After an astonishing 13-year run, the “Aladdin” musical at Disney California Adventure will come to an end on Jan. 10 after entertaining 13 million people during 14,000 performances.
Over the years, I probably saw “Aladdin” a dozen times in the Hyperion Theater, and I always found the 40-minute production to be familiar yet refreshing — thanks in large part to the Genie’s constantly updated pop culture-skewering jokes. The production quality was always top-notch — from the aerial stunts and clever puppetry to the elaborate props and beautiful costumes. And the 100-plus performers in the constantly revolving cast never lost enthusiasm for the show throughout its tremendous run.
To this day, “Aladdin” remains my favorite attraction at California Adventure, and I’ll be sad to see it go. To me, it was always kind of amazing that a Broadway-caliber show — albeit a shortened one — was included in the price of admission to Disney California Adventure. The show was always much more than you would have expected from a theme park, where no show can ever run more than 25 minutes. And for a lot of kids, it was their first exposure to Broadway theater.
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Based on the 1992 Disney animated film, the musical retells the Arabian folk tale “One Thousand and One Nights,” which follows street rat Aladdin, who falls in love with the beautiful princess Jasmine with the help of the Genie and his magical lamp.
Through the years, “Aladdin” has withstood rumored and even announced closures and recovered after a frightening flying carpet malfunction that left two performers dangling upside down above the audience. But the popular show has kept chugging along, with versions of the show created for the Disney Cruise Line and Broadway.
A new “Frozen” musical is set to replace “Aladdin” next summer in the Hyperion Theater.
Here’s an edited Q&A I had with Shelby Jiggetts-Tivony, who served as creative director for “Aladdin” during much of the run:
What kind of emotions are you feeling as “Aladdin” comes to the end of its run?
Because I come from legit theater, where shows don’t ever get runs like this, I am kind of humbled, amazed and just really awestruck at how long it’s lasted. I think because my roots are in theater, where in nonprofit theater, you maybe get to run a show for six or eight weeks if you’re lucky, it’s amazing to me that it has become such a long-running show.
I find myself always surprised by the Genie. There are times when you never know what he is going to say. And I love the opportunity to approach something that I know really well and always be surprised by it.
And I love the song “To Be Free” and that it’s such a unique contribution to our show and it’s not something that you’ll find in the film.
What were the biggest challenges the production faced during the 13-year run?
Obviously it’s a technologically sophisticated show. There’s always something that doesn’t work, and the show must go on. I think there’s a certain resilience to a show like this because it does perform several times a day, 365 days a year.
It’s live theater: Something happens onstage, somebody drops something, somebody forgets a line. That’s what makes theater matter. There’s an immediacy to what you’re experiencing. And we have certainly, for 13 years, lived through the immediacy of what it is to produce live theater.
It’s been consistently the same show since we opened it. If you think about a long-running Broadway show like “Les Misérables” or “Phantom of the Opera,” once that show is open, they are what they are. So this is no different from that.
How long did you expect the show to run when it first opened?
I think the hope was that it would run for at least five years. One reason we picked a beloved Disney story like “Aladdin” was the hope that it would be something that would really resonate with the guests and speak to the guests.
Is there any reason why “Aladdin” couldn’t run for another 13 years?
There’s no reason in terms of the infrastructure and mechanics of the show. We have had a wonderful and loyal following, and I think it’s just time to really thrill and delight people with something new.
I think “Aladdin” is a great story. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a love story. It’s a buddy story.
The Genie keeps it fresh and relevant and timely. It just doesn’t feel stale. You have these opportunities to rediscover it.
And it’s beautifully done and beautifully performed. The cast is wonderful, and the crew maintains the high integrity of the show.
Do you regularly freshen the Genie’s jokes, or is his material mostly ad-libbed?
When we wrote the script, we wrote in places for ad-libs. Obviously, in the film, it was Robin Williams who brought that character to life, and he did ad-lib some of his stuff. Our Genies have some latitude. Obviously, they have some guardrails, things that they shouldn’t do.
There are a couple actors who perform that role, and they share material. One of my favorite bits was a riff on the Sultan: “If your last name was Pepper Shaker you’d be Sultan Pepper Shaker.” One of the Genies did it, and the other ones tried it. And before you knew it, it was a keeper. It kind of went viral among the Genies. Now, it’s so much a piece of the show that when we created “Aladdin” for the Disney Cruise Line, we kept that bit in the script because it was just so funny.
In the early days, we deliberately looked for comedians, stand-up comics and sketch comedy performers to play the Genie — people who were able to improv and very much be in the moment, but could be good enough actors, singers and dancers to do the other things that the Genie needs to do in the course of the show.
Because of the longevity of this show, the ensemble is really deeply bonded. I think that camaraderie is really something that comes through. That’s something I’ll personally miss the most.
There’s nothing like watching an ensemble or company of people who just work so seamlessly together because they’ve just jelled and bonded. The chemistry between the Genie and the Sultan is something I never could have anticipated being so good. And it is because they had a chance to work together over such a long period of time.
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