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Broadway vet Eden Espinosa is living out her Disney dream by voicing Cassandra on “Tangled: The Series”

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As Eden Espinosa recalls, it was early 2015 when Disney Television Animation initially reached out. Asking this Broadway star if she’d be interested in voicing a character for a new series that the Mouse was maybe going to produce. A show that – at that time, anyway – had a deliberately vague title: “Project T.”

“So they sent me the audition material,” this 39 year-old performer recalled during a recent phone interview. “And as I read the breakdown on the character they wanted me to voice, it said that she was 19 years-old or something like that. So I went into my little home studio to record the audition material that they’d sent me. And to make my voice sound younger, I deliberately pitched it up a little.”

Eden Espinosa in the booth recording dialogue for Disney “Tangled: The Series.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved 

So Espinosa sends in her audition tape. And Disney Television Animation must have liked what they heard. For a few weeks later, Eden found herself in a recording studio in New York City doing a callback.

“Now the producers of ‘Project T’ were still out in California. So we were talking via Skype. And before we formally got with this callback audition started, they gave me some notes. With the chief note being ‘We don’t want you sounding too much like our lead actress,’ ” Eden continued. “And to make sure that I knew what to steer clear of, they then played me a little of this lead actress’ voice. Which I immediately recognized as Mandy Moore.”

But even then Espinosa didn’t put 2 + 2 together. She just assumed that Disney Television Animation was planning on using Moore – who’d previously voiced Mara for Disney XD‘s “TRON: Uprising” as well as the title character on Disney Junior‘s “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West” – for some other project. It never occurred to Eden that Mickey might be looking to have Mandy reprise the role of Rapunzel for a brand-new animated series that would then continue the tale which Walt Disney Animation Studios had begun with their November 2010 release, “Tangled.”

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“I just thought ‘Maybe they’re doing something new and Mandy’s doing voicework for that too,” Espinosa said.

But “Project T” – AKA “Tangled: The Series” — was definitely something that Mouse House management wanted to pursue. Not only that, but the series creator for Disney Channel wanted to Eden to voice Rapunzel’s daring handmaiden and confidante, Cassandra.

Which would obviously be a nice gig for any working actress to land, right? But you’d think that – for someone like Espinosa (who’s been acclaimed for her portrayal of Elphaba in the Broadway, Los Angeles and San Francisco productions of “Wicked.” Not to mention playing Maureen in the closing company of “Rent“) – voicing a character for a  new animated series wouldn’t be all that big a deal. Especially since Eden has already done this sort of work, what with originating the voice of Sasha Caylo on Adult Swim‘s “Titan Maximum” back in 2009.

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That said, you have to understand that Espinosa grew up in Orange County, California in the shadow of a certain theme park. Not only that, but her uncle was a Kid of the Kingdom who – after he finished performing at Disneyland Park – would then take the very young Eden backstage.

“Growing up, Disney was a very big deal to myself and my family. In fact, my very first job – which I landed when I was 17 – was performing as a Christmas caroler in Disneyland ‘Christmas Fantasy’ parade back in 1995. I was so proud when I got that gig,” Espinosa remembered.

And Disneyland’s Entertainment Department obviously saw a lot of potential in this Southern Californian. Which is why – just three years later – Eden was one of the featured performers in “Animazement.” Which was this live stage show that was presented 5 – 6 times daily in the Fantasyland Theater where Espinosa then got to sing ‘Just Around the River Bend’ from Disney’s “Pocahontas.”

Eden Espinosa plays Pocahontas in “Animazement” at Disneyland Park 

“The experience I got while performing at Disneyland was invaluable. Doing five or six half-hour-long stage shows — sometimes outdoors in cold, rainy weather … That was like vocal boot camp for me. It made me into the performer that I am today,” Eden enthused.

And Walt Disney Creative Entertainment (i.e., the arm of The Walt Disney Company that produces shows for its Parks & Resorts) obviously takes great pride in having played a part in the launch of Espinosa’s career. Which is why – when the Happiest Place on Earth was looking for a vocalist for “Magical: Disney’s New Nighttime Spectacular of Magical Celebrations” – they immediately reached out to Eden.

“Which was like a dream come true for me, because – when I was growing up with family working at Disneyland – all I ever wanted to be was the voice in the sky for the park’s fireworks show,” Espinosa continued. “And now to be asked to originate a voice for a new character on a Disney cartoon … Well, that’s really another dream come true for me.”

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So what’s it been like voicing Cassandra for Disney’s “Tangled: The Series” ? Eden says that she’s been enjoying the collaborative nature of the process.

“What’s especially cool about working on a brand-new character like this is that you then play a really big role in determining the way that they speak, what their sense of humor is like and everything,” Espinosa said. “And what’s been particularly great is that – when I’ve made a face in the booth while recording a certain line of dialogue – having the directors then say ‘Oh my God. That expression. I’m making a note to the animators that that face has to be included in the show.’ “

So now that “Tangled: The Series” has been airing on the Disney Channel for a few weeks (This new Disney Television Animation production officially premiered on March 10th. But Disney Channel execs had such confidence in this show that – actually prior to its premiere – it was renewed for a second season) … What aspect of “Project T” is Eden most looking forward to now? Watching Cassandra, the character that she helped create, take on a life of her own outside of the show.

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“I just hope that people have been enjoying this character on ‘Tangled: The Series.’ Because I’ve been having an absolute blast voicing Cassandra,” Espinosa concluded.

And just so you know: Eden Espinosa isn’t the only Broadway veteran that Disney Television Animation had tapped to do voicework on “Tangled: The Series.” Because on “The Return of Strongbow” (i.e., the episode that airs tonight on the Disney Channel at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT) who voices the character that tries to lure Eugene back into his thieving ways but James Monroe Iglehart? The talented performer who won a Tony Award for playing the Genie in the Broadway production of Disney “Aladdin: The Hit Broadway Musical.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, April 28, 2017

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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“The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World” reveals how close this hit show came to not happening

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“We can’t do this. This doesn’t work.”

This is what Michael Eisner – the then-Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company – told Thomas Schumacher, Peter Schneider and Julie Taymor back in August of 1996. That the stage version of Disney’s acclaimed animated feature, “The Lion King,” which this trio had been developing at that time wasn’t even remotely ready for Broadway.

Which is why – as Michael Lassell recounts in his terrific new behind-the-scenes book, “The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World” (Disney Editions, November 2017) — Eisner then reportedly turned to Schneider and said ” … You better get moving on ‘Aida,’ because you’re going to have to put something into the New Amsterdam Theatre next fall.’ “

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Just one year later, Disney’s stage version of “The Lion King” was at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre getting ready for its very first preview. There was only one tiny problem: Taymor’s artistic vision for this stage show was so innovative & ambitious that – even though the cast had been rehearsing this piece for weeks at that point – they had never actually gotten through an entire performance before, from beginning to end, without stopping.

Which is why – prior to the start of “The Lion King” ‘s first preview – Thomas & Peter had to get up onstage at the Orpheum and basically warn that audience there’d be some hiccups along the way. Ironically enough, because the creative team had yet to prepare this show’s staged-in-front-of-a-curtain scene which was supposed to immediately follow “Be Prepared.”

That’s half the fun of paging through this 224-page hardcover. Even though the stage version of “The Lion King” is now considered to be one of The Walt Disney Company’s all-time greatest success stories (Just yesterday, Forbes posted a piece which revealed that – over the course of this show’s now-more-than-20 year-long run on Broadway – the Mouse has made $8.1 billion off of this musical), Lassell points out how problematic this project’s birthing process was.

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And that goes for the animated version of “The Lion King” as well. Schumacher (who was the vice president in charge of development at Walt Disney Animation Studios prior to taking up the reins at Disney Theatrical Productions) remembers the initial iteration of this film (which – at that time, anyway – was called “King of the Beasts” being ” … kind of an animated National Geographic special about a war between lions and baboons, all set in this brown, dirty, earthy environment. Rafiki was a cheetah, and Scar was the leader of the baboons. And nobody had much interest in it. The A-list animators all chose to work on Pocohantas.”

With the hope that the addition of some music might then make this movie’s subject matter seem that much more palatable to Disney’s animators, Schumacher reached out to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s longtime collaborator Tim Rice in the fall of 1990. As Thomas recalled, ” …  I asked him if our war between lions and baboons could be turned into a musical. And Tim said ‘I made a musical out of the obscure dead wife of an Argentinian dictator. Anything can be a musical. ‘ “

Mind you, Rice was only looking to write the lyrics as well as help out with the story for “King of the Beasts / The Lion King.” Who Tim had in mind to handle the actual music on this movie was Sir Elton John. The only problem was that Elton’s management team – knowing how strict Disney’s attorneys would be when it came to copyright / who had ultimate ownership of any material that was created for this new animated feature – refused to even make John aware of this employment opportunity.

Paul McCartney did eventually wind up working for Disney. He recently cameo-ed in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” as Captain Jack Sparrow’s long lost uncle. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why – at Rice’s suggestion – Schumacher & Schneider then reached out to Paul McCartney. But that former Beatle quickly said “No” when it came to working on “King of the Beasts / The Lion King.” So Disney then made a second run at Elton John. Only to have his management team again refuse to make this legendary rock star aware of this opportunity because they didn’t like the terms of the deal that Disney’s lawyers were offering.

As Lassell reveals in this profusely illustrated / exceedingly well-researched coffee table book, it was about this time (October of 1991, to be exact) that then-Disney Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg got involved. Realizing that it was the terms of the deal that Mouse House managers were offering which was preventing Elton John’s management team from passing this offer along, Katzenberg got on the phone with Disney’s attorneys and then asked them to sweeten the deal. Make some changes to the standard deal memo that the Studio offered when it came to recruiting talent. All with the hope that – with a few small concessions – this pop star’s management team might then finally be willing to make Elton aware of this opportunity to work with Walt Disney Animation Studios.

As it turns out, the third time was the charm. Once the terms of this proposed deal were tweaked, Elton’s management team immediately agreed to make him aware of the project. And …

(L to R) Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

… John accepted readily as he had no idea (that his management team) had already turned aside the proposition twice before.

“(Schumacher and Rice) really didn’t have to sell it to me,” remembers Sir Elton, who is himself a huge fan of (Disney’s) The Jungle Book. “I mean, I was in from the word go. I loved the story and I loved that it was an original story, and it came at a time in my career where I wanted to do something different.”

And speaking of something different: As part of the hundreds of interviews Lassell did while he was pulling together “The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World,” Michael got Julie Taymor to talk about her original vision for the second act of this stage show. Which would have sent Simba off on a decidedly different coming-of-age journey.

“What’s that on the horizon?” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

The first act of the stage version of “The Lion King” was to have hued closely to the story of the film. With Simba – blaming himself for Mufasa’s death – basically abandoning his pride and banishing himself to the desert. But as Taymor’s original vision for “The Lion King”‘s second act began, Simba – as he struggled through the sand – was to have seen some lights on the horizon. He goes to investigate and discover this place that Julie describes as being ” … a cross between Vegas, Disneyland, and a futuristic city.”

The denizens of this setting would have been half human & half animal with characters like Papa Croc, a paraplegic crocodile in a wheelchair who runs a nightspot filled with lounge lizards in snappy suits. In addition, there was a character named Natasha Leopard, who drove a Jaguar.

Papa Croc, the new father figure Simba found after Mufasa died, is also a fight promoter and wants Simba to become a boxer. Nala, meanwhile, arrives in this selfsame city and goes underground as a dancer at the Pussycat Lounge.

(L to R) Peter Schneider & Thomas Schumacher. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved

Schneider & Schumacher (who had initially tapped Taymor for this project because they hoped she’d do something genuinely unique with this material) weren’t exactly enthusiastic when Julie showed them her Las Vegas-inspired vision for Act Two of the proposed stage version of “The Lion King.”

“It was clear that they actually wanted to stay closer to the original story. They didn’t want me to introduce new characters. But I learned a lot from the exercise. I never would have solved the human / animal thing (for this stage show) if I hadn’t gone through the process,” Taymor said in retrospect.

And speaking of learning a lot: Even if you’re already a big-time fan of the “Lion King” film or stage show, you’re sure to learn a lot about this Academy Award & Tony Award-winning entertainment by reading “The Lion King: Twenty Years on Broadway and Around the World.” There are so many previously untold stories that Lassell shares in this Disney Theatrical souvenir publication. Things like real estate deals that The Walt Disney Company didn’t follow up on back in the early 1990s:

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“(When Schumacher was talking with Taymor about the many different ways “The Lion King” could possibly be staged, he) said, ‘Look, Disney is in a conversation about buying Rockefeller Center. So we could do it at Radio City Musical Hall. Or we could do it at Chelsea Pier, or buy a pier and mount it on the water – pretty much anything an avant-garde theater director might want to fantasize. Or we could do it as a Broadway show; you tell me.’ That’s how loose an idea we had at the time, because, remember, there was a real sense that we might not be able to pull (the proposed stage adaptation of this animated film) off at all.”

And speaking of which: Because the stage version of “The Lion King” seemed like such a long shot in the early 1990s, Disney Theatrical – in addition to “Aida” – had another stage show in active development at that time:

“We actually started seriously developing ‘Pocahontas’ for the stage,” remembers Schumacher, “and ‘Mary Poppins,’ which we did eventually produce. But (that was because) none of us thought ‘The Lion King’ would work onstage.”

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Which brings us back to Michael Eisner. Who – as I mentioned at the very top of this article — pulled the plug on this proposed stage production at least once.  So was Eisner ultimately the one who got the ball rolling on Broadway’s “The Lion King” ? Not according to Lassell. He credits …

… Ward Morehouse, a columnist for the New York Post, (who) wrote in his column that Disney’s next stage venture would be “The Lion King.” “He picked up on a joke someone told,” says Schumacher, “and thought it was real. But people believed (what Morehouse wrote) and his column set kind of a pulse among the press, who kept asking “When are we going to see ‘The Lion King?’ “(And) someone who was asking the same question was Michael Eisner.

So just to be clear here: The third longest running show in Broadway history (Only “The Phantom of the Opera” and the 1996 revival of “Chicago” have racked up more performances to date) only came into being because a New York Post columnist didn’t get that someone was just joking with him when they said ” … Disney is going to produce a stage version of ‘The Lion King.’ “

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You just can’t make this stuff up. Because then you’d be … lion.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Wednesday, December 20, 2017

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Principal Casting Announced for Disney’s New Broadway Musical, “Frozen” Opening Spring 2018

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Caissie Levy to Star as Elsa, Patti Murin to Star as Anna

Jelani Alladin is Kristoff, Greg Hildreth is Olaf, John Riddle is Hans and Robert Creighton is Duke of Weselton

Tony Award® Winner Rob Ashford Joins Creative Team as Choreographer

 

Disney Theatrical Production has announced the principal cast of the highly anticipated Broadway version of Walt Disney Animation’s 2013 mega-hit “Frozen”.  

Caissie Levy will star as Elsa and Patti Murin will star as Anna in Disney’s new Broadway musical Frozen, opening at the St. James Theatre in spring 2018.

Also joining the principal cast are Jelani Alladin as Kristoff, Greg Hildreth as Olaf, John Riddle as Hans and Robert Creighton as Duke of Weselton.

Levy, who has starred on Broadway in GhostWicked and the 2014 revival of Les Misérables, will create the role of Elsa, a young woman wrestling with powers beyond her comprehension or control.

Murin, seen in the original Broadway productions of Lysistrata Jones and Xanadu, will star as her younger sister Anna, trying to reconnect with the person once closest to her. See full bios for both actors below.

CAISSIE LEVY L)(Elsa). On Broadway, Ms. Levy created the roles of Fantine in the 2014 revival of Les Misérables, Molly in Ghost (also West End & cast album), and Sheila in the 2009 revival of Hair (also West End & cast album), and played Elphaba in Wicked (also Los Angeles) and Penny in Hairspray (also 1st national tour & Toronto). Off-Broadway, she starred as Julie Nixon and Patti Davis in First Daughter Suite (The Public Theater), Sara in Murder Ballad and Maureen in the national tour of Rent. She has played solo to sold-out audiences throughout the US, UK & Canada, was a guest soloist with The United States Military Academy at West Point, backed up Sir Rod Stewart in Las Vegas and most recently made her Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Pops. Her debut solo album, With You, is available on iTunes.

PATTI MURIN (R) (Anna). Broadway/national tour: Lysistrata Jones (Lysistrata), Wicked (Glinda), Xanadu (Euterpe). Off-Broadway: Love’s Labour’s Lost (Shakespeare in the Park); Fly By Night (Playwrights Horizons); Lady Be Good! (Encores!). Almost Broadway: Nerds (Sally). Can currently be seen as Dr. Nina Shore on NBC’s “Chicago Med.”

The two women are joined by L-R Jelani Alladin in his Broadway debut as Kristoff, Greg Hildreth (Peter and the StarcatcherCinderellaBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) as Olaf, John Riddle (The Visit‘s Young Anton) as Hans and Robert Creighton (The Little MermaidAnything Goes, Off-Broadway’s Cagney) as Duke of Weselton.

      

JELANI ALLADIN (Kristoff). Broadway debut. Off-Broadway: Sweetee (Signature Theatre  – upcoming), Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope (York Theatre). Regional: I and You (TheatreSquared), Choir Boy (Studio Theatre DC, Marin Theatre Company), The History Boys (PalmBeach Dramaworks), Violet (Clarence Brown), Josephine (Asolo Rep – world premiere). Graduate of the NYU Tisch New Studio on Broadway. 

GREG HILDRETH (Olaf). Broadway: CinderellaBloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher. Off-Broadway: The Robber Bridegroom. TV: “The Good Wife” (recurring), “Royal Pains.” Film: Radium Girls, Wall Street II

JOHN RIDDLE (Hans) was last seen on Broadway in Kander and Ebb’s The Visit starring Chita Rivera. His other stage credits include Tony inWest Side Story (Casa Manana), Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid (St. Louis MUNY), Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees (PCLO), Evita (1st national tour), Little Dancer (Kennedy Center) and My Paris (Long Wharf). Other: The Secret Garden in concert at Lincoln Center, Cincinnati Pops. Last year, John debuted his solo show, Keep It Simple at Feinstein’s/54 Below. He can be heard on John Kander’s Hidden Treasures from Harbinger Records. CCM grad. 

ROBERT CREIGHTON (Duke of Weselton). Recently conceived, co-authored and starred as James Cagney in Cagney Off-Broadway. Broadway credits include The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Durdles), Anything Goes (Purser), Chicago (Amos), The Little Mermaid (Chef Louis),The Lion King (Timon) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. TV: “The Family,” “Elementary,” “Law & Order,” “Life on Mars.” 

Additional principal and ensemble casting will be announced soon. 

Tony Award winner Rob Ashford (L) has joined Frozen‘s creative team as choreographer. One of the busiest director-choreographers on Broadway and in London, Ashford is a Tony winner for Thoroughly Modern Millie and a Tony nominee for the Daniel Radcliffe revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Curtains, among his eight nominations. In London, Ashford and Frozen director Michael Grandage have enjoyed more than a decade of illustrious collaboration:

Ashford helmed Parade (receiving Olivier nominations as director and choreographer), A Streetcar Named Desire and Anna Christie (Olivier Award, Best Revival) at The Donmar Warehouse under Grandage’s artistic leadership, and he received Olivier nominations for choreographing Grandage’s West End productions of Evita and Guys and Dolls. Ashford also has a history with Disney, having choreographed Kenneth Branagh’s smash film Cinderella.

Christopher Gattelli, previously announced as choreographer, has chosen to leave the show ahead of rehearsals in June.

 Based on the 2013 film written by a trio of Oscar® winners, Frozen features music and lyrics by the creators of the film score Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Up Here, Winnie the Pooh, In Transit) and EGOT-winner Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, Up Here) and a book by Jennifer Lee (ZootopiaWreck-It Ralph), the film’s screenwriter and director (with Chris Buck).  Frozen won 2014 Oscars for Best Song (“Let It Go”) and Best Animated Feature. 

Frozen‘s director is Michael Grandage, a Tony Award winner (Red) and director of three Olivier Award-winning Outstanding Musicals (Merrily We Roll Along, Grand Hotel and Guys and Dolls).

The design team for Frozen includes scenic and costume design by Tony and Olivier Award winner Christopher Oram (Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2The Cripple of InishmaanEvita), lighting design by six-time Tony Award winner Natasha Katz (Aladdin; Hello Dolly!; An American in Paris) and sound design by four-time Tony nominee Peter Hylenski (The Scottsboro Boys, Motown, After Midnight).

Two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Oremus (Avenue Q, Wicked, The Book of Mormon) is music supervisor and creates vocal and incidental arrangements. 

Frozen plays its out-of-town tryout at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts August 17 – October 1, 2017. Single tickets for performances in Denver go on sale May 1, and tickets for Broadway performances will go on sale later this year.

Visit www.FrozenTheMusical.com to sign up for ticket announcements and other news.

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Ever wonder how that magic carpet in Disney’s “Aladdin” flies? New making-of-this-Broadway-musical book offers a few clues

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There’s always a “How’d they do that?” moment in a Disney stage production. In “Beauty and the Beast,” it was when the performer playing the Beast first began spinning like a propeller and then transformed into a handsome prince right in front of the audience. For “Mary Poppins,” it was when that musical’s practically perfect title character first flew out over the orchestra section and then – umbrella & carpet bag in hand — ascended towards the New Amsterdam’s balcony section.

And for Disney “Aladdin,” the hit Broadway musical, it’s when Jasmine joins Aladdin on that magic carpet. And – as “A Whole New World” plays – these two then soar off into a star-filled sky.

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So how exactly is this illusion pulled off 8 times a week in both NYC & Chicago (Speaking of which: The North American tour of Disney “Aladdin” officially gets underway tonight as this Tony Award-winning show kicks off a 22 week-long stand at Chi-town’s Cadillac Palace Theatre)? Well, the folks at Disney Theatrical Productions are (understandably) kind of tight-mouthed when it comes to this topic. But if you pick up a copy of Michael Lassell’s terrific new behind-the-scenes book, “The Road to Broadway and Beyond — Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World” (Disney Edition, March 2017), you can uncover some clues.

Take – for example – what Bob Crowley (i.e., the seven time Tony Award-winner who handled “Aladdin” ‘s scenic design) has to say about this musical’s central showpiece. In his interview with Michael, Bob revealed that ” …  the flying carpet is one of the biggest things in the show, and I had to accommodate that. When I saw the prototype, I was gob smacked … I was happy to work around it, but it did take up almost all of my mid-stage space. There were more than a few times when Casey (Nicholaw, the director & choreographer of “Aladdin”) or Tom (Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Group) would ask for something and I’d have to say, ‘I can’t give it to you because the carpet is up there.’ But it earns its keep and then some. It’s just fantastic, and to this day I have no idea how it works.”

Natasha Katz – who did the lighting design on Disney “Aladdin” – was similarly cagey when it came to this impressive piece of stagecraft. When she spoke with Lassell, Katz stated that ” … the magic carpet in this show is not very big, but the mechanism that makes it fly takes up a lot of technical real estate when it’s flying.”

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Which is kind of ironic. Given that – when Disney Theatrical Productions mounted its pilot production of the stage version of “Aladdin” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre back in July of 2011 – that show’s magic carpet didn’t take up that all much real estate. Largely because – in this early, bare-bones edition of Disney “Aladdin” – that version of this illusion was basically (I’m quoting Casey Nicholaw now) just ” … a mattress on a stick.”

It wasn’t ’til two years later (after Mouse House management finally agreed to fund a full-scale stage version of Disney “Aladdin”) that Schumacher then began to search for ways to make the flying carpet moment in his new Broadway-bound musical seem genuinely magical. Which is why Tom then reached out to the man who had masterminded the Beast’s onstage transformation as well as figuring out how to fly Mary Poppins out over the audience. And that was theatrical illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer.

As Schumacher recounted to Lassell in his interview for “Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World,” the inspiration of this particular piece of stagecraft can actually be traced back to Disney & Cameron Mackintosh’s stage production of “Poppins.”

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“One of the ways we talked about making Mary Poppins fly was a technique that dates back to the 1920s,” the producer said. “But there had never been a technology that would make it work for our purposes. When we started working on ‘Aladdin,’ ten years after ‘Mary Poppins,’ I brought it up to him [Steinmeyer] again. Could it work? He said it could work in theory, but only if someone could actually deliver it.”

“After an elaborate search,” Thomas continued, “We found these remarkable people at a place in Pennsylvania. The company is called TAIT Towers and they do a lot of rock ‘n’ roll shows for the top acts in music – everyone from Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga to Metallica, Justin Timberlake, and Elton John. They produce high-end equipment that theater people never use.”

“And we went and met with them, with Adam Davis and Scott Levine in particular, who were the project leads. And we drew little pictures of what the engineering concept was,” Schumacher recalled. “And they said, ‘Oh, we could do that.’ And I think we gave them five or six months and then we drove for hours out into rural Pennsylvania to their shop. And we walked in, and a wooden version of the carpet was flying around their scene shop in broad daylight, and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this could work.'”

Cover of Michael Lassell’s “Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World — The Road to Broadway and Beyond.” Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved 

As Jim shared with Michael for “The Road to Broadway and Beyond,” the very best part of working on a high profile stage production like “Aladdin” is ” … today we can bring a number of optical illusionary effects together with new science and engineering to make something that pleases the audience. And a good part of the reason they’re pleased is that they can’t figure out how it could possibly be done, which has always been part of the joy of magic.”

“But that said, it’s also fun when an illusion takes on a life of its own, the way the carpet does in ‘Aladdin.’ And everyone (on this show’s creative team) seems to have understood its theatrical potential right from the beginning. Casey completely understood what he had, and he choreographed that carpet as if it were a character,” Steinmeyer continued.  “We even gave the carpet a little curtain call of its own. We weren’t planning to bring it back for the end of the show, but sometimes things just work out.”

But – of course – because Michael Lassell’s “The Road to Broadway and Beyond — Disney Aladdin : A Whole New World” doesn’t reveal how the magic carpet illusion in this Tony Award-winning show is actually achieved … Well, that’s something you’re just going to have to work out on your own.

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Because you can forget about asking members of the cast about how the magic carpet in “Aladdin” flies. They’ve all been sworn to secrecy about this exquisite piece of stagecraft as well as this show’s 83 other illusions & special effects.

As ensemble member Dennis Stowe told Lassell, “Everyone asks me how that magic carpet works. I just say it’s Disney magic.”

Cast member Bobby Pestka concluded, “I say the Genie does it.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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