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Jonathan Freeman returns as Jafar in new stage musical version of Disney's "Aladdin"

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Jonathan Freeman returns as Jafar in new stage musical version of Disney's "Aladdin"

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It's often been said that a story is only as good as its villain. Which is why you genuinely have to feel for Casey Nicholaw and Chad Beguelin.

As the director & the librettist of "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical" (which will begin presenting performances at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre on July 7th) realized, Casey & Chad faced an awful challenge when it came to casting the role of Jafar. After all, no matter who they chose for this part, that poor actor was then going to have their performance compared to Jonathan Freeman. Who did such a brilliant job of voicing this villainous character in the 1992 animated feature.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. / The 5th Avenue Theatre. All rights reserved

Which is when Nicholaw & Beguelin came up with an ingenuous idea. Rather than hire someone to do a Jonathan Freeman impersonation, they should just go after the genuine article. Cast Jonathan himself to play Jafar.

Which may sound like a somewhat crazy notion if you aren't entirely familiar with Freeman's resume. I mean, sure. Disneyana fans know Jonathan for voicing Jafar in the original "Aladdin" as well as its direct-to-video sequel, 1994's "The Return of Jafar." Not to mention once again vocalizing for the Grand Vizier when this character appeared in the "Kingdom Hearts" games & the "Mickey's House of Villains" TV special. And let's not forget all those times over the past two decades where Freeman stepped behind a mike so that Jafar could then make a surprise appearance in a "Disney on Ice" show, a Disney theme park parade or fireworks display.

But for theater fans ... Jafar is just one of the roles that Jonathan was known for. This Tony-nominated (for his hilarious turn as the head waiter in the 1994 revival of "She Loves Me") actor has appeared in some of Broadway's biggest shows (among them "The Producers," "42nd Street" and "How to Succeed in Business WIthout Really Trying"). More importantly, over the 5 years, Freeman has worked almost exclusively for Disney Theatrical. Originating the role of Grimsby in the Broadway production of "The Little Mermaid," as well as playing Cogworth in "Beauty and the Beast" and Admiral Boom & the Bank Chairman in "Mary Poppins."

Jonathan Freeman as Grimsby in the Broadway production of Disney's
"The Little Mermaid." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

In fact, Jonathan was still performing in "Mary Poppins" when Casey & Chad approached him earlier this year about possibly taking a leave of absence from that Broadway production. So that Freeman could then be available to appear in this pilot production of "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical."

Just to clarify here: the musical version of "Aladdin" that the 5th Avenue Theatre is right in the middle of mounting is NOT headed to Broadway. At least not anytime soon. Disney Theatrical Group okayed this pilot production because it's looking to include a two-act stage version of this Academy Award-winning animated feature in DTG's professional and regional theater licensing catalog.

Anyway ... Jonathan was intrigued by the idea of physically embodying a character that - up until now - he had only voiced. More to the point, his bosses at Disney Theatrical Group were willing to let Freeman step away from the Broadway production of "Mary Poppins" starting on May 22nd. With the understanding that - once production of "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical" wraps on July 31st - that Jonathan will then resuming playing Admiral Boom & the Bank Chairman in their show starting on August 14th.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And once Freeman said yes ... Well, the folks at 5th Avenue went nuts. As David Armstrong - the executive producer & artistic director of this Seattle-based said in a statement to the press:

 "I am so thrilled that Jonathan will make his 5th Avenue debut in this production. He is one of the greatest character actors in Broadway history, and I think audiences will be fascinated to see him play live on-stage the role that he created in the animated film."

Now it's kind of appropriate that Freeman was the first cast member announced for "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical." Given that - back in the late 1980s - Jonathan was the first voice actor that the late Howard Ashman hired for the animated version of "Aladdin."

Lee Wilkof as Seymour in the original off-Broadway production of "Little Shop of Horrors"

"I actually auditioned for the original off-Broadway production of 'Little Shop of Horrors,' " Freeman recalled when we spoke on the phone last year. "I didn't get thate part. But Howard and Alan Menken must have liked what they saw. Because once they got their deal at Disney, Howard and Alan - through Albert Tavares, a casting director that the three of us all knew -- kept inviting me to audition for their animated features."

Unfortunately, there wasn't really a part that fit Jonathan's vocal stylings in "The Little Mermaid" & "Beauty and the Beast" (which you have to admit is somewhat ironic. Given that - a decade or so later - Freeman was then cast to play roles in the Broadway versions of both of these Disney animated features). But all that changed with "Aladdin."

"I took part in the preliminary voice auditions for Jafar. I read the script. I sang the song. But it wasn't 'til my second audition that I actually got to see Andreas Deja's concept drawings for this character," Jonathan remembered. "And once I saw those heavy lidded eyes, that long narrow face, I knew that Jafar was going to be something really special. A classic Disney Villain. So I threw myself into that second audition and eventually won that part."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But the downside of being the first voice actor cast on Disney's "Aladdin" was that - for months at a time - Freeman worked alone. To the point that, when Jonathan recorded a version of "Humiliate the Boy" (one of the many songs that Ashman & Menken tried to write for this film's villain), he sang both Jafar and Iago's parts in this duet.

"And then - after Howard died in March of 1991 - they kind of got stuck. They couldn't quite figure out how to make 'Aladdin' work. Which is why I spent a year and nine months recording dialogue on that movie," Freeman continued. "This was before the days of good phone patching. So I'd have to fly into LA from wherever I was performing - Houston, La Jolla - and then record whatever new dialogue Ron & John had just written."

Mind you, it wasn't 'til Gilbert Gottfried, Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin were hired to voice the roles of Iago, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine respectively that Jonathan feels that he was finally able to get a handle on the way to properly play Jafar.

Scott Weinger & Linda Larkin reunite at a 2004 press
event for the DVD release of Disney's "Aladdin.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"Scott and Linda brought a sense of sincerity, reality to their roles. And when I heard their recordings ... Well, I knew that Jafar had to be seen as a real threat to Aladdin and Jasmine. So I adjusted my own vocal performance accordingly," Freeman said.

But even so, there were weeks and weeks that Jonathan spent recording songs & pieces of dialogue that ultimately didn't end up in the finished film.

"For quite a while, Ron & John couldn't decide which stone exactly allowed Jafar to seek out the diamond in the rough. So I recorded all of these lines where the Grand Vizier was scheming to get his hands on the dragon's eye ruby or the tiger's eye topaz," Freeman laughed. "But that's just the way things are where you're trying to create a new piece of entertainment. You try a lot of different ideas and ultimately go with the one that works best."

Jonathan Freeman mugs with a Jafar maquette at
one of the original recording sessions for Disney's
"Aladdin." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

And I'm sure that - as Casey, Chad and Jonathan continue with the rehearsal period for "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical" - they'll be doing just that right now. As these three try and come up with the best possible way for Freeman to take a character that, up until now, he's only done the voice for and then build on that. Turn Jonathan's vocal version of Jafar into a full-fledged physical performance for the stage.

Speaking of which ... Performances of this new two-act musical officially get underway on Thursday, June 7th. Casey Nicolaw (fresh off of winning a Tony last night's win for "Best Direction of a Musical" for "The Book of Mormon") will undoubtedly continue to tweak things right up until this show officially opens at the 5th Avenue Theatre on June 21st.

And after that ... Well, a lot depends on the sorts of reviews & audience reaction that the pilot production of this new two-act musical receives during its stint in Seattle. But why fret about that now? As Howard Ashman put it in a lyric that's supposedly being reinserted in "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical" 's score:

Jonathan Freeman at the opening night party for the
Broadway production of Disney's "The Little
Mermaid." Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

Happy end  to the tale
And tomorrow's a sale
So I'd better go home and rest

Here's a kiss and a hug

Sure you don't need a rug?
I assure you, the price is right

Well, salaam, worthy friend

Come back soon, that's the end
'Til another Arabian Night !

Adam Jacobs as the title character in "Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage
Musical." Photo by Mark Kitaoka.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
/ The 5th Avenue Theatre. All rights reserved

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  • I used to have both Jonathan Freeman and Linda Larkin's autograph's... it would be nice to get the one back that I can!

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