From Broadway to the West End, Disney’s Musical Comedy Aladdin has been taking audiences on journeys to a whole new world for the past four years. Premiering on 26th February 2014 at the New Amsterdam Theatre in Manhatten, Aladdin soon flew to London in 2016, landing at the Prince Edward Theatre, taking the place of the successful Miss Saigon.
Based on the Number One Movie of the Year 1992, Aladdin brings to the stage some of the most loved Disney characters and songs for everyone, young and old, to enjoy. With magic tricks, pyrotechnics and lots of dancing, it is an experience unlike any musical production in the West End so far.
The well-known tale tells the story of a poor young man living on the streets of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah who is granted three wishes from a genie in a lamp, which he uses to win the heart of the princess Jasmine and defeat the evil Grand Vizier. Featuring most of the scenes from the 90-minute animated film, the musical contains new songs and characters, extending the performance by an additional 40-minutes.
Loosely based on the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin, played by Matthew Croke, the co-principal of RMC Academy of Theatre Performance in Sheffield, is a street urchin who first meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine when he meets her in the marketplace. Running away from the palace and her father’s attempts to find her a suitor, Jasmine is disguised as an ordinary woman and Aladdin has no idea who she really is, although he soon finds out. Arrested by the Royal Guard for supposedly kidnapping the princess, Aladdin is rescued by the sultan’s Grand Vizier who, it turns out, has an evil ulterior motive.
Jafar, the Grand Vizier, is an evil, determined man who wants to become sultan and ruler of the city of Agrabah, but he can only achieve this with the help of a magic lamp. Although he knows the lamp is hidden in the Cave of Wonders, only a “diamond in the rough” can access it, and that diamond turns out to be Aladdin. The street urchin must enter the cave and take the lamp without touching anything else, however, a shiny ruby catches Aladdin’s eye. A single touch causes the cave entrance to collapse leaving Aladdin trapped inside.
For the majority of the first half, the storyline has stayed almost the same as the film version, with the addition of a few new characters. Those who have seen the animation will recall that Aladdin had a kleptomaniac pet monkey named Abu, however, this was not possible on stage. Instead, Aladdin has three friends, Babkak, Kassim and Omar, who sing and dance with him in the marketplace as well as getting into all sorts of trouble. Although these are never seen before characters, they were originally written for the film but never made the final cut. Reintroducing them into the story allowed Howard Ashman’s (1950-1991) upbeat song Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim to be heard for the first time. This is a great tribute to the lyricist who died shortly before the release of the film to which he had devoted so much time.
Another animal in the 1992 version of Aladdin was Iago, the sultan’s sarcastic, rude parrot who teamed up with the evil Jafar. Likewise to Abu, it was not possible to have a talking animal on stage, so Iago became a man. Working as Jafar’s personal assistant, Iago’s character has a comedic effect with his disrespectful comments and over-the-top grovelling.
Thankfully, the most popular character in Aladdin, and most vital to the plot, receives the portrayal he deserves with fantastic songs, costumes and stage presence. It was going to be difficult to beat Robin William’s (1951-2014) character Genie of the Lamp but award-winning Trevor Dion Nicholas rose to the challenge, not only performing in the original Broadway production but making his debut in the West End, too.
By the end of the Act One, Aladdin has rubbed the lamp, met Genie and discovered he can be granted three wishes. This culminates in the popular song Friend Like Me, also written by Ashman, however, instead of performing the 2-minute film version verbatim, the producers extended it to last an impressive 8-minutes. Full of various forms of dancing and style of music, Friend Like Me pays tribute to other Disney productions, such as The Little Mermaid, and contains a tap dancing element in recognition of the show 42nd Street. Including magic tricks worthy of being in any magician’s repertoire, the final number of the act is thoroughly entertaining causing the audience to fall about laughing several times and wish for more.
Act two begins with the first of Aladdin’s wishes: to be a prince so that he can try to persuade Jasmine to marry him – cue the lengthy, amusing number, Prince Ali. This leads on to the awe-inspiring flying carpet scene where Aladdin takes Jasmine to see the world. Whilst up in the air on a carpet held up either with invisible strings or real magic, the pair sing the most famous song from the film A Whole New World. Written by award-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice (b1944), the romantic song is a stark contrast to the upbeat, fast numbers that preceded it, the only exception being Proud of Your Boy, which was cut from the original screenplay.
It does not take long for Aladdin to realise that pretending to be someone he is not causes more problem than it solves. Jasmine has recognised him from the marketplace but believes he is a prince. On top of that, Jafar and Iago trick Aladdin into getting arrested and thrown into the dungeons. Thankfully, Genie releases him with the use of a second wish, but what should he do with his third wish? Aladdin had initially promised Genie he would release him from his lamp but he also needs help rectifying the situation his first wish got him into.
Before he has a chance to decide, Jafar gets his hand on the lamp and wishes to become sultan. With everyone in the palace under his control, the new sultan wishes for more power and becomes a sorcerer. However, Jafar’s greed for strength and influence results in his downfall. Aladdin, with no help other than his own intelligence, convinces Jafar to wish to be an all-powerful genie, thus tying him to a lamp, cursed to spend the rest of his days granting wishes.
Although he could still wish for the princess’ hand in marriage, Aladdin chooses to set Genie free. Moved by his actions, the sultan (now restored to his rightful position) declares Princess Jasmine may marry whoever she pleases, be he royalty or commoner. So, Aladdin gets his other wish after all!
It would not be Disney without a happily-ever-after ending, however, Aladdin is full of hidden messages and morals, which makes the ending even better. Having three wishes fulfilled (as long as they do not involve love or death, Genie is banned from granting those type) seems like a fantastic opportunity, however, it also causes unforeseen problems. Aladdin thought to become a prince would improve his life and win him the heart of Jasmine, instead, he ends up insulting the princess and landing himself in prison.
Likewise, Jafar thought having his wishes granted would lead him to be the most powerful man in the kingdom. The power hungry villain was blinded by his greed and easily tricked into wishing to be a genie and sealing his fate, literally, in a lamp. With great power comes great responsibility, the obligation to grant everyone else three wishes!
As both Jafar and Aladdin discover, attempting to be someone you are not is not the right way to go about things. Jasmine loved the street urchin she met in the marketplace, not the arrogant prince who flaunted his wealth. Jafar pretended to be a trustworthy Grand Vizier but eventually received punishment for his wicked ways.
The biggest theme, however, is imprisonment and freedom. Genie, although powerful, is tied to his lamp, destined to do his master’s bidding for the rest of eternity. Jasmine and Aladdin, one rich, one poor, are both limited by their lifestyles. Aladdin is always looked down on for being homeless and a disappointment to his late mother, whereas, Jasmine has no rights as a woman and must do everything her father wishes. The lifting of these restrictions on each of the characters makes the ending all the more perfect.
The West End musical Aladdin has only been running in London for two years but if the film is anything to go by, it will be one of the more successful shows in theatres. In 1992, Aladdin was the highest grossing film of the year ($217 million) and won a Grammy for the song A Whole New World. This phenomenal achievement was for an animated movie that only contained six songs, whereas the newer stage version has fourteen.
Disney was fortunate to have the eleven times Grammy Award-winning composer Alan Menken (b1949) on the team to produce both the film score and agree to work on the musical performance two decades later. Along with the lyricist Chad Beguelin, incredible new songs were produced for the stage that made the music much more impressive than in the original film. Of course, Rice’s A Whole New World needed to be kept in the script as well as Howard Ashman’s original songs and a few that never made it into the film. Ashman, who died of complications due to AIDs in 1991 would be proud to know that people are finally hearing more of his great works. Known as “our friend … who gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul …”, the added snippets of songs from A Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are a perfect tribute to him.
Of course, the stage musical could not work without the phenomenal set design arranged by a whole team of people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The scenes are truly impressive, not just for the way they look but for the way they function too. Just like the dancers, the sets had to be choreographed to move when they needed in order to transform into a different scene at the given time. During songs, particularly Friend Like Me, the set design is constantly moving as Genie uses his magic. Only the performers get applauded at the end of the show, however, the design team ought to be given greater recognition.
Members of the ensemble, for many of whom Aladdin is their debut West End performance, need to be appreciated too. Whilst they may not be a named character, they play a number of different roles, know most of the songs, learn hundreds of dance steps and are extremely quick at getting changed in and out of various costumes. In essence, these performers are the backbone of the show.
It is safe to say that Aladdin is a must-see show. It may not have the timelessness of other productions such as Les Misérables, but its upbeat, comic value makes it an entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable show. Suitable for all ages, Aladdin is the perfect show to see as a family outing or friends’ get-together, as proved by the rapidly selling tickets.
Tickets are available to purchase from Delfont Mackintosh Theatres at a variety of prices. Book online, by phone or in person at the Prince Edward Theatre in Old Compton Street, London.