We recently had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with Jonathan Freeman, the original voice of Jafar in Aladdin. He’s reprised the role for the first-ever musical version of Aladdin, which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway last week.
Disney Insider: What has it been like reprising the role of Jafar for Aladdin on Broadway?
Jonathan Freeman: It’s been incredibly exciting. You have to realize that when I started to work on Aladdin, Disney Theatrical wasn’t in existence. I suppose I had always hoped that Aladdin would be somewhere on the runway. So, revisiting it has actually been rather exciting. But aside from exciting, it’s been a little bit of an emotional roller coaster, too. I couldn’t be happier or more thrilled to be doing it, but it’s a long time ago that I did the animated feature and I have to admit that on the Broadway opening night I felt slightly visited, and was thinking, ‘Howard [Ashman] should be here.’ It was a little bit bittersweet–very sweet, mostly sweet, less bitter– but it has been quite a journey.
DI: It’s come a long way.
JF: I’ll say. In a way it’s good that they did wait [to take Aladdin to Broadway]. One would hope that they’d put the right team together for whatever show they’re doing, and if they had done it many years ago, we wouldn’t have the creative team that we do now. Casey Nicholaw spearheading the whole thing has been a dream experience.
DI: We spoke with [Aladdin on Broadway writer] Chad Beguelin in a previous interview who told us that your history with the film was very helpful for him when adapting the story for Broadway.
JF: Oh, interesting! I have put in so many years with Jafar. Usually I refer to this part of my life as “us,” meaning Jafar and me. It’s like two people in a way. Now we’ve been kind of melded into one because I’m actually embodying him onstage. Normally, for the last twenty-three years, I’ve been saying “us” or “we” and now it’s sort of more “me.”
DI: Jafar is one of Disney’s most popular villains. Why do you think that is?
JF: Someone told me he’s always in the top ten and almost always in the top five. If you look at the Disney Villains, I think you’ll find that they do have mass appeal in some way and it usually has to do with a voice quality that also matches very well with the animation. That could very well have to do with the fact that the Disney animators were, and are, brilliant at capturing the actors’ idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.
DI: The animators can really capture the voice actor’s aura?
JF: It’s a group effort. It’s a very big collaborative effort to do an animated feature and to do a Broadway show.
DI: Has Jafar changed at all for the Broadway version of Aladdin, in terms of his character?
JF: There’s been a lot written about the fact that the film was more of an action-adventure movie. Transferring it to the stage they had to make some decisions about what it was going to be. They pretty much decided that the show itself should become a big Broadway musical comedy. There are some changes in all the characters, and the way Jafar evolved in this particular production was certainly a bit of a roller coaster, too–a good roller coaster. For one thing, Jafar’s wizardry is traded in for sheer blind ambition. The creative team made a decision that the magic belonged in the lamp. In order to make Jafar a bit more of a threat onstage, which was easier to do on film, perhaps, they would trade in that alchemy for his blind ambition to want to take over the world. That megalomaniacal quality. And he certainly does grasp at any straw to try and get it.
DI: And his ambition causes his downfall.
JF: It’s maybe a bit more sinister to see someone try to get what they want when they can’t point their finger and zap something. It makes it much more conniving.
DI: Speaking of which, how do you approach playing such an over-the-top villain?
JF: I always think the villains in all of the Disney movies are almost operatic in scale. And I think that appeals to certain kids. Not every kind wants to be the hero, the heroine, the prince, the princess; there are kids, like myself growing up, who always wanted to be a Disney villain. Talk about getting wishes! They always appealed to me. I think–and I will stick by this–I think there is a certain beauty to the Disney Villains. Even when they are at their most horrible, there is a certain sort of slick, smooth, operatic scale and quality to them that is very appealing to me. I like to have the opportunity to take something that seems so unrealistic and try to find a way to make it all seem believable. That’s a great challenge. And I think the scale of Disney Villains is absolutely fantastic. When you’re given a silhouette like that–look at the silhouette of Jafar or Maleficent or Captain Hook–you look at these characters and try to fill them up. From an actor’s standpoint, it’s really an exciting journey. It’s really fun to do. With animation you kind of know what you’re going for. When you start to work on a play, you can create a silhouette and fill it up yourself.
DI: Is that your favorite part about playing Jafar?
JF: I love trying to find the realistic moments. At the end of the first act we have a small scene when I’m reprimanded by the Sultan, and he leaves, and I say “my most abject and humble apologies, your Majesty.” And I’m able to say, “if only I’d gotten that lamp” from my very gut, and there’s silence in the auditorium. I love being able to find those very realistic moments within these very unrealistic characters and situations.
DI: Spoken like a true Disney villain. Break a leg tonight!
JF: Thank you!
Aladdin the Musical is now playing at the New Amsterdam theater.