About the author:
After penning the book and lyrics for The Wedding Singer, lyrics for Elf, and the book for Disney’s On the Record, you’d think that writing a catchy, crowd-pleasing musical would be a breeze for Aladdin scribe Chad Beguelin. But as he reveals in his First Person feature for Broadway.com, the Great White Way can be a bumpy ride, even for a four-time Tony nominee. While most writers leave a few scenes on the cutting room floor, Aladdin went through a major transformation from its out-of-town tryout in Toronto, Canada, to its Broadway premiere at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Read below to find out how the stage adaptation of Aladdin, starring Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed and James Monroe Iglehart, went from a “cute” evening at the theater to a magical, Tony-nominated fan favorite.
Creating Aladdin seemed simple enough on paper. Take a beloved animated classic and bring it to life. Retrofit a handful of songs that were cut from the film. Add a few new characters and songs and sit back and wait to be nominated for a Best Musical Tony. What could possibly be challenging about that? In retrospect, just about all of the above.
Things started out benignly enough. We began our out of town performances this past winter in Toronto. It was a particularly brutal winter, the kind of arctic freeze that seems somehow angry and personal. The night of our first preview, it was only slightly warmer inside the theater. Instead of huge laughs we were getting polite titters. Instead of standing ovations we were getting what can only be described as a group “golf clap.”
One of the hardest things about being an author is enduring that moment when the lights come up after a performance. That’s the moment when the other theatergoers turn to their friends and assess the show. The first words I heard out of the woman in front of me as she pulled on her coat were, “Well, that was cute.” True, it could have been worse. But cute was not what we were going for in the slightest. We were hoping for hilarious and sweepingly romantic and over-the-top joy. Somehow we had just delivered cute. I tried to calm the growing panic in my stomach by telling myself that perhaps the critics would be more kind.
The writing was on the wall: our road to Tony Nominee for Best Musical just hit a major, axel-busting pothole the size of Kansas.
A particularly hard thing to do is to return to the theater after you’ve just been crucified by the critics. I was standing in the alley behind the Ed Mirvish Theatre contemplating whether or not to go through the stage door. Facing the cast was going to be particularly embarrassing. I felt like a hack and a fraud and as if I had let everyone down. But I knew I had to man up and swallow my pride. I wanted to create musicals and dealing with pans was just part of the gig. I opened the stage door and walked through.
The first person I saw was our director Casey Nicholaw. He could immediately read the dread on my face and his first words were, “We are going to fix this show.” I knew the odds of turning an out-of-town flop into a hit were about as likely as harnessing a unicorn and riding it to Mars. But there was a fresh determination in Casey’s voice. We were heading back to NYC to completely dismantle the show and put it back together. The news that big changes were coming began to hum around the theater. The cast was game and ready for anything. I was still a nervous wreck, but I began to realize something very important. Sink or swim, we were in this together.
The most important meeting was at producer Tom Schumacher’s apartment. It was Tom, Casey and myself discussing the show over breakfast. What wasn’t working and how do we fix it?
We soon zeroed in on two separate Act One numbers and one recurring storytelling device. The opening number confused our audience because it featured characters that never appeared in the movie. We solved that by having our Genie open the show. Casey completely re-staged a song called “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim” into a big production number involving the whole town of Agrabah. And we reluctantly scrapped a recurring narration device when we realized it was unnecessary.
Soon everything was being examined. Whole chunks of scenes were gutted. New jokes and punch lines were tested out. Alan and I wrote a new song for Jasmine. Then rewrote it again once we hit previews on Broadway. And suddenly things actually began to work. The laughs were getting louder, the applause stronger. “Friend Like Me” stopped the show cold with standing ovations during our first three Broadway performances. I’ve never seen a cast work so hard or be so generous with their time and talent. I also learned the most valuable lesson when creating a musical: the best idea wins.
The morning of the Tony nominations was a nail biter. Audiences were loving the show and the production had received warm reviews that completely wiped the trauma of Toronto away. But there were no guarantees. But then suddenly the announcement came that we were up for Best Musical. It was surreal to say the least. We had somehow managed to saddle a unicorn and ride it to Mars.
Who will win Best Musical? It’s fun to speculate, but in the end, no one really knows. For me, the real award is knowing how far the show has come and getting to feel the energy of the audiences nightly at the New Amsterdam Theater. Somewhere in a dumpster behind the Ed Mirvish Theatre, you not only find discarded orchestrations, costumes and crumpled script pages. You’ll find the word “cute.”