Thursday, 21 July 2016

Aladdin: The New Stage Musical Celebrates 5 Magical Years

Five years ago tonight Aladdin: The New Stage Musical officially opened at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.  With the show now premiering around the world in Disney Theatrical's fastest ever roll out, it's hard to believe that it began life as a small Pilot Production that was never meant for Broadway.  Indeed, Aladdin only came about in response to the growing demand for a licensable 2-Act version of the show with the intention that the Seattle production would provide a blueprint that could then be licensed to regional and amateur groups.  But when the show premiered at The 5th with a sold out run and overwhelming support from audiences and fans, it soon became clear that a much bigger future was in store.

In celebration of the show's 5th anniversary let's take a look back at how it all began!

Our first look at the show came before we even knew who would be starring in it when Broadway World premiered a gallery of Gregg Barnes' amazing costume designs for the show.  The gallery was quickly removed from Broadway World and, at the request of 5th Avenue, from this blog.  Now everyone's seen the fantastic work Greg Barnes did for the Broadway show I think it's safe for these to come out of the Disney Vault!  So here's a selection of costume designs from the show!

Aladdin (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

Princess Jasmine (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

Genie (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes
Jafar (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

Iago (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

They look pretty amazing!  I love looking at these and seeing how the designs evolved from concept to Seattle to Broadway.

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin from Concept to Broadway
Costume Design by Gregg Barnes, Photos by Mark Kitaoka & Cylla Von Tiedemann

I think Tia Altinay puts it best as she shares her thoughts on Aladdin's journey from Seattle to Broadway;

"It's been the most amazing experience to see the transformation of this show over the last 5yrs. Everything from costumes to characters have changed and I've been fortunate to see it all. Agrabah continues to be the best place to work on Broadway." -- Tia Altinay

Whilst the full cast announcement would come in June, there was an extra special announcement made in May.  Jonathan Freeman, who gave Jafar life in the classic animated film, would be bringing him to life on stage!  Needless to say, I (and every other Aladdin fan) was over joyed at this brilliant casting.

Jonathan Freeman and Don Darryl Rivera as Jafar and Iago, Back Stage at 5th Avenue

And what a fantastic cast they assembled for this production!  Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Courtney Reed as Jasmine, James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Don Darryl Rivera as Iago, Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Brandon O'Neill as Babkak, Omar and Kassim, and Sean Griffin as the Sultan.  Plus the incredible ensemble!

We're so lucky that many of them not only returned when the show took the next step to Broadway but remain with the show to this day!  It's been an incredible 5 year journey for them as well as the show and, thanks to Disney Theatrical, some of them (like Tia above) have very kindly shared their thoughts on the Seattle production on this amazing story so far.

Here's a fantastic memory from James Monroe Iglehart on his first audition for the Seattle production of Aladdin;

"There have been so many magical moments on this journey called Aladdin. From the first table read in Seattle and hearing Jonathan Freeman speak as Jafar for the 1st time, to our family commune in Toronto in the cold, to 2 years on Broadway and winning a Tony! But the story that always comes to mind is that first audition. I was in the 3rd round of guys coming in for Genie and I knew of Casey Nicholaw but not what he looked like. So I was nervous for the audition but not super nervous because I figured I would do a bunch of wild crazy stuff just to get the call back and calm down a little when I met the real director. Well I audition for the casting director and the bald happy faced guy I never met before and just go nuts and they both seem to love me! Then I go back to my job at Memphis and begin to tell the guys on my floor about the audition and Michael McGrath says wow you did all that in front of Casey he must have loved that. I was like that was Casey? I had no idea! A little later Casey tells me how fearless and funny I was and that's what he loved about me, I didn't have the heart to tell him "I didn't know it was you!" When I finally told him we just laughed about it!

I have loved the Genie my whole life and I am blessed to play him every night and that first night at the 5th Ave was the beginning of a journey in my life I will never ever forget! I love my cast, we are truly a Family!" -- James Monroe Iglehart
James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion

For a production that ran just three short weeks, the original cast of Aladdin was embraced by the fan base.  On Aladdin Central's forum (the main Aladdin fan site) the film's fans fell in love with a cast most of us would never see (at least in Seattle) and the thread for the 5th Avenue production remains the longest the boards have ever seen as we tracked down every official video, image and interview we could.  For me this is one of my fondest memories of the Seattle show, that sense of community between the fans and how we all came together to celebrate Aladdin's stage premiere.

I think part of the reason the original Seattle cast were so embraced by the Aladdin fan base is because The 5th Avenue shared so much.  Starting with their Spotlight Night and that inspired Jafar phone call that they used to announce a change of venue;

In the build up to the show's first preview The 5th Avenue released several performances and interviews from the Spotlight Night before releasing the entire event on the night Aladdin made its stage debut.  You can watch the special performance in full by following the link above, but here's two special performances from the event.

First up is Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Adam Jacobs and Brandon O'Neill singing an early version of "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

And next is Jonathan Freeman and Don Darryl Rivera performing Alan Menken and Tim Rice's "Why Me?" which was ultimately cut before the show reached Broadway.

And speaking of Don Darryl Rivera, everyone's favourite evil sidekick has very kindly shared his thoughts on his time with Aladdin;

"The last 5 years have been some of the best of my life. I have to thank Disney for granting me this amazing wish of originating a role from the inception of the project to making my Broadway debut in that same role. Even as we approach 1000 performances, (OMG!!!) I still have a blast onstage EVERY NIGHT with this incredible cast. Special thanks to Jonathan Freeman for the 5 year master class in Disney Villainy with an emphasis in Sidekickery." -- Don Darryl Rivera

And the Spotlight Night was just the start.  Over the course of July The 5th Avenue's YouTube channel played host to The JMI Show!  I think this is where the fans who couldn't make it to Seattle truly fell in love with this original cast.  They all came across as perfect for their roles and having the time of their lives in the process.  If you've never seen these then you're in for a real treat!  So sit back and enjoy The JMI Show!

Of course, James wasn't the only one who got to interview the cast back then! He just did it better, in person and with higher production qualities ;-)  Joking aside, even 5 years later I cannot say thank you enough to both the cast and The 5th Avenue (especially Bridget Summers) for the incredible opportunity they gave me.  I was just a fan with a small blog and thanks to their kindness I was able to interview most of the principal cast from half way around the world.  It remains, to this day, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I will be forever grateful for that.

So here they are, my full interviews with the cast of 5th Avenue's Aladdin along with some special reflections they shared on the show's 1st anniversary.

Adam Jacobs
James Monroe Igleahrt
Don Darryl Rivera
Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Courtney Reed
Sean G. Griffin
Brandon O'Neill
Reflections on Aladdin - The 1st Anniversary

For a show with such a short run and no planned future on Broadway The 5th Avenue really went above and beyond in promoting the show.

Courtney Reed appeared on New Day Northwest with Tia Altinay, Shanna Marie Palmer and Allysa Shorte to perform "Call Me and Princess" (another song that was ultimately cut before the show reached Broadway);

Writer and lyricist Chad Begulin spoke with Broadway World.

They took us behind the scenes;

Alan Menken visited the Seattle Children's Hospital

And shared the moment two of Disney's greatest directors paid the cast a visit after watching them bring their story to life on stage;

Ron Clements and John Musker with the cast of Aladdin, Photo from 5th Avenue's Blog

And that's just scratching the surface!  They shared an incredible amount of character and production photos, a selection of which you can see below.

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs & James Monroe Iglehart as Aladdin & Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs & Courtney Reed as Aladdin & Jasmine, Photo by Chris Bennion
Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger & Brandon O'Neill as Babkak, Omar & Kassim, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs as Aladdin (the first photo!!),  Photo by Mark Kitaoka
Courtney Reed & Sean G. Griffin as Jasmine & Sultan, Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Seeing images like these was a dream come true for myself and so many other fans.  And for some of the cast that dream continues every night when they step onto that Broadway stage;

"It is very hard to put into words how Aladdin has changed my life. If I sit and think about it, it has enhanced my life in every aspect. I always said that it would feel real when I stepped on the stage opening night, but it still doesn't feel real, and that was 2 years ago. It feels like I am in a constant dream state and don't ever want to wake up." -- Courtney Reed

And then, of course, there was the clip of "A Million Miles Away" they shared (strangely the YouTube video posted by The 5th is currently blocked due to a claimed copyright by Disney, if this gets resolved I'll update this post).  Watching this I feel in love with the show all over again and knew it was in good hands with Chad Begulin.

It felt like a dream to see the film I have loved since childhood brought to life before my eyes, even for those brief few moments.  Happily the trailer for the show has been preserved and you can now see some of that early magic for yourself.

From these humble beginnings a Broadway sensation was born.  Aladdin in Seattle was, like its title character, a diamond in the rough.  Whilst the reviews were mixed to positive, audiences embraced the show night after night.  It was their support that proved to Disney Theatrical that maybe Aladdin could be something more than a licensable property.  And it was the subsequent hard work of the creative team, cast and everyone at Disney Theatrical that transformed the show into to a magical production that is truly shining, shimmering, splendid.  As Thomas Schumacher said on the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, the reason Aladdin works "is because nobody quit.  Nobody quit on it, and it was the sheer will of an enormous number of committed people that made the show happen".  That's a kind of magic as well.

Yes, a lot changed on Aladdin's road to Broadway as it moved the production closer to the animated movie.  Here's Sean Griffin, the original Sultan, reflecting on seeing the show's opening night on Broadway and his time with the production in Seattle;

"I was at the opening of Aladdin in NY and loved it.  There were some changes that I liked and some I did not.  The Sultan, now played by an African American actor which is good because the show needed some actors of color, was pared down somewhat as were the roles of the three "amigos" as narrators.  They wanted the Genie to appear sooner in the production, I liked the old way better.  But still it was a spectacular show and the audience loved it.  Casey Nicholaw did a terrific job with new direction and choreography.  New costumes and sets were spectacular as well.  My memories of doing it in Seattle are the best.  I had a most enjoyable time and the entire cast and crew and creatives were wonderful.  A great experience and am lucky to have had it." -- Sean G. Griffin

Since taking part in Aladdin, Sean has starred Sugar Daddies, Outside Mullingar, Carousel and, most recently, The Secret Garden which will see him return to The 5th Avenue Theatre in April 2017.

I can't think of any better way to end this look back at The 5th Avenue's magical show than with the words of Aladdin himself;

"Has it really been five years since Seattle??  It's amazing to think of how far we've come and yet it still seems like yesterday when we were at the 5th Avenue Theatre, enjoying summer there and putting together the first production.  What a fantastic, magical and hectic time that was.  So much excitement surrounding every rehearsal and the feeling of accomplishment when you finally got the steps down, or made the quick change, etc.  I feel so lucky to have witnessed not only the show's growth and success over the years, but the growth and success of my fellow actors who were with me from the beginning.  We really worked hard, pouring our blood, sweat and tears into this project and there's nothing better than having it be a smash hit on Broadway.   To say it's a life-changing experience is an understatement.  Every aspect of my life has changed in some way, the greatest being that I'm a father now, and I can't help but equate the love I have for my twin boys with the love I have for Aladdin and all its meant to me.  And whenever my journey with Aladdin ends I will be happy knowing that I enjoyed and appreciated every moment along the way.  But until then I'm just gonna keep flying high!" -- Adam Jacobs

Happy Anniversary Aladdin!  Here's wishing you many more!

Adam Jacobs & Courtney Reed as Aladdin & Jasmine, Photo by Chris Bennion

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