In Aladdin, there is no doubt about the source of all infamy: Jafar, the sultan’s manipulative vizier scheming for control of the fictional city of Agrabah. And without question, Jonathan Freeman—who has played Jafar for a quarter century, in Disney’s animated film version and its sequel, television series, and video games—personifies Jafar’s fiendishness.
Freeman’s black garments with red accents aren’t the only tip-off to his villainy. His voice—especially his basso profundo laugh—drips with nefarious intent. His eyebrows are set at an angle of perpetual anger. He carries a staff shaped like a cobra. And Iago, his roly-poly wisecracking sidekick (played at a hysterical pitch by Don Darryl Rivera), calls him “Your Great Malfeasance” and reminds him that he “wrote the book on evil.”
Not surprisingly, villain types appeal to Freeman. “They play out on a sort of
operatic scale, in a play, a musical, an opera, or a TV show, and they’re very satisfying—juicy and delicious to play,” he says, adding “Jafar is a top-five Disney villain.” (For the record, the other four are Cruella de Vil, Captain Hook, Scar from The Lion King, and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.)
As for Jafar’s key machination in Aladdin, it centers around his driving desire to take over as Sultan of Agrabah, which means getting rid of the current Sultan
(JC Montgomery). To that end, he induces the charming young pickpocket Aladdin, Aussie native Ainsley Melham of Aussie kid show Hi-5 fame, to enter the gold-filled Cave of Wonders and grab the magical lamp. The plan backfires when the lamp’s resident Genie (Michael James Scott) enters the picture (dazzling the audience with the show-stopper “Friend Like Me”), and grants Aladdin the kind of magical wishes that ignite theatrical fantasy, including one that results in a magic-carpet romance with the Sultan’s independent-minded daughter (Arielle Jacobs).
Aladdin arrived on Broadway in 2014, 22 years after the release of the film that starred Robin Williams as Genie and Gilbert Gottfried as the parrot Iago. Seeing as there are no physical limits to animation (Genie juggling heads or contorting into a singing turkey, e.g.), reworking the film into a stage musical required several creative changes. For example, some of the original Alan Menken-Howard Ashman songs that were cut from the movie were restored; Aladdin’s monkey pal, Abu, became the hero’s trio of street thief friends; and Iago morphed from avian to human—a transformation, according to Freeman, he had no trouble adjusting to: “It was because Don Darryl is fantastic and a little bit of a genius,” he said. “I think he has the hardest role in the show.”
Still, Freeman recalls having some doubts about reprising the part, wondering what he could bring to the stage from an animated voice-over.
“We did a pilot project at Seattle’s The 5th Avenue Theatre several years ago and I thought I should try it, but I wasn’t convinced I should do it on Broadway. Everybody in the room was new to the project. They had new voices, a new approach. The script was different,” he said. “I was a little afraid.”
That fear did not last long and he has no qualms about embracing evil eight times a week. As for keeping his malevolence fresh after all this time, Freeman says the key lies in reminding himself that many theatergoers may be experiencing Aladdin—in any incarnation—for the first time. And he owes them the full Jafar.
“Maybe they’ve saved for a long time; maybe they really can’t afford to see the show but they’ve made it work,” he said. “I want them to have a good experience.”
Aladdin is playing at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W. 42nd St. For reservations call 866-870-2717 or visit aladdinthemusical.com.