Playwright Chad Beguelin talks writing for Aladdin, adapting it for Australia & working with Alan Menken

Aladdin has been drawing massive crowds since it hit the stage at Her Majesty’s in Melbourne. We have given you our opinions here at the Arts on the AU about the performances in Sydney and Melbourne and many interviews with cast and crew of the productions showing in Australia.

Just after the Melbourne production, book writer of the musical and lyric writer for some of the new songs in the production, Chad Beguelin was kind enough to chat with us and tell us what it’s been like to see with his writing work portrayed on stage around the world.

Correct me if I’m wrong about this, but you were contacted to assist with writing the book and assist with lyric writing after you had made a smaller production for schools? 

Well, it’s interesting because originally I was brought in to the Disney offices because they had a list of titles that they wanted to make into scripts that they could licence to schools or to community theatres and so it was never really destined for Broadway.

I looked down the list and I saw Aladdin and I said, “Oh, I love Aladdin. If I could pick one it would be Aladdin.” I wrote a script that was very similar to the movie and it was never intended for Broadway and they sent it to Alan Menken and Alan said, “Oh, I want to meet with Chad so I thought, “Okay… little intimidated”. They took me up to his compound, his beautiful compound and he said, “Look, I think what you’ve done is fine but what I would like is for you to go back and try and fit in as many of the cut Howard Ashman, Alan Menken songs that were left out of the movie as you can.”

Then obviously everything took a radical turn because now I had to figure out how to put new characters in. You know the song Proud of Your Boy was written in the movie when he still had a mother so now she’s not alive in our version but he sings to the heavens to her. There was no Babkak, Omar or Kassim so we had to create that. It suddenly became this puzzle to fit those songs in to make them make sense and so we did a reading of that for the Disney execs and Tom Schumacher and that was the day that Tom Schumacher said, “This changes everything. I’ve had a really great time. We’re going to groom this for Broadway.” It was a real fluke that it took this turn because it never was intended for Broadway. It was a very happy surprise.

When you found out that it was going to head to Broadway and you were surprised by it all, was there a lot of pressure on your shoulders to fine tune it even further?

Oh, yeah. We had at that point Casey Nicholaw wasn’t on the project but I was working on the musical Elf with him and it was funny because I was in the same building going between two rehearsal studios. One it was Christmas and snow drifts and one was desert and Aladdin. I loved Casey and so I kept saying, “What about Case Nicolai?” and of course they loved him so as soon as Casey came forward, the pressure didn’t lesson but I felt like I had somebody that I trusted and that I’d worked with before. He really, really drove the production. He has such an amazing eye for storytelling so there’s a tonne of pressure but you were working with people you trusted.

Have you ever worked on two musicals at the same time before or more? That’s a rare thing I’ve heard.

Musicals take so long. The gestation process is forever so it usually happens that you’re juggling two things but it’s very rare that you’re having two readings at the same week.  It felt like a 1940s movie where I was carrying two scripts and running up and down staircases. “Cut this. Put this in there.” It was exciting. It was an exciting time.

Like many Broadway productions, there’s a huge undertaking of collaboration and I’m assuming it was the same for Aladdin dealing with cast and crew. Can you tell me what it was like to be a writer on Aladdin collaborating with a number of people that you had to collaborate with? Everyone obviously worked well to involve the new songs and be able to learn the new songs and not necessarily derive everything from the film but how did you express the ideas that you’ve just told me, to the cast?

It’s funny because in this group we were lucky that everybody agreed that the best idea won. It didn’t matter who had the idea or who said, “Maybe it’s this,” so it was very collaborative. I think especially, I don’t know if you’ve heard the story of our out of town in Toronto, our …

No, please do tell. I have read a little bit about your time in London.

We first did a satellite production in Seattle which was a very bare bones version of the show and then that got us the green light to go to Broadway. We did our so called out of town in Toronto. We lift the studio in New York and people were crying and applauding and we were all patting each other on the back and we opened in Toronto to disastrous reviews. It was horrible. It was one of the worst days of my life, professionally speaking.

We were still coming into New York but we realised we had to completely rework the show from top to bottom. That meant that everybody was working at 100% the whole time. We wrote new songs, Casey threw stuff out and restaged things, we cut entire scenes. We originally opened with Babkak, Omar and Kassim. We realised we had to get the Genie up front because people were anxious to see him.

At one point in Toronto, we opened with puppet camels. It was such a different show but I think that’s when we all learned because were under so much pressure that we just had to trust each other and listen and really say, “Give me five ideas and let’s figure out which is the best.” It was a very happy surprise to open and do so well on Broadway.

That must have been a challenge in itself to have that kind of reaction [in Toronto] and express to everybody in the crew and cast that you’re doing these changed because of these reasons and in a way there was an element of experimentation.

Definitely.

Was it weird to do something like that especially with something that’s going to Broadway?

It was a very stressful time. There was a lot of tears and vodka. It was weird how we became really closer because of it because we all felt like our necks were on the line. It was just constant work. I remember Casey calling me on Christmas Eve and just giving me more notes and more notes and more notes and I said, “Casey, it’s Christmas Eve. We’ve got to just take a break. We’ve got to have Christmas.” He’s like, “You’re right, you’re right, you’re right.” He’s like, “Just go enjoy Christmas.” The day after Christmas at 9 a.m. my phone rang and he’s like, “I’m back.” It was just… nobody gave up. Everybody kept trying and pushing to make it better

Now that you’ve seen the production, what were your impressions of it being here in Australia and writing it? Am I assuming you rewrote it for the Australian audience a little bit?

No, no. There are definitely … I don’t want to spoil anything but there are definitely some local jokes, references that we put in and switched out from Broadway. I was just struck by how amazingly talented the cast is and I was really blown away of course by Michel James Scott. I’ve known him forever but he doesn’t need a spotlight. He just radiates from inside. He’s so lovable and so hilarious and he took the character and made it his own. I also just love the chemistry between Jasmine and Aladdin because that’s a couple you sit and you want it to work out for them. I thought they just were amazing. All of the comedy that comes from Babkak, Omar, and Kassim and from Jafar and Iago I just thought they were terrific. You never know what you’re going to see when you come to a new production. It was just thrilling.

Is it difficult reworking a writing for different audiences around the world?

It’s interesting. It’s different in each foreign market. I think it harder when it’s a different language. For example when it went up in Japan the original translation was exactly verbatim what it was on Broadway and I went to the first few rehearsals and I was talking to the translators and they’ll translate then they’ll translate it back so you know exactly what they’re saying and I said, “Does this make sense to you?” They sort of very politely said, “No.” I said, “We’ve got to start from scratch then. We’ve got to figure out all the jokes, all the puns on the middle eastern food was … They didn’t have that. They didn’t get that. We had to replace a lot of things to make it make sense. Here, it was much easier because it’s the same language and it’s just reference points that you have to switch.

It’s also fascinating to think about the setting as well and me as a kid when I was growing up I remembered watching Aladdin and seeing this wonderful setting of the Middle East out in this fictional town of Agrabah and I was thinking about writing down some questions today about how you think of the setting when rewriting something like Aladdin as well. How much do you integrate the setting of a place like the Middle East in itself into, how you produce something on stage which gets produced all various other parts of the world which have all manner of different cultural differences? 

Yeah. The great thing to go back to at least for me was always that Agrabah is a fictional place. It is a fairy tale. We’re spinning a tale that is not really based in reality. Hopefully, the relationships between the characters are based in reality. You have free reign if the show is going up in Germany you have free reign to change it because especially for the genie, he is a magical character. In our minds he can see through time, he can see through space so he knows if he makes a joke about something that’s German, he knows that because he’s all powerful as we say. It was at first it seemed daunting but when you realise these are our rules. Genie is modern. He’s been around for a gazillion years and is magical. You get free reign with that.

It sounds like to me that a lot of your writing is focused on character and it sounds like that’s pretty much a structural thing that writers of your ilk have to do as well. Is that fundamental? 

No, I think it’s the same thing that actors do as well. They’re going to say, “What do I want? Who am I, what do I want?” I think that’s how you have to structure any show is you have to figure out what they want and what stands in their way. I think the beautiful song that become our through line, the song Proud of Your Boy became the spine of our story because Aladdin wants to make good but he keeps making these bad decisions and finally when he drops the line, drops the act and becomes his true self, all of his dreams come true. It’s the way to get into a story or I think for a writer, and actor, or designer is to figure out who they are and what they want as characters.

It sounds like the songs are an integral part of Aladdin as well. Again, when I was growing up I was very much into A Whole New World and then the Magic Carpet Ride. Those original songs alongside are very integral part of moving along the plot and they’re key points. With something like Aladdin how much was it important to ensure that these new songs like Proud of Your Boy also took on that role in the musical?

Right. That was the biggest challenge was to make sure that they didn’t just feel shoehorned in. What we did and as a Disney thing to do is we would write the song titles on index cards and we could move them around and say, “If we do this, we accomplish this. If we do this, if we move it here it accomplishes this so where is it more valuable?” It was definitely a process of trying to figure out how does if feel like we’re constantly moving forward and not just stopping for a song?

What do you hope that audiences take away in terms of the new writing and/or the original writing that’s in the play or for you? 

I hope they laugh and cry and have a great time but I hope they also are touched by especially not just the relationship between Jasmine and Aladdin but the relationship between the Genie and Aladdin because I think that takes such an emotional ride and when you see these guys and you see Aladdin make a sacrifice for Genie, that part of the show really touches me because you see somebody learn from their mistakes and do the right thing.

Aladdin is playing at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre until Sunday, October 22nd. You can purchase your tickets here.