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A whole new world: How Disney turned Aladdin into the stage musical that’s coming to Ireland

Disney ushered in a new era on Broadway when it began to put its animated classics on stage. Creative head Thomas Schumacher takes us behind the scenes

“I can show you the world,” the plucky “street rat” Aladdin proclaims as he serenades Princess Jasmine on a magic-carpet ride over the wondrous desert kingdom of Agrabah. His promise may well be the mantra of Disney Theatrical, the live-entertainment arm of the media empire.

Its first stage production, Beauty and the Beast, opened on Broadway in 1994 and ran for 13 years. Helped by the Oscar-winning music and lyrics that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote for the original Disney film, it became the sixth-longest-running show in Broadway history. That was followed by Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking staging of The Lion King.

With just two productions, Disney had ushered in a new era on Broadway. By adding touring versions that travel the world, it then internationalised the phenomenon. This month another big Disney musical, Aladdin, comes to Dublin for the first time.

Backstage at the Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh, for the start of the show’s tour of Britain and Ireland, Thomas Schumacher, Disney Theatrical’s chief creative officer, says the unique live setting is the starting point for all its productions, even when the story is an adaptation of a Disney animation.


“We aren’t turning films into musical. The shows were already musicals,” says Schumacher. So when Menken and Ashman were pitching the film version of Aladdin, for example, “it was a proper musical comedy”.

“I remember – it would have been 36 years ago – walking into Disney Studios, where Friend Like Me was being storyboarded. Alan was at the piano singing – wa wa waaa, wa wa – imitating the instrumentation. Well, that ended up in the first movie, exactly like that, and everybody knows it. But what people don’t know is all the songs that were written for the movie that got cut to make Aladdin more of an action-adventure movie,” Schumacher says.

“It was the same with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King ... There was already all this stuff that people didn’t know that had been cut for various reasons.”

With the Lion King film, for example, Disney released an album sequel to the soundtrack called Rhythm of the Pride Lands, featuring the African music of Lebo M with Hans Zimmer. This became a key part of Taymor’s stage show.

“That is the type of thing we lean into when making something for the stage,” Schumacher says. “So it wasn’t that we were looking to change [Aladdin] into something it was not. We actually went back to the source of what was originally pitched, and that is what the show was based on.”

Even for someone who grew up listening to the original soundtrack of the 1992 film on repeat, Aladdin: The Musical is full of surprises. The first is the playful structure introduced in the opening moments. As Schumacher puts it, “we exploit the skill set of the theatre to re-create the narrative”.

This is driven by the fourth-wall-breaking Genie, who is played in this touring production by Yeukayi Ushe. Having cut his musical-theatre teeth playing Simba in The Lion King in 2021, he is fresh from a leading role in the UK premiere of Michael R Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning A Strange Loop. Ushe says Aladdin was a touchstone for him, too, growing up in London in the 1990s.

“I was obsessed with all of the Disney animated films – and I regularly watch them still when I am having a bad day or feeling nostalgic – but the Genie was my introduction to all of the shape-shifting [an actor] can do with their voice, and that was one of my major influences when I started to get into voice acting.” (Ushe’s extensive video-narration work includes World of Warcraft; he also narrates the BBC cartoon JoJo and Gran Gran.)

Robin Williams’s performance in the 1992 film helped Ushe develop a comic flair. The late star’s “ability to riff was a brilliant introduction to improvisational comedy”, he says. That Ushe manages to invoke Williams’s spirit while making the role entirely his own makes for a show-stealing performance.

The second revelation is Bob Crowley’s scenography, a multisensory wonder of colour and perspective. It is hard to choose a favourite scene from the shifting set pieces: a canopy of fabric that seems to stretch across an endless marketplace, the grandeur of the palace rooftops, or the jewel-dripping columns of the cave where Aladdin finds the magic lamp.

The production’s director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw, uses the full breadth, depth and height of Crowley’s treasure-trove setting – the height is particularly significant in the scene where Aladdin whisks Jasmine off the rooftops of her palace for the magic-carpet ride. Even on a backstage tour, the technicalities of this spectacular scene are a closely guarded secret.

The third revelation is the storytelling itself, which seamlessly turns the 90-minute animation into a fully fledged piece of musical theatre that runs for two hours without flagging. Yes, well-known numbers such as Arabian Nights and One Jump are included as pacy plot-spurring sequences, but the restoration of Proud of Your Boy and other songs gives Aladdin’s character in particular a depth that adds significantly to the narrative. The reimagining of Aladdin’s monkey companion, Abu, as three cheeky sidekicks for the pauper-turned-prince works brilliantly.

When Aladdin opened on Broadway, in 2014, there were complaints that Disney had missed an opportunity to cast actors of Arab or Middle Eastern backgrounds. The company said it had a “colour blind casting” policy that left ethnicity out of the hiring process. The show’s performers have come from all over the world, and have a range of backgrounds. In Dublin they include the Hong Kong-born, Shanghai-bred Gavin Adams, who is making his professional stage debut as Aladdin, and Desmonda Cathabel, from Jakarta, who is a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, as Princess Jasmine.

Cathabel, a former marketing specialist who moved from Indonesia to Britain on a whim, in 2021, to pursue a singing career, says the fairy tale has a deep resonance for her. She grew up wanting to be not Princess Jasmine, however, but Aladdin. “He didn’t have a lot, but he managed to pull himself up the ladder with hard work and honesty and a little bit of mischief. It is luck and [his willingness to take a] risk that made him fly, and have all these amazing adventures.”

Although Cathabel “would probably do what Princess Jasmine does if I was in her shoes, to get out of the status quo that she is in”, she thinks she wanted to make Aladdin part of her character as well.

The “new fantastic point of view” that she sings about in A Whole New World, her big duet with the striving hero, has taken on a whole new meaning both for her and for the story.

Aladdin: The Musical is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from Wednesday, March 20th, to Sunday, April 14th