth all the hard work.
How do you prepare before a show? Do you have any superstitions or routines that you do before you go on stage each night?
The trio actually had a theme song that we would blast every night in our dressing room. It was Steely Dan’s “The Fez” and we HAD to dance to it before we went onstage or it wouldn’t be a good show. We never missed it, and I like to think every performance pretty much nailed it!
What is the most rewarding part of the show for you, and which part do you find most challenging?
The most rewarding part of working on the show was getting to create our roles with Brian and Brandon. Casey gave us the freedom during rehearsal to come up with a lot of our own bits and adlibs. The most challenging was the fact that a lot of it bombed. Getting the opportunity to fall on your face and know that no one was judging you was the best possible scenario. We ended up coming up with a lot of hilarious stuff. I already miss my boys and hope we get a chance to work together again.
Your 4th July video was fantastic, is there any chance you’ll post more Aladdin videos on your blog? There has to be a wrap party on 31st right ;)
Thanks! 4th of July in Seattle was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I’m so glad we got to document it. I made a music video with our cast for Casey for closing but it’s a little bit irreverent so I think it will be kept on private :)
Looking to the future, do you have any dream roles that you would love to do?
I’m actually about to start work on a show that I’ve dreamed about being turned into a musical since I was a little kid, NEWSIES. To say that I’ve been obsessed with the film would be an understatement. I’m playing the role of Crutchie who I always joked about wanting to play if they ever did a stage version. Getting to play him in the premiere production is truly a dream and getting to reunite with a lot of the brilliant people who worked on ALADDIN is doubly exciting.
And finally, looking back over your career so far, do any moments or performances really stand out as something truly special that you’ll always remember?
When I was twelve I got to play The Little Boy in RAGTIME on tour. Even at that age, I realized I was working on something truly special. Getting to be downstage, center for that opening number with just a wall of sound hitting your back from the forty-plus member cast is forever a defining moment in my decision to do theatre as a living. That musical was so brilliant and getting to be a part of it at such a young age is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Andrew, thank you so much for your time, it's been a pleasure. All the best for Newsies!
If you want to know more about AKB then make sure you check out his website and his blog (where he frequently posts videos like the amazing 4th July video mentioned above)! And if you can get to New Jersey between 15th September and 16th October, make sure you go and see the Premiere Production of Newsies! The Musical at the Paper Mill Playhouse and support Andrew in person! Tickets are available here.