Disney's Aladdin: Bringing Magic to the Stage

In the 10 years between the release of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Tarzan (1999), Disney experienced what’s now considered a renaissance: a run of funny, exciting films brimming with fine animation and gorgeous music. Among the best-loved of the films released during that time is Aladdin, the tale of a young thief confronted with great danger and greater opportunity after finding an ancient lamp.

In 2011, a musical version premiered. In addition to the movie’s well-known songs, it added seven: three cut from the original movie and four original to the stage show. Nominated for five Tony awards, including Best Musical, it won one: Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for James Monroe Ingelhart, who played Genie. The touring production comes to town January 16-21, via Broadway Grand Rapids.

Anand Nagraj, who plays Jafar in the touring production, is unsurprised that the show has remained popular. “At its core, Aladdin, is the story of a young guy going through some very difficult times.” He points out that the young man has recently lost his mother, and that, in order to live, he’s forced to make choices of which he isn’t proud. 

Nagraj plays a much less savory character: Jafar, a deceitful and controlling vizier who lusts for power–and for the lamp. “There is a duality to Jafar,” Nagraj said. On the surface, he appears deferential and even loyal to the sultan. When the mask is off, though, he plots to seize the throne, and more, through force.

Nagraj sees the role as both challenging and fun. Part of the challenge is exactly that duality: “sometimes he has to change between these two personas on a dime,” he said. Nightly, he spends an hour and a half getting ready: applying makeup, putting on a beard and robes, and taking up Jafar’s Cobra staff. It’s “a magical thing,” he said, seeing himself transform bit by bit into the character. “I’m so excited to share the finished product with the audience at every performance.”

After the overture, “Arabian Nights” begins, marking the true beginning of the show. A grand, swelling song, its melody instantly transports listeners to an Arabia more mythic than historical. 

Oh, imagine a land, it’s a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam

Where you wander among every culture and tongue

It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home

The gentle, winking humor of the last line belies how well-constructed the verses are. The lyrics were written by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, and are representative not only of how beautifully written much of this music is, but how beautifully Howard Ashman always wrote (a 2018 documentary, Howard, goes some way toward giving Ashman his due).

That encapsulates the greatest legacy of the Disney renaissance: not that it sold a lot of movie tickets, swelling the company’s coffers–although it certainly did that–but that it treated all-age audiences with the respect they deserved, lavishing brilliance that would make them treasured by generations to come.

“[This is] a story and message that is always relevant,” Nagraj said. And hotter than hot in a lot of good ways.

Disney’s Aladdin
Broadway Grand Rapids
DeVos Performance Hall
Jan. 16-21