Monday, 13 January 2014

Countdown to Broadway - Seattle 2011


Next month will see Aladdin finally debut on a Broadway stage.  It's a moment that's been a very long time coming and, with the preview run now behind us, I thought that now would be a good time to pause and look back at the road has led us here.  Today is a very apt day for this as it was on this day, 13th January, 3 years ago that The 5th Avenue Theatre released a press release that would announce the start of Aladdin's long journey to the Broadway stage.  There had been rumours and "talk" of Aladdin being done for stage for years, even workshops in 2010, but 13th January 2011 was when Aladdin became very real with the following words;

The 5th Avenue Theatre Presents
The Premiere of
Disney's Aladdin, A New Stage Musical
Stage Version of  Disney's Film to Close 2010-11 Season
 
SEATTLE, WA–The 5th Avenue Theatre is proud to announce that it will produce the premiere of Aladdin, a new stage musical adapted from Disney’s 1992 animated feature film. Aladdin, featuring the Academy Award®-winning score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, previews on July 7 and runs until July 31, 2011.  The show replaces Oklahoma!, which will be postponed until the 2011-2012 season.

Aladdin will feature a cast and creative team drawn from Seattle and Broadway. Several 5th Avenue veterans return for the production, including acclaimed director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who received his first professional choreography gig at The 5th Avenue Theatre (The Prince and the Pauper, 2001) and where he later choreographed My Fair Lady (2002). On Broadway, Nicholaw won praise as the choreographer of Spamalot, and director/choreographer of The Drowsy Chaperone and Elf: The Broadway Musical, garnering three Tony nominations for his work.
 
Music for Aladdin is by Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Tangled), who has won a total of eight Oscars, more than any living person; lyrics are by the late Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid) and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Chess, The Lion King). Librettist Chad Beguelin wrote the books for The Rhythm Club, Wicked City and The Wedding Singer, which premiered at The 5th Avenue in 2006.  Menken and Beguelin contribute additional lyrics.

This new Aladdin incorporates all of the beloved songs from the film’s Oscar®-winning score plus never-before heard Menken/Ashman songs restored from early drafts of the score.  It marks a return to the authors’ original vision:  a loving homage to the Hope-Crosby road pictures with a
score invoking the jazz sound of stars like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.
  
Other confirmed production artists include set designer Anna Louizos (White Christmas, In The Heights), Tony Award®-winning costume designer Gregg Barnes (The Drowsy Chaperone, Mame at The 5th Avenue), Tony® winning lighting designer Natasha Katz (Beauty and the Beast, Aida), dance arranger Glen Kelly (The Producers, Drowsy Chaperone) and musical supervisor Michael Kosarin (Beauty and the Beast, Sister Act).
 
“New musicals have become a large part of the mission of The 5th Avenue Theatre and we are thrilled that Disney has selected our theatre to produce the premiere of this new work they have developed.  I am especially thrilled to have Casey back here where his amazing career first got started,” says The 5th’s Artistic Director and Executive Producer David Armstrong.

Steve Fickinger, VP Creative Development and Licensing for Disney Theatrical Productions, said, “Responding to extraordinary demand from our licensing customers for a full length, two- act version of Aladdin, Alan Menken brought to us the idea of returning to the highly theatrical vision he and Howard Ashman had originally conceived but that had proved unsuitable for the film.  Our goal with this pilot production of Aladdin at The 5th Avenue is to launch this title for inclusion in our innovative professional and regional theatre licensing catalog.”
 
The full press release can still be read in The 5th Avenue's online Press Archives.  This press release had myself, and many other Aladdin fans, bursting with joy.  Aladdin was finally coming to stage!  It was a moment I'd longed for since seeing a touring production of Beauty and the Beast years earlier.  But that final sentence brought us all crashing back to earth.  This wasn't going to be a pre-Broadway run.  This was a strictly limited 3 week run being done to launch Aladdin as part of Disney Theatrical's licensing catalog.  Any future productions, professional or amateur, would be done without Disney's involvement and who knew when or where they would pop up or what the level of quality would be.  Back then I figured that if the show did exceptionally well then maybe, just maybe, there was some hope that Disney would do an official tour before licensing the show out through MTI.  I also remember being devastated that I couldn't go to see the show and that, in part, was one of the reasons I created this blog, to follow the show as closely as possible even though I couldn't be there.  I'm sitting here now, 3 years later with the benefit of hindsight, smiling and marvelling at how funny it is that everything has worked out better than I ever dreamed possible.
 
But enough about me!  Within days of the press release casting notices went out (with the noticeable exception of Jafar) and tickets went on sale.  Then nothing.  Aladdin entered that dark period where casting and all the behind the scenes stuff is being done but no information is being released.  It was nearly 4 months later, on 6th May 2011, that the next big announcement came, and oh boy was it a doozy!  Jonathan Freeman was returning as Jafar!!!  This marked the first time that any actor from one of Disney's animated classics had returned to reprise the roll on stage.  With Jonathan's Broadway background the casting made perfect sense and was a fantastic coup for 5th Avenue/Disney Theatrical.
 
The rest of May saw a lot of (accurate) casting rumours flying around, the leak of several costume sketches and ended with Adam Jacob's website confirming that he was playing Aladdin.  The official Memphis facebook page also unofficially confirmed James Monroe Iglehart's casting as Genie with several messages wishing him good luck in his new role.  Official confirmation soon followed as the full cast was announced on 1st June 2011 with the principles as follows;

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin
Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine
James Monroe Iglehart as Genie
Jonathan Freeman as Jafar
Don Darryl Rivera as Iago
Brian Gonzales as Babkak
Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Omar
Brandon O'Neill as Kassim
Sean G. Griffin as Sultan

The casting announcement was the start of two things.  For me it was the day I reached out to Adam Jacobs, asking if he'd be willing to do an interview for this blog, and to Disney, asking if they'd be willing to send me any press materials for the show.  In less than 24 hours Adam had said yes and Disney had put me in touch with the wonderful Bridget Summers at The 5th Avenue.  I can't say enough about how amazing Bridget was, without her help and support I wouldn't have been able to do half the things I did back in 2011 and it's very likely I wouldn't still be doing this today.  She made me feel part of it even though I was half the world away.  The second thing was the beginning of an incredible media blitz.  With the casting came the first official photo of Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and from then on it felt like the media campaign was in overdrive.

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Mark Kitaoka
 
The 5th Avenue Theatre announced a free Spotlight Night for Aladdin, where the cast and creative team discussed bringing the show to life and previewed some of the cut songs being restored to the show along with the classic A Whole New World.  A last minute change of venue even led to an extra treat for ticket holders as they received a message from Jafar himself letting them know of the change(which you can hear here)!  Over the next few weeks The 5th playfully teased fans who couldn't make the event, releasing clips of Why Me, Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim and James Monroe Iglehart talking about how he got the role of Genie before finally releasing the full hour long video the day of the show's premiere.

Throughout June and early July more preview images surfaced online, featuring Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine;


Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Courtney Reed as Jasmine, Photo by Mark Kitaoka

And my personal favourite;

Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed as Aladdin and Jasmine, Photo by Mark Kitaoka

As the pictures came, so did the press interviews.  In the build up to the show's opening and throughout its 3 week run the cast and creative team appeared on TV, on radio and online to promote the show;

Courtney Reed appeared on King 5 talking about the show and performing Call Me a Princess
Writer and lyricist Chad Beguelin spoke with Broadway World about bringing the movie to the stage
Sean Griffin spoke with Q13 Arts Around about playing the Sultan
Brandon O'Neill and Don Darryl Rivera appeared on the John Curley Show
The Seattle Times ran a preview article about the show and then a video interview with James Monroe Iglehart
Hunk du Jour interviewed Adam Jacobs
Q13 did a set visit the morning before the show opened (though sadly the video no longer appears to be online)
Seattle Weekly spoke with Jonathan Freeman about bringing Jafar to life again
Theater Mania interviewed Casey Nicholaw
After the show opened King 5 featured video interviews with Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed and James Monroe Iglehart along with footage from the show
Talkin' Broadway interviewed Alan Menken
Seattle Weekly spoke with Paul Hansen about his percussion work for the show
Don Darryl Rivera guides Playbill through a 2 show day with some fantastic behind the scenes photos and witty captions (seriously if you only check out one of these links then make it this one, it's a fun read and offers some of the best views of the costumes, including Jonathan Freeman as Jafar).

Even after the show finished the media kept coming as Jonathan Freeman spoke with InsideTheMagic (and this video has the only stage photo of Jonathan as Jafar I've ever seen, as far as I'm aware it never received a wide released anywhere) and Adam Jacobs spoke with Stage Rush about playing Aladdin.

Not to be outdone, The 5th Avenue released a behind the scenes rehearsal video featuring short interviews with several of the cast and then came The JMI Show.  Words cannot describe how much I love JMI's interviews.  One of my most enduring memories of the 2011 Pilot Production of Aladdin is the theme tune to The JMI Show!  For those that don't know, The JMI Show is James' YouTube show where he interviews fellow cast and crew.  As well as a natural born entertainer, James is a gifted interviewer and really funny dude.  Throughout July The 5th Avenue released new editions of The JMI Show where James interviewed Casey Nicholaw, Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed, Jonathan Freeman and Don Darryl Rivera, and finally Aladdin's trio of friends and narrators, Brandon O'Neill, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Brian Gonzales.  By the end of July 2011 I knew the JMI theme tune as well as I did any of the songs from  Aladdin.  Watch them and enjoy, you will not be disappointed!

Looking back it's funny to think how myself and other fans thought they weren't releasing enough!  Compared with the releases for the recent Toronto run, The 5th Avenue released an incredible amount of information and media.  I think our desperation for more was driven, at least in part, by the belief that this was it.  This 3 week run was our only chance to see or hear any of this stuff, so we craved it.  Now, with the show coming to Broadway, that desperation is gone, we don't need to have it all now because we know it's all coming.  But it sure made those two summer months an incredibly intense and exciting time for Aladdin fans and an experience I'll never forget.

The show finally opened on 7th July 2011.  Audiences loved it from the first preview and it took less than a day for the song list to hit the net.

Act One
Overture
Arabian Nights
Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim
One Jump Ahead
One Jump Ahead, Reprise
Proud of Your Boy
Arabian Nights, Reprise 1
Call Me a Princess
Call Me a Princess, Reprise
Why Me
A Million Miles Away
Arabian Nights, Reprise 2
Friend Like Me
Arabian Nights, Reprise 3
Act 1 Finale (Friend Like Me, Reprise and Proud of Your Boy, Reprise)

Act Two
Prince Ali
A Whole New World
High Adventure
Somebody's Got Your Back
Wedding Day Suite (said to be a bit of everything and an extended Prince Ali, Reprise)
Finale Ultimo (Somebody's Got Your Back, Reprise, Arabian Nights, Reprise 4, A Whole New World, Reprise)

But, like with Toronto, the final song list would end up looking a little different.  Two days after opening the Wedding Day Suite was gone, replaced by the regular Prince Ali, Reprise (though High Adventure, Reprise was added soon after), and Finale Ultimo was being trimmed.

It also wasn't long before the show received two very special visitors.  Aladdin's writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker!  The photos, posted by 5th Avenue, also offered fans their first real chance to see all the cast in costume.

Ron and John with the cast of Aladdin, Photo by The 5th Avenue

And hot on the heals of that came the official pictures;

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Chris Bennion

Adam Jacobs and James Monroe Iglehart as Aladdin and Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion
James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion
James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Sean G. Griffin as Sultan and Ensemble, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed as Aladdin and Jasmine, Photo by Chris Bennion
From left to right; Brian Gonzales as Babkak, James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Omar, Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and Brandon O'Neill as Kassim. Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Courtney Reed as Jasmine, Sean G. Griffin as Sultan and Ensemble, Photo by Chris Bennion

And the first video, offering a preview of the new Menken/Beguelin duet A Million Miles Away;




Sadly this was the only full clip released by The 5th Avenue, but in under 2 minutes it made me fall in love with the show all over again.  At that point I'd have given almost anything to have been in Seattle watching the show.

On 21st July 2011 the show officially opened.  The reviews, whilst mixed, were relatively positive overall with the professional critics being more, well, critical and the more personal reviews being much more positive.  My response to the reviews can found here.  It's also encouraging to note that many of the issues raised by the critics in Seattle were addressed for the recent Toronto run.  The most divisive issue in Seattle was the staging of A Whole New World, but in Toronto almost everyone agreed that that scene is now one of the standouts of the show.

But sadly all good things must come to an end.  Ten days after it's official opening Aladdin: The New Stage Musical came to a close, with the audience sending it on it's way in fine style, clapping along with Friend Like Me and bringing down the house one last time.  On Twitter, 5th Avenue said it best, "Closing night is always so bittersweet. Congratulations again to everybody on a fantastic run!"

Of course my personal favourite memory of Seattle is getting to interview most of the principal cast.  When I first emailed Adam Jacobs I barely dared to imagine that he'd even reply, but he very graciously accepted and that, for me, was the moment that this blog became something very special.  Encouraged, I reached out to Courtney Reed and James Monroe Iglehart and was honoured when they both accepted as well.  Then, with the tremendous help and support of Bridget Summers at 5th Avenue, I was able to arrange interviews with Don Darryl Rivera, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Sean Griffin and Brandon O'Neill.  To say it was a dream come true is an understatement.  It was an honour and a privilege, but above all it was an absolute pleasure.  And I just want to say a big thank you once again to them all for taking the time to do this for me and for the fans of the show who read this blog.  I owe you all a debt of gratitude and thanks that I can never repay.

One year later many of the cast, along with writer/lyricist Chad Beguelin, once again very kindly gave up their time to offer me their reflections on Aladdin for the show's anniversary.  I think that also offers the perfect place to end this look back at The 5th Avenue's Pilot Production, so I'm going to leave you now with the words of Alan Menken.  He's talking about the opening night of the show but I think this tweet also perfectly captures the entire of the Seattle run;

"First preview of ALADDIN last night. Soooo much fun! Everyone is so happy. Howard lives again thanks to Casey, Chad and the whole team..."  - Alan Menken (@AIMenken)
 

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