Disney on Broadway’s Aladdin has exploded onto the scene this year. It seems the real star of the show is the genie, played by James Monroe Iglehart. He has now won the Tony award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical and the Drama Desk award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. The burning question audiences wanted to know before each performance was how they would replace Robin Williams in the role of the comic genie.
Some critics began to lose faith in Disney on Broadway after The Little Mermaid flopped in 2008. Aladdin has been in the works for years now. Iglehart originally auditioned for his role back in 2011. Many were skeptical about taking it from the film to the stage. The show has been the breakout hit of the summer, earning several nominations for best musical, choreography and others, but only Iglehart has managed to take home the prize.
Iglehart is no stranger to Broadway, making headlines with his original role as “Moves” in the musical Memphis. As a fan of the original 1992 film he believed his chance at playing the genie as a replacement to Williams was slim to none. He was the first to audition with his own changes to the original script, and it was his unique take on the character that ultimately put him the spotlight. Disney maintained the references to pop culture, but allowed Iglehart the freedom to change how he handled the role.
In an interview with Show People, critic Paul Wontorek sums up the minds of audiences and other critics, saying, “I was really nervous because Robin Williams in the movie, kind of was the movie, in a lot of ways.” Many feared that Williams’ over the top attitude and hilarious impressions would be impossible to duplicate, and any attempts to copy him would be rejected. Iglehart agreed, explaining, “He’s Robin Williams. You don’t try to do what he does.”
Instead, he worked to recreate the late Howard Ashman’s original concept of the character before Williams took over. Aladdin was the last film that lyricist Howard Ashman worked on before his death in 1991.
Iglehart explained that Ashman originally saw the character as more of a “Fat’s Waller type of person,” and the image inspired him to put his own spin of the character. The genie is now from Compton and at one point sports a Zoot Suit during the iconic number Prince Ali.
Overall Iglehart has won over critics and audiences because he did not try to become Robin Williams, and instead redefined the character. Never Had a Friend Like Me, made famous by Williams, now inspires a mid-show standing ovation from Broadway-goers. It speaks to the talent and uniqueness of Iglehart that he has been able to accomplish what many have considered impossible.
Though Robin Williams will always remain the original genie, there is certainly room for James Monroe Iglehart to make his mark as a replacement. Over 20 years later audiences and critics have been open to the changes and breath of life Iglehart has brought to the character of the genie. The simple answer to the question, “How does a theater replace Robin Williams” is that they do not. They make the character their own.
By Kaylynne Spauls