A ROYAL AUDIENCE WITH PRINCE ALI
inSing journeys to Agrabah for an inside look at Disney’s Aladdin musical
By Jedd Jong
Agrabah might be a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, but Disney Theatrical Productions has brought this mystical locale to our doorstep. Aladdin is now playing at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands Singapore for a limited season of only 50 performances, the English-language production making its first and only stop in Asia.
Aladdin is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose credits include The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls and the recent The Prom. The show features songs like “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including songs originally written but eventually cut from the animated film. New songs including “These Palace Walls” and “Diamond in the Rough” were composed by Menken with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the show’s book.
After tryouts in Seattle and Toronto, the theatrical adaptation of Disney’s 1992 movie opened on Broadway in March 2014. A production ran in London from 2016 to 2019, with German and Japanese-language productions still running.
“We have taken away [nothing] from the Broadway production,” proclaimed Associate Director Scott Taylor, who’s been attached to every production of the musical since its inception. “We’ve not made it smaller; we’ve not diminished the magic and the size and the production values in any way. It’s a big, big thing to do,” he stated.
The truly lavish production has the numbers to back it up: a cast of 34 wear 337 costumes made of 1225 different fabrics and featuring almost 500 000 Swarovski crystals. 40 tonnes of flying scenery and 60 tonnes of automation were transported in over 30, 40-foot-long sea containers. The show’s set-pieces, designed by Bob Crowley, include the glittering Cave of Wonders, the vibrant marketplace, the lush palace of Agrabah and of course the hypnotic magic carpet ride.
This cast of this production hails mainly from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. After performing “A Million Miles Away” and segments of “Arabian Nights” and “Friend Like Me” during the press call, actors Graeme Isaako (Aladdin), Shubshri Kandiah (Jasmine) and Gareth Jacobs (the Genie) spoke to inSing and other media at a group interview.
New Zealand performer Isaako said that he is like Aladdin in that he is energetic, talkative and has a bit of a mischievous streak. He recounted clinching the role after being an understudy for Ainsley Melham, who moved on from playing Aladdin in the Australian production to Aladdin on Broadway. “I was speechless. I honestly didn’t talk for about a minute,” Isaako recalled. “There was a pillow and I screamed into the pillow. I didn’t know that was in me…but I’m so grateful.”
The parkour stunts are a key element to the portrayal of a character who’s always “One Jump Ahead” of those on his tail. “When I found out that I would be jumping over buildings and jumping off and landing on things, it was exciting for me,” Isaako said. “I saw it as a challenge, but it’s also ensuring that I’m safe at all times. It is pretty fun, but I’ve got to make sure that I’m not endangering other people.”
For Isaako, it’s knowing that audiences enjoy the show that keeps him going. “The best thing about it is no audience is the same,” he noted. “The audience smiling back at you is enough, it’s enough petrol for your tank, it’s enough to get you through,” Isaako enthused. “That’s why we do it, we do this because we love it and it changes people’s lives and makes them happy.”
After Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine was one of the Disney Princesses who made an impression by being headstrong and determined, far from your average damsel in distress. In Aladdin, she wants to marry for love rather than being given away to a foreign prince for political expediency. “I love stepping into her shoes every night and becoming this woman that is courageous and feisty and stands up for what she believes in,” Kandiah enthused. “I think she’s such a role model to women with her strength…and that she’s not afraid to voice her opinions, and I absolutely love that.”
Like many, Kandiah grew up a “massive Disney fan,” singing along to the songs each time she re-watched the movies. “It’s honestly such a dream come true to be in this production and playing this role,” she said, adding that a recent trip to Morocco made her realise how relevant the show’s themes, especially with regards to the roles of women in society, still are.
Kandiah’s favourite scene in the show is “Million Miles Away”, a sweet moment shared by Aladdin and Jasmine at his rooftop hideout. “I think there’s a moment there every night when we’re singing about hopes and dreams that I [realise] I’m living my dream every night,” Kandiah said wistfully.
The show is designed to be stolen by the Genie. In the animated film, the Genie was memorably voiced by Robin Williams, whose fast-talking, impressions-and-improv-driven take on the character has become a pop culture cornerstone. The initial conception for the Genie before Williams made the role his own was a character inspired by singers like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. The musical’s version of Genie is closer to this idea, with the original Broadway Genie James Monroe Iglehart winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of the character.
“I met James so I got to talk about how he created the role, and I met Alan Menken as well, who created the music and a lot of my childhood nostalgia,” Jacobs said. Jacobs called the task “daunting” because Robin Williams was “the most amazing character that the world has ever seen” and “trying to do it justice without copying exactly what he did out there as well was quite difficult.” Jacobs described Iglehart’s take on the Genie, building off Williams’, as “like a giant Jenga tower that you put together.” Jacobs said that getting to put his own spin on the iconic role “is just so exciting to do every night.”
Jacobs has competition for audiences’ attention, because the Genie makes his debut against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Cave of Wonders during “Friend Like Me”. The inner walls of the gleaming cavern are coated with the same gold material that is used for the droid C-3PO in the Star Wars films. The Cave of Wonders features 120 gold pieces used to depict the treasure strewn across its floor.
“It’s such an amazing set and there’s so much to see, so knowing that there is that to compete with is sometimes quite difficult to do,” Jacobs admitted, but he added that the script and the song is so well-written “that it speaks for itself.” The number is musical theatre on steroids: “We’ve got pyrotechnics, we’ve got tap-dancing, we’ve got everything involved in that one scene,” Jacobs declared, offering a guarantee: “If someone walks away from that not happy, then please definitely come and talk to me because we’re going to have a very serious conversation about how I can make you happy…there’s no way I think anyone could get away from that [unhappy].”
Company manager Matt Henderson took us on a backstage tour, showing us the wings of the theatre, set pieces hanging up in the flies, the props maintenance workshop and the wardrobe department/dressing room.
“The costumes in the show are almost a character unto themselves, they’re so part of the storytelling,” Henderson enthused, adding that he’s “never worked on a show where the costumes are so beautiful and elaborate. They really help drive the narrative of the story.” The costumes are designed by Gregg Barnes, a two-time Tony Award Winner for The Drowsy Chaperone and Follies. Barnes also designed the costumes for Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots and Mean Girls.
“It’s a spectacle,” Henderson declared, pointing out that one number features 108 costume changes – a world record. “I think there’s 80 of them in like 15 seconds. That’s a full change, including some wigs.” During this number, it is “chaos” backstage – “Controlled chaos, but it’s absolute chaos,” he continued. Henderson talked up a costume change which takes place in two seconds, challenging viewers to spot the blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment. “I’ll give you a clue, it’s Aladdin,” Henderson said. “Don’t take your eyes off him, because he does go from being a street rat to a prince in two seconds, and it happens onstage.”
One of the show’s most closely guarded secrets is naturally the one that draws the most curiousity. Every performance, the magic carpet takes to the skies with Aladdin and Jasmine upon it, seemingly flying around the stage without the use of wires.
“I’ve got family and everyone’s like ‘I’ll buy you a drink if you tell me how the carpet works’ – and you don’t want to know!” Henderson cautioned. Cursed with the knowledge that has dissolved the wonderment, Henderson said “I do know how it works and I was so upset when I found out because I love the magic of it.”
Has Henderson snuck a ride on the magic carpet himself? He’s not allowed. “I’m also a little bit afraid of heights,” Henderson confessed, adding “I like to complain that I haven’t been on it, but if they let me go, I’d be like ‘no no no.’ Terrified. I don’t trust Graeme as a driver as well.”
Experience the music, the magic and take a journey to Agrabah with Aladdin, which runs from now until September 1. Tickets start at $68 (not including $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919 to buy tickets and find out more.