BWW Interview: Jonathan Weir Talks All Things Villainous About DISNEY'S ALADDIN at Wharton Center For The Performing Arts!
Disney's Aladdin is flying into East Lansing from December 4th through 15th at the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts. The hit musical, based on the Academy Award-winning animated feature film, has been amazing audiences since the show's Broadway debut back in 2014. It has the music that we all know and love from the film and new songs that add to the Disney magic. "Magical, romantic, surprising, exhilarating and funny," is how Jonathan Weir, who plays Jafar the villain on the tour, described the show. "It's a fantastical story of a young man's adventure to become himself, the friendship he creates with a genie in a lamp, and the adventures and romance it unfolds." Read more of BroadwayWorld Detroit's conversation with Jonathan Weir below to find out why he thinks Disney's Aladdin is special and if Jafar is really all that villainous!
BroadwayWorld Detroit: Can you give our readers a brief background of yourself and your theatre career as an introduction?
Jonathan Weir: I'm a Chicago-based actor. I've lived in Chicago for about 33 years. I moved there after grad school and have been working there ever since. I have done a couple of production contracts: Jersey Boys, Disney's The Lion King, another one that went out for the holidays, and, now, I have been on Disney's Aladdin for 2 ½ years. Married. Three kids. What else do you want to know? [Laughs]
You've been on Aladdin for quite a while...
Yes, I started in 2017 and it's been 2 ½ years at this point. April will be our third-year anniversary.
Did you start out as Jafar?
I did. I originated the role on tour. Jonathan Freeman who originated the voice in the 1992 animated feature, also originated Jafar in the Broadway production. We were the sixth company at that time to open up Aladdin. I originated the role in Chicago and have been running it ever since.
Jafar's the villain, but how do you describe him? Do you think he is completely villainous or do you think he ever has good intentions?
Well, I don't think a villain ever functions thinking they are doing bad things. I think every character, and everybody in the world pretty much, thinks they are doing the best thing possible. I don't ever view him as he is trying to be evil - he just wants what he wants, which is ultimate power and to overcome the Sultan so that he can be in charge. You know it's that thirst for ultimate power that often times in life, and in Disney movies and productions, Scar being one of them, that it leads to their demise. I don't think he is ever out there thinking he is doing the evilest thing he can do. For example, if you are the ingénue, you are not just playing sweet, you are also playing a fully evolved human being and we were encouraged to do that through rehearsals and make it our own.
You mentioned Scar. Now you have played two quite well-known villainous Disney characters. Do you have a soft-spot for either one of them or was one more fun to play?
Ha, yes villainous indeed. No, the one I always enjoy more is the one I'm doing currently. I did The Lion King, the 2nd National Tour of it, for a year as a standby, which basically I was the insurance policy, I wasn't on every night, but I was there to cover both the actors playing Scar and Pumbaa. Then I continued to do that on and off for 14 years: A couple years would go by, then they would call me to go in and sub for a couple weeks. Eventually, I got to do it on Broadway for three different turns. While there are some similarities, they are very different, obviously. Scar is technically an animal and Julie Taymor directed that piece with that in mind in terms of the animal qualities, the dual event of the masks vs. the human actor on stage so there are some differences. The similarities are they both want to overtake the person in charge - in Scar's case, his brother Mufasa and in this case with Jafar, the Sultan. Being second in command, Jafar is the next to step up to power if he can make that happen. In Scar's case, he is the brother of the king, but Simba is the one in charge. There are some obstacles in both their cases to overcome to getting their ultimate goal, which is power. While there are some similarities, there are also some differences, which is fun to explore.
Besides your Disney roles, do you have a favorite role that you have ever played?
I have a lot of favorite roles. I did Twelfth Night and was Malvolio several years ago at Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks. We traveled to twenty-something parks around the city. It was outdoor theatre and was awesome and rewarding. I did a production of A Little Night Music at Writers' Theatre about nine years ago outside of Chicago. I played Fredrik and that was near and dear to my heart. I also did a production at The Goodman Theatre based on a Robero Bolaño novel, 2666, and it was a 5 ½ hour play so that was a gauntlet to run. A challenge as an actor and very rewarding because it was an original adaption by Robert Falls, who is the Artistic Director at the Goodman. So those are three kind of off the top of my head.
Do you remember your introduction to Aladdin?
My introduction to Aladdin was I think having the video or DVD, I don't remember which. I have three kids and they would have been around 4 and 7 when that movie came out and I think it was it. It's an iconic Disney movie and through my kids was my introduction to it.
Like you said, the Disney film version of Aladdin is iconic. How would you describe to someone who is coming in to the theatre expecting to see that on stage?
Other than the obvious that it is live? [Laughs] It's interesting because if you have seen the show you know his best friend isn't a monkey. His best friend, Abu, in the movie is a monkey and in the stage version, it's three friends: Babkak, Kassim, and Omar. But interestingly enough, originally in the animated featured, it was to be the three friends. A lot of the music that they sing in the show was originally written by Alan Menken for the movie, but because of the issue of time in the movie they compressed it into him having a best friend in a monkey. The same with Iago. The difference there in the movie he is a bird and, in our production, he is a human being with references to a bird, but never playing a bird. Those are some differences. The storyline is very, very similar. Some of the character portrayals are done a little differently. They were written a little differently than they were in the animated feature, but a lot of the similarities and a lot of the magic that is in the movie is in the stage version. There's a lot of bling and fireworks and rhinestones and a lot of glitz. The romance that Aladdin and Jasmine share. The carpet flights there. I have people who have seen both and they enjoy equally to the movie that is near and dear to their hearts. I think what is interesting is you are doing live theatre and you are able to transport an audience along with your storyline and kind of let them forget the movie and take in what they are seeing in the moment.
Now I want to about your favorite parts of the show. Do you have a favorite part as Jafar? What about your favorite part in the entire musical? Or maybe it's only one answer...
It's actually two. In terms of in the musical, what I enjoy most there is an opening number called "Arabian Nights" where the entire company comes out on stage even the narrator, who turns out to be the Genie, not to blow a plot point. I like that moment because it's the only time that the entire company is on stage other than curtain call, but I find that exhilarating and satisfying. Then as for playing Jafar, I really like doing my musical number, "Diamond in the Rough" because it's fun to try to trick and coerce and try to seduce Aladdin into getting to do my bidding to go into the cave, so that's always fun. Alan Menken's music and lyrics and the script that Chad Beguelin wrote are great. And sometimes when I make a kid cry or hear a kid cry in the audience, it makes me feel like I did my job. [Laughs]
What do you think makes this Disney's Aladdin special?
A combination of the fact that it's an adult story. It's a romance between a guy who is trying to find his identity and a young woman who is trying to explore the safe confines that her father has provided for her behind these palace walls in this adventure. I think audiences relate to it. I think live theatre itself is really special. I love movies, but I think the human experience of seeing actors live on stage is unique and transitory because you can't freeze frame it or put it on pause because it happens and it's done, we're done with it. The audiences have been over the moon in terms of enthusiasm and excitement because they get swept up in that story and the amount of energy and the really hard-working cast and the ensemble don't stop moving for two hours. I think that energy and the magic that Disney is known for comes across. It's really rewarding to hear audiences come together for 2 ½ hours and lose themselves and enjoy themselves.
Disney's Aladdin will play December 4th through December 15th at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts in East Lansing. For more information and tickets, visit www.whartoncenter.com. VIP Ticket Packages, which include prime seat locations, a commemorative souvenir program and an exclusive merchandise item, are also available.