You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Meby Todd Pickering, contributing writer
On January 11, 2016, the final curtain came down on Aladdin at the Hyperion Theater at Disney California Adventure. Let's take a look at the show's wonderful run, analyze its popularity, and then speculate on the exciting things to come.
Disney California Adventure opened in 2001 with a non-Disney theme, that is to say none of the Disney characters were present within the walls of this rather adult and California-themed park. The Hyperion Theater was originally designed to be a grand theater that the Walt Disney Company could use for screenings of new films and other private events. It was to have a grand lobby and of course many restrooms but with the park going over budget, the lobby and the bathrooms were cut from the final product.
By 2003 the original concept was not working, and Disney brought the beloved characters into California Adventure. The Hyperion had two previous shows in the first two years, and with the success Disney had on Broadway with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King putting on a 45-minute, Broadway-style show was the perfect fit for the Hyperion. The selected show was based on the hit film Aladdin, and after a 13 year run, I think that it is pretty safe to say that it was a smashing success.
The excitement of taking a show from a motion picture to the stage creates quite a different set of challenges. The pacing of a film is very different; there are no worries about set changes or costume changes. You can flawlessly transition from one big scene into another. These changes are not so easy for the cast and crew on stage. Also the excitement of animating Robin Williams as the Genie was a dream come true for Disney, but not as easy to translate onto the stage.
Decisions had to be made. Two of the characters from the film were cut: Aladdin's pet monkey Abu and Jasmine's pet tiger Rajah. In exchange, a theatrical, non-speaking role was created in the form of the magic carpet. This role was translated beautifully by the costume department, and by casting a petite, flexible woman in the role. When the actress outstretched her arms and legs in a classic jumping jack pose, the character looked like a rectangular carpet. The actress could also pull her arms down in a haughty crossed position, and stick her nose in the air indicating disgust. Lots of tumbling and physical acting translated into a stage version of classic comic non-speaking Disney roles in the vein of Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Pascal from Tangled.
To Be Free
One of the treats for the audience was the decision to insert a song that was cut from the movie: Jasmine's lovely ballad "To Be Free," where she compares herself trapped physically (in the Palace) and metaphorically (not free to make up her mind in marriage) to a bird in a cage. Not only does this song give us something new to enjoy, but it also allows the cast and crew to change out of costumes and sets from "Prince Ali" into "A Whole New World." This transition provides a vital for a break for the live stage production.
When Lerner and Loewe were creating the Broadway show My Fair Lady, they had a dilemma. The chorus had to change out of low class East End costumes into upperclass costumes for the Ascot Race. In one night they wrote the song "On the Street Where You Live" for Freddy to sing to Eliza''s bedroom window from the street below (Eliza was also changing costume). This song became the most recorded musical theatre song of all time (at the time) and was so popular it was added into the film even though it was unnecessary for pacing.
Conversely, the film Aladdin cut Jasmine's song for pacing but had to insert it back into the stage show to cover the costume and set changes just like My Fair Lady. Every time we heard the talented Jasmine sing this song we got to hear a song that was not overplayed in the Disney lexicon. A treat indeed.
One Jump Ahead
While Aladdin and Jasmine are our heroes, it was the Genie who truly carried the show and its popularity by being one jump ahead of the entire cast... and into the far flung future. The Genie is the only Disney character in a fairy tale who lived in the future. He made modern day references in the film even though the rest of the characters didn't know what he was talking about. It works. He is magic. He knows all and sees all. It gives the Genie and the audience a common ground. Translating this on to stage was a brilliant idea.
The last time I saw the show was December 19 (I tried to go to the final performance and was too late to procure a seat). Targets of the jokes that day included Justin Bieber, the Raiders football team (even though later it was announced that the Rams are coming to Los Angeles now), deflated Patriot's footballs, inability to get tickets to Star Wars: The Force Awakens (nice synergy), Lady GaGa in American Horror Story, and Donald Trump's hair. All fun stuff.
Other shows have capitalized on this clever format, including San Francisco's Beach Blanket Babylon, Washington's D.C.'s The Capitol Steps, and of course Broadway's spoof Forbidden Broadway. They all also take the au courant happenings of every day life and place them in their respective shows. These shows are constantly changing and constantly fresh, a key to their longevity. All of these shows ran or have been running for well over twenty years.
There were days when the Genie's jokes were clearly added that very same day due to the topical nature of the zinger. This is very funny to adults and even if the kids do not get the reference they get to enjoy the Genie just being silly. A perfect recipe for great family comedy. He would not just taunt the audience with jokes but try and make Jafar laugh in the final the scene. This is not only fun for the audience but keeps the other actors on their toes and therefore turning a long running show fresh and concentrated in year three, seven or even twelve!
Robin Williams' performance as the Genie in the film set the bar very high, but I never saw a stage Genie fail to deliver the goods. I saw the show so many times over the years, and the comic timing from all of these wonderful non-credited actors was fantastic. Part of the skill of good comic timing is to know when to keep adding jokes and when to stop. If the laughs keep getting bigger, then one keeps the jokes coming, but when the laughs crest like a wave breaking the audience has had enough and it's time to move on. All the actors did a terrific job as the Genie over the years.
A Whole New World
Now it's time to "make way... make way for Prince," I mean Princess Anna and Queen Elsa. This author will now go out on a limb and tell you all a little secret. I will break a code of journalism and show my bias. Don't try and stop me. I do this for you gentle readers. I must tell my truth; I like Aladdin much better than Frozen. There, I have said it and I don't regret it. And now as a lover of the theatre I will do something unusual. I shall make this statement:
It was time for Aladdin to close.
All shows must close. When the closure of Broadway's longest running show at the time, A Chorus Line, was announced everyone was upset, and then the show ran for the better part of a year afterward due to a spike in attendance. The same thing happened after it was announced that a musical version of Toy Story would replace Aladdin at the Hyperion. The public outcry convinced the powers that be to give Aladdin an additional three years. Plenty of time to go and see it, but in the end, the final curtain must fall.
I believe in change and I'm looking forward to seeing something new in the Hyperion Theater. I was not a great fan of the film Pocahontas, but I thought the stage show in the Fantasyland Theatre told the story better in a theatrical way than the film did cinematically. I have great hope and excitement for Frozen on stage.
The costumes from Frozen including Elsa's transformation into her blue dress, and Elsa's creation of her castle of ice could be full of so much Disney magic that the stage adaptation will take our breath away. Will there be new songs? What sort of amazing comedy will there be for Olaf? Will there be a new character or two? Will there be more action for Kristoff to make the story more boy friendly? Whatever the case we must keep in mind that this will probably be a different show than Aladdin, and let us not compare.
My prediction? I don't think Frozen will have the longevity of Aladdin, which would make my dream of seeing a new show come true sooner. There may be a new Disney animated film coming out five years from now that will be the best musical that they have ever done. We will just have to wait and see.
I would truly love to see them resurrect that wise cracking Genie somewhere in the parks. And even if that doesn't happen Genie... "we ain't never had a friend like you." Thanks for the laughs.