Writer Chad Beguelin on the Ways ‘Aladdin’ Changed for the Better From Toronto to Broadway

This post was originally published on Playbill - Features

Written by: Talaura Harms

When librettist-lyricist Chad Beguelin was asked by Disney to look through their animated catalog and pick a title to adapt, he was never under the assumption that it would one day be a Broadway show. The company was just inviting several writers to do script adaptations that could be licensed for performances (like the currently available Kids and Broadway Junior versions of Jungle Book101 Dalmations, and Aristocats). 

But Beguelin selected Aladdin. “To this day my blood runs cold when I think if I would have chosen Snow White or Cinderella,” he says. “We’d be in a very different place right now.”

But the place we are in is the 10th anniversary celebration of the Broadway musical Aladdin. The musical opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre March 20, 2014 after a 2011 premiere at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and an out-of-town tryout in 2013 at the Mirvish Theatre in Toronto. The book is by Beguelin and the score features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with additional lyrics by Beguelin. All were Tony-nominated for the work.

Beguelin’s original script, which he thought was just for licensing consideration, was modeled very closely to the 1992 animated film. But Disney sent it to Menken, who then asked to meet with the writer. Beguelin recalls that first conversation: “He sat me down and said, ‘Listen, I love what you’ve done, but I have an ulterior motive with this version of the show. I want to get as much of Howard Ashman’s work into the stage version as possible.'”

Ashman died in 1991 before the completion of the film. Rice was brought in to collaborate with Menken, which led to the show’s hit romantic duet “A Whole New World.” But there were several Menken-Ashman tunes that never made it into the film, including “Proud of Your Boy,” “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” and “Call Me a Princess.” Menken wanted those songs from his longtime friend and collaborator to come back out of the trunk and live on as part of Aladdin. He gave Beguelin Ashman’s original treatment and all of the cut material.

READ: Alan Menken Shares the Secret to Decades of Success on Broadway With Disney

“It sort of became this puzzle of how to include those lost gems and still make it seem germane to the story—as if it was written this way from the very beginning,” says Beguelin.

He set to work on the new script. A reading of the adapted work was then held at 42 Studios with Disney executives and invited friends. As Beguelin tells it, Disney Theatrical Group President Thomas Schumacher announced that day the show was officially Broadway-bound. “It was like an old-timey 1940s movie, where the producers got a cigar like, ‘We’re going to Broadway!’ and everybody cheers.”

But it took a lot of work, and some major changes, to get Aladdin ready for Broadway. To Beguelin, the 2013 Toronto tryout was a pivotal turning point for the show.

In Toronto, one of Beguelin’s biggest challenges was to somehow get the song “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” and their reprises, into the show. The characters Babkak, Omar, and Kassim were Aladdin’s original friends in the film, but they were cut and replaced with the monkey Abu.

To get that trio into the stage show, Beguelin built a new framework that had Aladdin’s trio of friends opening the show and leading the audience throughout (like a choir). But it wasn’t working in Toronto. “I don’t remember who it was, but somebody said, ‘You know, when the curtain goes up, there are three guys and they’re all wearing fezzes, and we’re all wondering which one is Aladdin,” says Beguelin.

So, the team went back to the Genie opening the show in disguise. They found a new place for “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim.” But that meant the reprises had to be cut. Menken was reluctant, but agreed it was the best thing for the show.

“Arabian Nights” now opens the Broadway musical, just as it does the animated film. However, in the film, it’s sung over the credits with no action. For the stage show, Beguelin was able to add dialogue that introduces the audience to every main character of the show.

Another spot that just wasn’t working in the Toronto production was Jasmine’s first solo, then a song titled “Call Me a Princess.” When the song was originally written, Jasmine was “this really bratty, annoying character and she wasn’t even the love interest,” explains Beguelin. “But that all changed so they cut that song.”

When he tried to put it back into the show, he created a moment in which she finds out she has suitors but she doesn’t want to marry. Instead, she pretends to be a spoiled princess to scare them away. Even with the new intention, audiences were not liking Jasmine. The rest of the creative team conceded, and “Call Me a Princess” was once again relegated to the trunk.

“So, we all go went up to Alan’s hotel room, and like he always does, he plays around and then five minutes later, he reaches up into the heavens and pulls out this beautiful melody and everybody’s jaws drop on the floor,” says Beguelin, who took the melody back to his own hotel room. He knew the audience needed to feel something empathetic for Jasmine. “I thought, ‘What would Howard Ashman do,’ and I sort of thought of ‘Somewhere That’s Green,'” he says. “She wants to get away. She wants to be free.”

The song became Jasmine’s Act I “I Want” song, “These Palace Walls.”

As Courtney Reed sang the new song in the rehearsal room, everyone’s ears perked up. “I’ll never forget, Brian Gonzalez, who played Babkak at the time, came up to me and he pointed at her as she was singing and said, ‘Thank you for what you’ve just done for our show.’ Even the actors in the room could feel that the tone was shifting and we were getting it,” says Beguelin. “We were going in the right direction.” 

READ: All the Actors Who Have Played Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie in Aladdin on Broadway

The out-of-town tryout in Toronto was critical for the development of Aladdin. They learned through audience reaction and some negative reviews what changes needed to be made for a successful Broadway mounting. And even though the creative team was feeling good about the new product, Beguelin knew it would be a paying audience that would give them the real answer.

“We knew the buzz was, ‘Oh, they got roughed up by critics in Toronto,’ and I was standing in the back [of the New Amsterdam], and we got to ‘Friend Like Me,’ and it stopped the show. There was a standing ovation in the middle of the show,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ Then we got to the end. This woman came up to me, a total stranger, and she saw me with my notepad, and she touched my arm. She said, ‘You’re gonna be just fine.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, please let her be right,'” recalls Beguelin. She was.

Happy 10 anniversary, Aladdin!

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