James Monroe Iglehart is a theater actor in the body of a professional wrestler.
This is not an exaggeration. The 39-year-old performer stands 6 feet tall, weighs 295 pounds and seems to fill a room with his ebullient personality.
“I almost became a pro wrestler,” said Iglehart, recalling that the extreme sport seemed the perfect escape from his suburban high school in Northern California. But then, “I saw someone really get hit with a chair. And then I said, no, I don’t want to do that!”
So the actor, who also flirted with becoming a Harlem Globetrotter, turned to something he had always enjoyed but hadn’t seriously considered as a possible profession: musical theater. He delved into high school productions, local theater and performed whenever he could, even if it was only in his garage.
These days, he’s not regretting his career shift.
Iglehart was seated in a hotel dining room just a few blocks north of the New Amsterdam Theatre, where he is starring as the genie in Disney’s “Aladdin,” the stage musical based on the popular 1992 animated film.
“Aladdin” has made Iglehart a Broadway star and earned him his first Tony Award nomination, for featured actor in a musical. As the genie, he serves as the show’s exuberant comic engine, performing an array of high-impact musical numbers and calorie-burning comic set pieces.
“It’s not as exhausting as you think. I’m kind of an energetic guy in general, so basically I’m kind of being me with the volume turned up,” he explained.
He had the daunting task of taking over the role that Robin Williams made famous in the movie. But the actor, who said he’s a fan of the movie and of Williams, has put his own stamp on the character. “I would describe the genie as the consummate showman,” said Iglehart. “He’s got to put on a show no matter what he’s doing. There’s a lot of me in that.”
Iglehart was appearing in the 2009 Broadway musical “Memphis” when plans were announced for an out-of-town production of “Aladdin” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, a nonprofit organization that has helped to launch a number of Broadway shows.
The actor won the role, but that was only the beginning of what would become an arduous road to New York for the Disney musical. “In Seattle, I had a lot of Williams-isms in my performance,” said Iglehart, speaking later by phone from his home in northern New Jersey. He said director Casey Nicholaw told him that that “he wanted me as the genie, not me doing Robin.”
For the 1992 movie, songwriters Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman had conceived the genie as a Harlem Renaissance-type bandleader in the mold of Cab Calloway or Fats Waller. But Williams’ improvisations ultimately took the character in a different direction.
“A stage show isn’t going to be as improvisational. It adheres much closer to the written script,” Menken said in a separate interview. So Disney brought back the original conception of the genie, along with a handful of songs not heard in the movie.
By the time the show arrived in Toronto last year, Iglehart said he had more fully embraced the ‘40s flavor of the character. “It took me all of Toronto to get it,” he said.
But more changes were to come. Critics in Toronto panned the show, sending the creative team back to the drawing board.
“There was some crying in my hotel room,” said Chad Beguelin, who wrote the book for the musical. “Then we decided, ‘Look, we have to take this apart and put it back together again.’”
The team cut songs, rewrote songs, restaged several numbers and changed who sang what. One of the biggest changes involved when the genie should make his big entrance.
Initially, the genie first appeared a third of the way through the story for the big number “Friend Like Me,” performed when Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) becomes trapped in the Cave of Wonders. But it was decided to give Iglehart the show’s prologue, “Arabian Nights,” in which the main characters are introduced.
“I used to have 40 minutes to chill out,” said the actor. “So now I have to slice that time up, getting my body ready in a different way. That was the biggest hurdle.”
Other big changes involved Aladdin’s trio of comic sidekicks — Babkak, Omar and Kassim. The characters, who weren’t in the movie, originally served as the musical’s narrators, delivering goofy plot commentary. “One of the big things we learned in Toronto is that it took the air out of the story,” said Beguelin. The characters were kept but rewritten without the narrative asides.
Iglehart said some of the show’s jokes were created collaboratively, with the cast and creative team throwing out ideas and seeing which ones worked the best. He said some parts of the musical weren’t finalized until the opening night on Broadway. He still ad-libs small portions of the show, but now, “most of it is pretty much set in stone.”
“Aladdin” opened in March to warm reviews from New York critics and earned five Tony nominations, including a nod for new musical. The show has been a box-office hit, playing to virtually sold-out houses since beginning on Broadway.
Iglehart credits his parents for his musical theater chops — his father is blaxploitation film veteran James Iglehart and his mother worked as a music teacher. The family resided in the towns of Hayward and Fremont, Calif., among mostly white neighbors.
“There was only one other black family in the cul-de-sac,” he recalled.
The actor lives with his wife, Dawn, in West New York, N.J. The couple met in a school choir group.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but one of the reasons I got into acting was to meet girls,” the former high school athlete said. “I can be in a bus full of sweaty dudes, or I can have girls screaming for me.”
The responsibility of performing “Aladdin” eight times a week means Iglehart has to stay in peak shape. The actor has physical training twice a week and voice lessons once a week.
“I don’t have time to think that it’s hard,” he said. “It has to seem as fluid as possible. The best way for this is to make it look effortless.” He added: “I’ve kind of waited my whole life for this. I have wanted to be a cartoon character since I was a little kid.”
When asked about post-"Aladdin” plans, Iglehart said he would like to create his own one-man show in the mold of Bill Cosby or John Leguizamo. He said he would be open to TV or film offers, but theater will remain a constant: “My heart is on stage.”