We recently sat down with Chad Beguelin, the book writer of Aladdin, the upcoming Broadway musical. As book writer, Beguelin was tasked with adapting the script and writing additional song lyrics for the show. He is a two-time Tony Award nominee and the recipient of the Edward Kleban Award for Outstanding Lyric Writing, the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award, the Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Musical Theater Award and the ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award. (Aladdin is also his favorite Disney movie.)
Insider: What was it like adapting such a popular film for the stage?
Chad: It’s funny because the first draft I did was really close to the movie. It was sent to Alan Menken, the film’s composer, to read and he wanted to have a meeting to discuss. Alan brought up a few songs that he and Howard Ashman, the original Aladdin lyricist, had written for the movie that ended up not being in it. A movie is only ninety minutes and a Broadway show is over two hours so that extra time opened up new opportunities for these already-established songs to add sub-plots and flesh out a longer story.
How was working with Alan Menken and getting the opportunity to continue the work of Howard Ashman?
It’s definitely been surreal. The first time we met to discuss the show, Alan actually went into his files and found the original film treatment and some of the original lyric sheets that he and Howard had worked on. It felt like a piece of history, and I was pinching myself saying, “How did I get here?” It also felt great to be honoring Howard Ashman’s work. I’m a huge Howard Ashman fan; I saw Little Shop of Horrors and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. To get to have a part in having these songs–his work–heard again was really a thrill for me. There are a few songs that Alan and I wrote for the show that are completely new. Getting to work with him not only as a book writer but actually writing songs with Alan Menken is just completely a dream come true.
Is the book still in flux as you’re nearing previews?
Things are still changing. We go into previews and see what gets positive reactions and what needs work. When you put a show like this in front of a live audience it still continues to change until a few days before opening. At that point, the producers and the director will declare the show “frozen” and that means no more line changes, no more staging changes, no more choreography changes. The show is locked. So, from my perspective, that’s the day where you can finally exhale because it’s so much work until, finally, boom: that’s the show. Then you just sit back and enjoy the ride.
What’s your favorite moment from the rehearsal process so far?
The amazing thing about Alan is that he can literally write the most gorgeous tune in about five minutes. I would go to work with him at his studio, and I would assume it was going to take all day. But then five or ten minutes later, he has the duet for Act One. He can just close his eyes and write it. It’s been pretty astonishing to watch how quickly he can come up with such beautiful material.
Can you tell us about the new characters in the show?
Howard originally wrote a treatment for the movie that’s very different from what the movie ended up becoming. In it, Aladdin had three friends, Babkak, Omar, and Kassim, and our goal was to get their song in the show. So their trajectory and how they influence Aladdin and how they get all caught up in “Prince Ali” has become one of the sub-plots. The feeling was also that for this stage version the creative team didn’t want to do what they’d done in the past with the animal characters. So having these new characters was perfect, because if we’re not going to have Abu, who’s Aladdin going to talk to? So they’re these three guys who are comic relief and are also on the journey with him. Crazy hijinks ensue!
What is it like writing for the Genie when so much of what Robin Williams did in the film was improvised?
The original idea, before Robin Williams came on, was that the Genie would be this Cab Calloway-style singer. So we returned to that a little bit. The guy that’s playing the Genie, James Iglehart, definitely has that jokey, 1940s vibe. So I wrote jokes, James wrote jokes, people chimed in; it’s definitely a big collaboration and whatever is funniest, wins.
How has working with Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar from the film, been?
A wonderful gift to this production is having Jonathan Freeman actually playing Jafar. He knows the role so well that every once in a while I’ll have written something and he’ll suggest a better line, because it’s one of those quotes that he gets from people a lot. He knows where all of the gold is buried. Instead of saying something to Iago he’ll say, “Calm yourself, Iago,” or he’ll ask if he can say, “my most abject and humble apologies” because he knows people love that line. It’s been such a great honor and support for me as a writer to have somebody who knows the role so inside and out.
What’s your favorite song from the show?
Oh, it’s definitely “Prince Ali.” It’s just so over the top! The costumes are amazing and the choreography is amazing. It’s got a sort of swinging feel to it, more than the movie does, so it’s just so much fun to watch. There are about a million-and-one costume changes in three minutes.
Who’s your favorite character from Aladdin?
I can’t help but love the relationship between Genie and Aladdin. It’s just such a great journey to go on. It really takes the Genie to show Aladdin that if he’ll just believe in himself, he’ll get everything he ever wanted. It’s such a powerful moment when Aladdin finally gives the Genie his freedom, and for once in his life thinks about somebody other than himself. I think you really do feel that they’ve bonded and have become these great friends.
Is Princess Jasmine in the show different than the movie?
Well for one thing she’s got a new song called, “These Palace Walls.” She’s trying to figure out how to marry for love and her father basically says he’s going to pick a suitor for her. I think for her it’s all about trying to be independent and making her own choices in a world where everything is decided for her. We really tried to investigate that. She has a chance to stand up to her father, challenge the ancient laws, and be more proactive about what she wants.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I think that it’s introducing people to live theater. As a kid, seeing my first musical live on stage just completely changed my life. I knew that’s what I wanted to do; I knew I wanted to see more and more. I’m hoping with Aladdin some young person, or somebody that’s not been to the theater before, will come in and, because of Aladdin, or because of Disney, find a–I’m going to say it–whole new world.
If there were one thing you want people to take away from the show, what would it be?
I think the message is so important to the show. You can have everything you wish for, but if you don’t believe in yourself you have nothing. That’s what Aladdin learns and I think that’s the key to everybody’s life. If you believe in yourself, your dreams can actually come true.
Aladdin starts previews next week at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York and the show opens officially on March 20, 2014.