BWW Interview: Zach Bencal on Teaching Authenticity with ALADDIN
The national tour of Aladdin is coming to the Hippodrome as part of its Broadway Series in November, and it's certainly a performance you do not want to miss. With 337 costumes, 111 moving lights, and 38 tons of scenery, lighting, and effects suspended from the grid, it's no wonder that it takes 75 people to deliver the spectacle of this show on tour.
To give insight on what it takes to be in a show of this caliber, BroadwayWorld sat down with Zach Bencal, who has been in over 1000 performances of Aladdin as Babkak, one of the street urchin's friends.
What was your process of getting booked for the Aladdin tour?
The audition process was crazy. It was about a month-long audition process with six rounds of callbacks. The funny story about my experience with Aladdin is I actually didn't even originally audition for it. I auditioned for a different show that was on Broadway at the time and I didn't end up getting it but I made it to the final rounds of callbacks for that. And then from that, they brought me in.
At the final callbacks, they brought in all the guys that were up for the three friends. The director had all of our headshots spread out on the floor; he was mixing and matching different combinations of people, and we actually all watched each other do the scenes in front of him.
So, we auditioned in front of him, our competition, and a table of 30 people from the Disney creative team. It was a serious process, but there was a lot of camaraderie and I remember when we were leaving seeing people exchange information, saying, "if I don't get it, I hope you get it." It was definitely supportive, which I thought was so cool. I remember being so affected by that; I thought it was just a very cool way for everybody to be.
Once you got the call that you were cast as Babkak how did you prepare for the role?
We actually had six months from the time I found out; I found out in late September early October that I got it and we didn't start rehearsal until the end of February. So, I had a lot of time to prepare and had a whole other gig in the meantime.
I'm the "funny food friend" in the show, meaning I make food jokes the whole time. I knew it was going to be really physical, so I was working out a lot and taking voice lessons; overall just making sure I was on my A-game. Doing as much homework as I could, getting to know the book, getting my body ready. For me, that was the big thing because I knew it was going to be super physical.
How do you maintain your health so that you're still in good shape for all the shows?
I think it's important to be honest with yourself about your physical health and vocal health. I try to get my vocal cords scoped every couple of months to make sure everything is healthy. I have specific warm-ups that I've worked on with different voice teachers and different vocal therapists. I also try to go to the gym at least four times a week.
And I try to do something physical before the show. Even if it's only for like a half an hour to get my mind and my body pumping. Warming up and making sure you're stretching for every show is essential; for this show you can't do this cold or else you'll end up damaging something. Also eating right and getting a lot of sleep is so important. All those kinds of things make such a difference.
We have found an awesome groove and they're both super supportive guys who are so genuine and funny; we literally crack up nonstop. Colt especially will crack me up on stage. We kind of know each other's senses of humor by now.
To me, it helps with the magic of what these three friends bring to this show. We essentially are the only new element that people aren't familiar with, which is funny because Babkak, Omar, and Kassim were actually written for the movie. So, the material that we sing in the show were written 20 years ago; the lyrics are by Howard Ashman when the Aladdin story was first developed. In the original 1001 Arabian Nights, Aladdin has these friends so these guys were created a while ago but everyone will be expecting Abu from the movie.
I also just feel super comfortable with these guys; these three personalities have to have a lot of camaraderie and have to be on the goofier side, so to be close with these guys on stage and offstage is essential. It's the key to the success of these three characters and people getting on board with us right from the beginning. So, I feel fortunate that I'm with these two guys that make me laugh inside and out. It's been great. I'm just super lucky to be able to do the show with those guys.
I've been with the tour since it opened in April 2017. So I've seen a lot of different incarnations of characters and we've had a lot of comings and goings and costumes and whatnot. But every single person that I've met through this experience has been so awesome and has worked so incredibly hard at their job. I've made so many lifelong friends and everybody just shows up every day and is grateful for what we're doing. Everyone is excited to tell the story we all know so well.
It's just a really happy place to work. Even if you're having a bad day you show up and everybody is so excited to be there and working really hard. And then the fact that we get to sing Disney music and make music that we all grew up with. So even two and half years later, I still have a pinch-me moment every day.
After doing the show two and a half years how do you keep it fresh?
I find that it's a combination because while we're doing the same show and we're essentially saying the same things so many other factors that change come into play. For example, the audience is such a massive part of the success of this show; it's a living breathing thing. So whatever the energy of the audience is giving, that also comes into play.
I feel that's kind of the secret sauce. Finding the group of actors that remain present and that will throw you different things, while obviously playing within the confines of the show. But that's what I find to be so much fun; we are the kind of performers that will throw something out there and play back and forth. We play off each other really well so we try to keep each other on our toes. Those little things make great actors: having said certain lines thousands of times but those small little nuanced changes to keep it all super fresh.
I'm also very fortunate with the way that my character is written. I will totally work off whatever mood I'm in that day and find little things to play with. And luckily, I have that luxury because my character is dry and sarcastic so that can manifest itself in many different ways. I think I may be one of the only people in the show that can go with that liberty; that's what really keeps me going. I mean with characters such as Aladdin and Jasmine there's a structure and how people expect them to act. Because of the nature of what Babkak is, I can totally play based on what I'm given on stage and what I'm feeling that day.
How is this role the same or different from who you are in real life?
Babkak and I are basically one and the same. It's kind of funny because that's what my parents said when they saw the show. I'm very lucky and I feel like I've been able to do this show for as long as I have because I do really connect with the role.
I also feel really lucky with all the vocal stuff I get to do in the show. I'm really utilizing a lot of my range and that's how I got into theater. Coming from a musical family, singing had always been my main thing. But now that I've been doing shows forever I have such a love for acting too so to be able to combine my two favorite things in a role that really showcases my strengths and my personality, I just couldn't be luckier. I basically get to go on stage and be myself every day a little bit.
What's your favorite moment in the show that you're involved in?
The big song that Omar, Kassim, and I get to sing and act to is called High Adventure. And that was one of the original songs that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote way back; you can actually hear the original demo with Howard Ashman singing it. It's this epic scene in Act 2 where we go storm the palace to rescue Aladdin and there's this epic sword fight scene that's actually the first time ever in musical theater history that there's been a full sword fight during a musical theater number. And we used real metal swords. So we have a fight call before every show to practice the three of us fighting all the men in the ensemble. Luckily, we've never had an injured cast member in over a thousand shows. No one's ever gotten hurt because we handle it with such care, you know? Like I said we do fight call every day.
So that's my favorite moment in the show for sure because that's when I get to sing the most and it's funny and it's so dramatic in and of itself. It's an awesome song that gets stuck in your head with all these amazing elements to it. The way Casey Nicholaw (original Aladdin Director and Choreographer) crafted that song is that it's got a little something for everybody and it's electric every single day. It's so fun and the orchestrations are epic.
What about a moment you're not directly involved in, where you watch your colleagues and think it's so good?
In Friend Like Me, people are on their feet by the end of the number. I think it's one of the greatest musical theater numbers that I've seen in the past decade, it's such an epic number. So I definitely am a little sad that I'm not in that one. But it's so fun to watch and everybody comes offstage sweating. It's electric every single night and you hear such a great reaction from the audience.
Sometimes I'll watch A Whole New World from the wings and get choked up. It's just so beautiful and so magical. The tricks that they use to achieve the carpet is amazing. It's unbelievable: the lighting is so beautiful, and the orchestrations are gorgeous. I just think to myself that I can't believe this is a part of my job.
What is the most rewarding thing being a part of this tour?
I love meeting so many fans at this stage doors after each show. I also do a lot of talkbacks and workshops with different students. I grew up doing theater from a young age, so I was always in classes and always looked up to different actors that were older than me. And so, to be able to connect with kids that see the show is very rewarding, especially since for a lot of them this was their first show. You get little girls dressed up like Jasmine and now that because Disney released Aladdin Jr. so many kids will tell me they're playing Babkak at their school. It truly warms my heart and I feel like the luckiest person ever. I've had incredible teachers my whole entire life. So to see how I'm inspiring these kids to want to go into theater is really special.
I love that this show is crafted so there really is something for everybody. The thing that always surprises me is that it doesn't really matter if you're young or old. The show has got something for everybody. It's good for dates, it's romantic, it's funny, it's light, it's classic, it's spectacle. It's really got everything to it. It's everything and that's great.
What's been challenging about being on tour?
In the same vein as the comings and goings of cast and crew, I've met the most amazing people, but I've also had to say goodbye to some amazing friends that have come through this process. And I've been away from my friends and family for so long now. Of course, I've done little breaks and vacations here and there but for the majority of the time I'm not where I grew up. So in general, being away from friends and family and not being able to just pop home has been hard.
What excites you about coming to Maryland?
One of my really great friends went to MICA and she loves it, so I've already heard a lot about Baltimore. I have my list of restaurants ready and she's bringing together her list so I'm excited to see her. I'm also really excited to get the vibe of the city. I love eclectic cities; when cities have a history and a heart. I'm also a foodie through and through. So anytime I hear that we're going to a city that has amazing restaurants I can't wait.
What do you want audiences in Baltimore to walk away with seeing this show? What should be their key takeaway?
You see Aladdin changed his life and he's shaking people out in the process. He's not staying true to himself and it's not until he remains true to himself that he has success. And then we get our happy ending. So I feel like the big message of the show that's a good reminder for anybody at any age is you know what you need to be. You need to be unapologetically you and be a good person. And ultimately if you're being a good person and you're doing it 100 percent authentically and not changing for anybody else then good things will come.
Aladdin is playing November 13 through December 1 at Hippodrome Theatre, 12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore MD 21201. Tickets available at https://www.aladdinthemusical.com/tour/baltimore-md.