Anatomy of a Showtune: Exploring the Magic of 'Friend Like Me' from Disney's ALADDIN
When Disney's Aladdin hit theaters in summer of 1992, the tale transported audiences to a whole new world of wonder, romance, and adventure through the fictional streets of Agrabah. Following the titular street rat, Aladdin, from bread thief to Prince Ali, audiences were instantly captivated by the story, the characters, and most notably, the songs.
With a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman much of the music from this childhood classic has become part of the classic canon. And though the a hit ballad, "A Whole New World" typically takes top honors in the hearts of Disney fans, there is one other song in the score that still has toes tapping over twenty years down the line. A song that can transform an orphan into a "the boss, the king, the shah". A song that has "punch, pizzaz, yahoo and how". All you've gotta do is rub that lamp.
Ali Baba had them forty thieves, Scheherazade had a thousand tales, and as we came to find out, Aladdin had the Genie, a master shape shifter, best pal, confidante, and supreme granter of wishes; a mercurial magician, the likes of which the world had never seen before.
When conceiving the script for Aladdin, the Disney animators had only one name in mind for their ultimate sidekick creation: comedian and film star, Robin Williams. Though the Genie was written with only Williams in mind, the studio had yet to secure the star. In order to convince Robin, who at the time was filming the Steven Spielberg Peter Pan adventure, "Hook", the Disney animators enacted a creative solution in order to persuade the star to join their cast.
Using selections from one of his comedy albums, the artists at Disney animated the Genie to the sketches and presented them to Williams. Lead 'Genie' animator, Eric Goldberg, remembers presenting the test animation to Williams, stating:
"I cannot tell you what great joy it gave me to make Robin Williams laugh. I was such a huge fan. I think what probably sold him was the one where he says, "Tonight, let's talk about the serious subject of schizophrenia-No, it doesn't!-Shut up, let him talk!" What I did is animate the Genie growing another head to argue with himself, and Robin just laughed. He could see the potential of what the character could be. I'm sure it wasn't the only factor, but then he signed the dotted line."
After accepting the gig, Disney began working with Williams in four hour recording sessions, with Williams imbuing the character with humor and heart as he riffed endlessly. All in all, it has been said that Williams gave the Disney staff over sixteen hours worth of material to draw from.
But in order to bring Genie to full-life, Williams would have to tackle his introductory number, "Friend Like Me." A frenetic, swinging ode to all things Genie, Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman didn't write the song with Williams in mind, but the actor would leave an indelible mark on the tune for years to come.
"We didn't know who was going to play the genie when we wrote the song." Menken toLD Entertainment Weekly, "We were looking at the character as black, a hipster, and I suggested a Fats Waller, Harlem stride-piano style from the '40s. When Robin Williams was suggested, my first thought was, 'Can he sing like Fats Waller?' Robin learned every note. When we went into the studio, we got exactly the Fats Waller performance we wanted, and then everyone said, 'Okay, but now can we let Robin do his thing?' He was amazing. That trumpet wah-wah-wah was supposed to be from an instrument, and he made it vocal. He took ahold of the creative process, both on that and 'Prince Ali' especially. My God, he went crazy on 'Prince Ali.' He was doing the Thanksgiving Day Parade, Arab-style."
This song was the first complete animated sequence produced for Aladdin and some of the more diligent fans will note slight alterations to some characters and imagery later on in the film. Despite the changes the animators knew that the frantic pace of the scene would easily distract audiences, and so the sequence was left intact.
The song, which became an instant favorite on the strength of its brassy melody and Williams' mercurial performance, went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, ultimately losing both to another song from the film, "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," written by Menken and lyricist, Tim Rice.
Though the song is forever etched in the hearts and minds of all who encounter Williams' lovable blue sidekick, over twenty years later, it was time for the character (and the film) to move into uncharted territory: the Broadway stage.
An avid Genie fan since the film's release, the actor won the role after a lengthy audition process, but with such big shoes to fill, the audition was only the beginning of James' journey with the Genie.
"In Seattle, I had a lot of Williams-isms in my performance," said Iglehart, but director, Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw was looking for a unique take on the iconic character. "He wanted me as the genie, not me doing Robin."said the actor.
Returning to the author's initial intention of the Genie taking on a Harlem Renaissance bandleader- type persona, Iglehart and the production team began to dream up their new Genie. Taking on the inspiration of great stage personalities as Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, they began to work with the material, tailoring it to Inglehart's strengths as a performer.
"We went back to the late great lyricist Howard Ashman's original vision. He had this vision of Cab Calloway playing the part of a band leader who was a funny host who could step up behind any microphone and do what he needs to do. And once we got that, I knew I could go in that direction as far as the Genie was concerned. Then they told me just to bring my own brand of silliness to it. A lot of the stuff I do on stage are things I've thought about doing in real life, which is great." Inglehart said.
With all the new changes to the Genie, it was then up to the creative team to tinker with the character's biggest number. Nicholaw, well- known for his energetic stagings of other hit musicals, transformed what once was a character song into a full-blown showstopper. Taking his cue from the song's natural exuberance, Nicholaw fleshed out the number extending it to nearly eight minutes of music, magic, and dance, with Iglehart leading the way through scatting, samba, line-dance, tapping, and a few covers of some well-known Disney classics.
In the spring of 2014, Aladdin landed on Broadway, with Iglehart winning ecstatic reviews for his take on the beloved character. Tony Voters agreed, and in June of that year, James took home the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, delivering a victory praise dance on the stage of Radio City Music Hall and bringing the house down with the number later on in the telecast.
Later that summer, the legacy of Genie took a sad blow as the world mourned the shocking and untimely death of Robin Williams. Following the next evening's performance, Iglehart led a sold-out crowd through a sing-a-long version of "Friend Like Me" to honor Williams' life, legacy, and spirit of friendship and laughter which lives on through the Genie eight times a week on Broadway.
In the years since its release, the song has been covered by countless artists and has been translated into nearly forty languages. The most recent artist to leave his mark on the tune is the R&B superstar, Ne-Yo, whose slinky jazz and R&B-infused cover of the song was released on the compilation album, "We Love Disney."
The cast of the Broadway show has touted the tune all over, including appearances at the White House and the floor of The New York Stock Exchange, while subsequent casts of the show have taken the spirit of the Genie all over the world, with productions in Tokyo, Hamburg, London's West End, and Australia.
Additionally, a live-action remake of the film is currently in the works and Disney fans are waiting with baited breath to see what film and hip hop superstar, Will Smith, will bring to the role.
As the Disney legacy reaches new generations, children and adults from all over the world continue to befriend the lovable blue Genie and the song that introduced his magic to the world. With its brassy hook and bawdy antics, the song is the ultimate key to Aladdin's journey from zero to hero. Bringing all the magic that turns a street rat into Prince Ali, Al's best pal sends our hero and audiences on the adventure of a lifetime, and does so with a showstopping anthem that leaves us wishing we had a friend like him. Can your friends do that? I didn't think so.