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Huffington Post -- How Disney "Aladdin" went from being a diamond in the rough to Broadway's newest hit

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Huffington Post -- How Disney "Aladdin" went from being a diamond in the rough to Broadway's newest hit

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When the reviews for Disney "Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy" finally came in last night, with the New York Times praising this production for its " ... relentless razzle-dazzle and its anything-for-a-laugh spirit," there was no one on this planet that was more pleased & relieved than Chad Beguelin.

After all, it was Beguelin who - 5 years ago - was among the first artists Disney Theatrical Productions reached out to when it was looking to turn "Aladdin" into a full-length stage production. More to the point, it was Chad's conversation with Alan Menken about how Disney's 1992 Academy Award-winning animated feature might possibly be adapted for the stage that suddenly turned this show into something more.

Courtney Reed as Jasmine and Adam Jacobs as Aladdin as they sing "A Million
Miles Away," a new song that Alan Menken & Chad Beguelin wrote for Disney
"Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"Back then, there was absolutely no talk of taking 'Aladdin' to Broadway. Disney Theatrical had asked me to work up a possible libretto for a stage version of this film only because all of these high school & college theater departments kept writing in, asking if there was an official script available for 'Aladdin' yet," Beguelin explained during a recent phone interview. "So the original goal here was to just put together a straightforward stage adaptation of Disney's 'Aladdin.' Something that faithfully followed  the storyline of the original 1992 film which could then be licensed out to all of these high schools & colleges. Maybe even a regional production or two."

But when Chad showed his first draft to Alan so that "Aladdin" 's Oscar-winner composer script could then sign off this project, Menken saw something more. A diamond-in-the-rough, if you will.

"Alan must have liked what he saw in that script. Because the next thing I know, he's talking about how we could maybe fold some of the songs that he & Howard Ashman had originally written for the animated version of 'Aladdin' into this proposed stage show," Beguelin continued. "That's when Alan hands me this file folder which is just full of Howard's original story notes for 'Aladdin.' And then what was supposed to have been this simple, straightforward stage adaptation of the animated 'Aladdin' suddenly became this whole other thing."

James Monroe Inglehart in the role of the Genie in Disney "Aladdin: The new
Musical Comedy." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And why was that exactly? Well, Howard's original 40-page treatment for "Aladdin" had  had a far different take on this tale from "1001 Arabian Nights." Ashman originally envisioned this animated feature as kind of  a riff on Bob Hope & Bing Cosby's old "Road" pictures. Which is why -- because Howard wanted this film to have far more of a 1940s feel -- his original inspirations for the Genie were Fats Waller & Cab Calloway.

Ashman also wanted this animated feature to be a real departure for Walt Disney Animation Studios, to be the wildest, craziest, funniest film that they had ever produced. Which is why he originally saddled Aladdin with three comic sidekicks -- Babkak, Omar & Kassim -- not to mention a constantly kvetching mother.

And back in late 1988 / early 1989, WDAS did actually put this version of "Aladdin" into production. Only to then shut production after a few months because they were just trying to cram too many songs, characters and gags into a single 90 minute-long animated feature. So Jeffery Katzenberg -- the then-head of Walt Disney Studios -- pulled Ashman & Menken off of "Aladdin" and then put them to work on the then-equally troubled "Beauty and the Beast." Which -- at that time -- wasn't even a musical but more of a dark romantic animated fantasy.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashmen at a recording session for Disney's "Beauty and
the Beast." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But what no one knew at the time was that Howard was HIV positive. Which meant that -- by spending his remaining time on turning Disney's "Beast" into a musical -- Ashman then wouldn't get a chance to revisit "Aladdin." Find a way to make his "Road" picture-inspired take on this material work.

But now with Disney Theatrical considering a stage adaptation of this animated feature, here -- finally -- was a chance to revisit Howard's original vision for "Aladdin." So Alan handed off that folder to Chad and asked him to consider folding this material into the show.

"So I took that folder back to Disney Theatrical. And it was full of all of these great comic songs that were cut out of the animated film. This wealth of material that could then be used to turn the stage version of 'Aladdin' into a tribute to Howard Ashman's genuis," Beguelin explained. "But in order to fold all of this stuff into the show -- Aladdin's three sidekicks, all the restored songs -- that first meant making some pretty significant alterations to the story. And given that people were going to be walking into this musical with certain expectations in their head because they already had the film version of 'Aladdin' ... That meant that the stage version of 'Aladdin' was going to be this delicate balancing act. Where we found ways to preserve the parts of this movie that audiences loved, while -- at the same time -- carving out space for all these great new characters & songs."

(L to R) Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Brandon O'Neill as Kassim and Brian
Gonzales as Babkak with the ensemble of Disney "Aladdin: The New
Musical Comedy" as they perform "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Thus began the period Chad now somewhat jokingly calls the "1001 Rewrites." As Beguelin began trying to find just the right balance between old & new. It took a pilot production of the show in 2012 at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle -- not to mention a non-Disney produced regional production of "Aladdin" at the Muny in St. Louis last summer -- to really get a handle on what needed to stay & go. But even as a radically revamped version of "Aladdin" began its out-of-town try-out in Toronto in December, Chad & this show's creative team were still making changes to its libretto, were still moving around the placement of those Ashmen / Menken songs that had been cut out of the movie.

"That's why it was so great that we had Casey Nicholaw as the director & choreographer of the stage version of 'Aladdin.' Because Casey's completely ruthless when it comes to his own work," Chad said. "Take -- for example -- the number we used to open the show with, 'Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim.' Casey's original idea was to have Aladdin & his three sidekicks open the show performing circus-style tricks while they stood in front of the curtain singing these really funny Howard Ashman lyrics. But when that didn't wow the audience, Casey said 'Okay. We're going to move the 'Babkak' number to later in the show, restage it with the entire cast so it then has lots more energy. In the meantime, let's restage the opening so that we now have the Genie start off the show by singing 'Arabian Nights.' " So that's what we did. We moved some songs around as well as writing a new number for Jasmine. And by the time previews began in New York City, the Genie was now opening the show by leading 'Arabian Nights,' our new scene-setting opening number for 'Aladdin' ."

Truth be told, Beguelin wrote four new songs with Menken for the stage version of "Aladdin," "These Palace Walls," "A Million Miles Away," "Diamond in the Rough" and "Somebody's Got Your Back." All with an eye toward making sure that these tunes matched the style & the tone set not only by the six songs that Alan wrote for the film with Howard but also by "One Jump Ahead" & "A Whole New World." Which Menken actually wrote with Tim Rice for "Aladdin" after Ashman passed away in March of 1991.

(L to R) Chad Beguelin, Casey Nicholaw and Alan Menken onstage at the New
Amsterdam Theatre for the opening night of Disney "Aladdin: The New
Musical Comedy. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And in the end, that five years of hard work paid off this past Thursday night. With critics like Charles Isherwood at the New York Times praising "Aladdin" for its " ... extravagant musical numbers" which " ... pay energetic tribute to everything from the Cotton Club and Las Vegas to vintage Hollywood and current Bollywood."

And all of this happened because -- when Alan Menken looked at Chad Beguelin's script for a stage version of Disney's "Aladdin" -- he saw a diamond in the-rough.

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  • What ever happened to the California Adventure version of Aladdin that I thought was worthy of an expansion to a full length production? This version would work well with high school and college productions. I can't imagine the Genie singing "Arabian Nights" after seeing the DCA version many many times.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: "Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular" is still running at the Hyperion Theatre in the Hollywood Land section of Disney California Adventure theme park. In fact, there'll be four performances of that show presented today. One at 12:40 p.m., another at 2:20 p.m., still another at 4:45 p.m. and the final one of the day at 6:20 p.m.

    It's worth noting here that -- while "Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular" and Disney "Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy" do share some story elements, characters and songs -- the show that just debuted on Broadway is very, very different from the one that's been presented at DCA since January of 2003.

    Perhaps the very best way to differentiate between these two stage versions of "Aladdin" is to think of the DCA version as kind of a Cliff Notes version of that 1992 Academy Award-winning Walt Disney Animation Studios production. Which -- given that DCA's stage version of "Aladdin" is only 45 minutes long while Ron Clements & John Musker's motion picture version of this material was 90 minutes long -- is a pretty apt metaphor.

    As for the show that just debuted on Broadway, Disney "Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy" is -- with intermission -- two hours & twenty minutes long and features (at the above article points out) a lot of the songs that Howard Ashman & Alan Menken wrote for the original aborted version of "Aladdin" that Jeffery Katzenberg shut done. Not to mention the four new songs that Menken wrote for this new stage musical version of "Aladdin" with Chad Beguelin.

    And here's an interesting side note for all your "Aladdin" trivia fans out there: Do you remember -- back when they originally announced "Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular" -- how the Company made such a big deal about how Alan Menken had written a brand new "I want" song for Jasmine, "To Be Free" ?

    Well, that written-for-DCA song is NOT in Disney "Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy." For that moment in the Broadway show, Casey Nicholaw & Co. originally tried "Call Me a Princess." Which was a comic introductory song that Ashman & Menken wrote for their first attempt to turn "Aladdin" into an animated musical back in 1989 / 1990 or thereabouts. And when that song didn't win audiences over in Seattle & Toronto, Menken & Beguelin wrote Jasmine a new song, "These Palace Walls."

    But if you want to check out what "Call Me A Princess" was supposed to have sounded like in Disney "Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy" before it got cut, go check out this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPg7nE8lmP4

    Just to be clear here, this version of "Call Me a Princess" is from the pilot production of Disney "Aladdin: The New Musical Comedy." Which was presented in Seattle back during the summer of 2011 at the Fifth Avenue Theater. It is not the version that was ultimately cut from this Broadway show during its out-of-town try-out in Toronto late last year.

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