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Tune Thursday: Chatting with Chad Beguelin about "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical"

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Tune Thursday: Chatting with Chad Beguelin about "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical"

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Chad Beguelin remembers exactly when he decided to become a writer. It was when this Tony-nominated bookwriter & lyricist was 14. And Chad and his Dad had gone to NYC to see a show. And the show that they caught was Howard Ashman & Alan Menken's brilliant musicalization of Roger Corman's schlocky horror comedy, "The Little Shop of Horrors."

Ellen Greene & Audrey II in the original off-Broadway production of "Little
Shop of Horrors"

Now jump ahead a few decades. Thanks to the smart story work that he had done on the stage adaptations of Adam Sandler's "The Wedding Singer" and Will Ferrell's "Elf," Beguelin had become Broadway's go-to guy whenever there was a movie that needed to be turned into a musical. Which is why Disney Theatrical reached out to Chad and asked : "Would you be interested in adapting Disney's animated feature, 'Aladdin' for the stage?"

To be honest, reaching out to Beguelin was something of a no-brainer. Given that -- back in 2002 -- Chad wrote the book for "Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular" (i.e. that 45-minute-long version of this Academy Award-winning film which is performed several times daily at Disney California Adventure theme park). So obviously he was already familiar with the material.

But this time around, Disney Theatrical had a very different "Aladdin" in mind. They weren't looking for another 45-minute-long theme park show. But -- rather -- a traditional two-act Broadway-style musical which could then be licensed out to regional theaters, for international production, etc. A show that adults could actually perform & appear in, rather than "Aladdin Kids," that for-children's-theater-only version which Music Theatre International licenses.

But for Beguelin ... Given that he credits "Little Shop" with being the reason that Chad wound up in show business, being given the chance to once again adapt one of Ashman & Menken's animated features to the stage was like a dream come true. So Beguelin immediately said "Yes" to this assignment.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But wait. This story gets better. As Chad recounted on the phone yesterday when we chatted about "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical" -- the two-act stage musical adaptation of this Academy Award-winning animated feature, which will have its world-premiere at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre this July ...

"So I met with Alan Menken. And he basically gave me his blessing for adapting 'Aladdin' to  the stage," Beguelin recalled. "But then he said 'Wouldn't it be great if - as part of this stage version -- you could then incorporate some of the songs that Howard and I originally wrote for this film that wound up getting cut?"

And from that moment, the development of a stage adaptation of Disney's "Aladdin" took a very interesting turn. As Menken went back into his files and then out pulled all of Ashman's hand-written lyrics & notes for this project.

Howard Ashman actually played the character of Aladdin in a Children's Theatre
Association Production of this story back in 1965. He's the one in the arms of
the chorus in the picture above

"As Alan handed this material to me, he joked that it came with authentic 80's smell," Chad continued. "And as I looked through the pile, there was this wealth of material. Bridges & additional verses for 'Arabian Nights.' An extended opening for 'Prince Ali.' Alternate lyrics for 'Friend Like Me' from back when the Genie was more of a Cab Calloway / Fats Waller kind of character, rather than Robin Williams. Plus entire songs that the public had never heard before"

Which got Beguelin wondering. Given that - when you're turning a movie into a musical -- you never want to plop an exact copy of that film up there on stage. You always want to enhance your original source material. Give the audience something new to see & experience.

And given that Alan had just offered up this wealth of material that he & Howard had originally written for "Aladdin" that hadn't been heard outside of Disney Studios  ... Well, what better way was there to enhance & expand the stage version of this animated feature than by folding in all of these cut songs and story ideas?

(L to R) Alan Menken and Howard Ashman during the days that they worked together for
Walt Disney Animation Studios. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, there were some drawbacks with Chad's plan. In order to properly accommodate this material, that meant bumping out the borders of this project quite a bit. Deliberately stepping away from the storyline of this much beloved movie and then doing things like giving Aladdin a trio of street-smart friends -- Omar, Babkak and Kassim - to hang out with. Would audiences in Seattle be accepting of a stage version of Disney's "Aladdin" that differed so significantly from the animated feature?

"And then there was the question of how far we should actually go back with all of this cut material?," Beguelin asked. "I mean, do we go all the way back to that version of 'Aladdin' which Howard & Alan created where Jasmine was a spoiled brat and Aladdin's real love interest for that movie turns out to be Abby, that good-hearted common girl from the marketplace? How far was too far?"

So striking just the right balance between the old material (i.e. all five songs from the 1992 animated feature) and the new material (i.e. the musical numbers and story ideas that were discarded while "Aladdin" made its way through Walt Disney Animation Studio's development process) was going to be a real challenge for Chad. Especially since Beguelin wanted to fold in some of that Bob Hope / Bing Crosby "Road" picture flavor that Ashman had originally hoped would be a key ingredient of the animated version of "Aladdin."

Copyright Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

"We even talked about using a story concept that Howard had explored in the early, early days of this production. In that version of 'Aladdin,' there were actually two genies: the genie of the ring and the genie of the lamp," Chad said. "But in the end, we thought that story idea was straying a bit too far away from the animated version of 'Aladdin.' Which is why we ultimately dropped it."

But all along the way, the folks of Disney Theatrical were incredibly supportive of Beguelin's vision for a stage version of "Aladdin." They were very enthusiastic about a production that somehow mix the familiar songs of the film with these seldom-heard numbers from Ashman & Menken's trunk.

"Of course, the best part was - whenever Casey (Nicholaw, the director of "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical." Who's probably best known for his choreography on "Spamalot" and his direction of "The Drowsy Chaperone") and I got stuck, we could always turn to Alan. Who was in the room with Howard when a lot of this material was originally written," Chad continued. "So he could then tell us about what Howard's original intent for this material was, where a cut song was supposed to have fit in 'Aladdin' 's storyline, how a certain story arc  for a particular character was supposed to have paid off. Alan's been a terrific and supportive collaborator throughout all of this."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So which songs are actually going to wind up in the stage version of "Aladdin"? Take - for example -- "To Be Free." Will that song -- which Alan Menken wrote for "Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular" -- be included as part of this new stage show? Beguelin was pretty cagey when it came to that question.

"To be honest, we're still in the middle of casting. We won't actually be beginning rehearsals 'til May. So until we get the show up on its feet, I can't really tell you which songs will or will not be in the stage version of 'Aladdin.' " Chad stated. "It's a pretty fluid situation right now."

But that said, Beguelin was very enthusiastic about what he heard and saw at "Aladdin" 's most-recent staged reading, which held back in October.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"It's one thing to hear Howard Ashman's demos for all of these cut songs and think about how wonderful these numbers might be on the stage. But to then hear 20 people sing this beautiful Michael Kosarin arrangements of these same songs with all of their harmonies, that's when you realize that you've got something special here," Chad said.

But as exciting as all of this new material may be, as the guy who's actually adapting "Aladdin" to the stage, Beguelin always has to act as the audience's advocate. Making sure that this two-act stage musical doesn't play too fast & loose with the characters, story, songs and settings that people haved come to know & love through Disney's animated feature.

"That's why we're playing the romance of Aladdin & Jasmine straight and sincere," Chad explained. "That's an aspect of the movie that people really love. So we're not messing with that. Likewise that moment when Aladdin gives up his one chance at happiness to win the Genie's freedom. That's a scene that audiences are really looking forward to seeing being played out on stage. So we're preserving all of the heart and the emotion of that moment from the movie."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But don't go into the stage version of "Aladdin" and then expect to see some name performer doing their Robin Williams impression in the role of the Genie.

"We're casting the best possible performers for this show. Really talented people. Which is why we won't then be asking them to do impressions of characters from an animated film," Beguelin said. "The Genie in the stage version of 'Aladdin' is actually a return to Howard Ashman's original concept for this character. Which means that he's more of a Cab Calloway / Fats Waller kind of performer. Rather than what Robin Williams did with this character."

As to how the story of this much-beloved Disney animated feature will actually play out on stage ... Well, again Chad didn't want to give too much away.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Here's one spoiler, though. The first act ends with Aladdin's transformation into Prince Ali. Which means that the second act begins with 'Prince Ali.' And Casey 's got some terrific ideas about how he's going to bring that musical number to life on stage," Beguelin concluded.

And if you'd like to see if Chad and friends actually succeed in their quest to mix the old and the new. Taking what people already loved about the animated version of "Aladdin" and then enhancing that, creating this whole new world ... er ... stage show by incorporating all of these cut songs and story ideas from Alan Menken's files ... Well, then you might want to make plans now to catch "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical." Which will have its world-premiere in Seattle this Summer and then run at the 5th Avenue Theatre July 7 - 31st.

Your thoughts?

The article was updated / corrected on March 21, 2011 to fold in additional information

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  • One complaint with this project: The ugly, unmemorable poster art.

    The character design in the film Aladdin was GREATLY inspired by the artwork of Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. So why not use some of that influence in the artwork promoting the Broadway musical?

  • It'll be interesting to see how they treat the Genie... the story of Aladdin is great, but the Genie is what made it memorable, and you can't turn him into a bumblebee on Broadway.

  • I agree completely with Ju-osh. That poster is really amateurish and awkward in its design. Does Disney no longer employ professional artists, or was this too farmed out to another studio like that recent animated Disney Cruise ad with Goofy?

  • FYI, Jim, "To Be Free" has music & lyrics by Alan Menken.  Tim Rice wasn't involved with that song.  Also, I think you left out that Chad did the adaptation of Aladdin for Disney's California Adventure.

  • Hey, folks --

    Jeffrey K is right. Back in 2002, Chad did write the book for "Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular." And when Alan Menken wrote "To Be Free" for this Disney California Adventure theme park show, he was flying solo. Tim Rice did not contribute any lyrics to that song.

    Anyway ... To make sure that JHM is getting the correct story out there, I has made several small tweaks to the text. I have also placed a note at the bottom of this article, stating that it was " ... updated / corrected on March 21, 2011 to fold in additional information."

    Beyond that ... I just wonder why Beguelin didn't mention "Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular" when we were talking on the phone last week about the 5th Avenue version of this show which premieres in Seattle in July. I mean, if it were my second time working on a stage version of a particular Disney animated feature, I would have brought that up. But Chad didn't. I wonder why ...


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