The mood at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, in South Mumbai was frenzied on a Wednesday morning in early April. Amidst a clutch of dancers doing high-powered warm-ups, five actors stood on a staircase at the venue, chatting, while occasionally breaking into the song A Whole New World.
These actors will step into the lead parts in Aladdin, Disney’s second Indian Broadway-style musical, when it opens in Mumbai on April 20. Based on the 1992 animated film of the same name, Aladdin, the musical, premiered in Seattle in 2011, and was given music by Alan Menken. Lyrics were given by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin.
In India the musical, which will later travel to Delhi and Hyderabad, has a local cast. The costumes, sense of humour and the dance are all infused with an Indian flavour, but the essence of the story remains true to the original, said Shruti Sharma, its director. “The show is already running in five other countries all over the world,” she said. “It has been a global success. In all other places, it has been a replica. But what we have done is all of the creative design has been moulded in a way that it is slightly more localised. We have worked it out in a way that is more relevant to the Indian creatives we are aware of.”
Dance, which has a particular resonance for Indian audiences, will be tailored for the local audience with the help of different forms. The music for the show was a mix of jazz with a bit of Arabian influences, the choreographers of the show noted. Varied dance forms including belly dancing, jazz, ballroom, African and hip-hop have been infused into the musical.
Based on the famous folktale from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin follows the story of a street urchin who is granted three wishes by a genie from a magic lamp. The tale has been a source for adaptation since at least the 18th century, though it really carved a place for itself in popular culture after the 1992 film. A live-action version directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud is set to hit theatres in 2019.
When Aladdin the musical was staged on Broadway in 2014, The New York Times’ theatre critic wrote that it “defied my dour expectations. As directed and choreographed...by Casey Nicholaw, and adapted by the book writer Chad Beguelin, Aladdin has an infectious and only mildly syrupy spirit”.
The creative design for the musical in India began in September, with the hunt for the lead cast. Over 6,000 people from across India were put through elimination rounds. Rehearsals have been on full swing since early January.
Kira Narayanan, a theatre enthusiast from Chennai will be playing Jasmine, the lead female role. “People are going to come from far and wide and are going to see us play and have fun on stage and be these fantastical characters,” Narayanan said. “The animated film has done such a beautiful job of drawing all the characters. They are so expressive. Jasmine was no different. She was someone I saw as a young person and thought wouldn’t it be nice [to play her].”
While Narayanan was picked based on her showreel and tape, much of the other cast were called to audition and take part in chemistry tests and workshops. Hindi film and voice actor Mantra plays Genie, Taaruk Raina and Siddharth Menon play Aladdin, and Vikrant Chaturvedi and Roshan Abbas play the evil wizard Jafar.
The makers decided to cast two Aladdins and two Jafars in the musical due to logistical reasons. “It is nothing less than a dream come true,” Siddharth Menon said. Menon remembered watching the film as a child and drawing from the character: “I used to pretend to be him [Aladdin] in my living room. So when this happens, and you are no longer in your living room and on stage and playing Aladdin, you pinch yourself.”
Sharma explained that her criterion for picking the cast was simple – the actors needed to resonate with the characters in Aladdin’s universe. “The next step was to identify the performer who would do justice to that character,” Sharma said. “For example, Taaruk muddled up his audition lines, but charmed his way through. And that is the kind of thinking on his feet that made us believe that he would be that charming boy to win over everyone’s hearts. There you have an Aladdin. With Kira, it was just the person that she is. She is extremely straightforward and has a voice of her own. And she has a beautiful singing voice on top of all of that.”
Sharma has previously assisted Vikrant Pawar, head of Live Entertainment and Local Content Studio at Disney India, on the staging of Beauty and the Beast, which helped her understand the form better. “It also helped because both has musicals by Alan Menken,” she said. “Just understanding his writing to be able to deliver it better was one of the things that I learnt. I had gone through that process while doing Beauty and learnt how it seamlessly flows from one into the other and a scene going seamlessly into a song and how to do justice to that.”
Musicals are often remembered for their opulence, and this is where the costume details come into play. It was important to stay authentic to the world of Agrabah and Aladdin, according to Gaviin Miguel, the show’s costume head. “From choosing the right kind of fabric, to sourcing it, bringing out the best colour palettes and using the most suitable accessories are part of the entire process,” he said. “Disney is known for creating looks for each of their characters which are very iconic. Most of these looks are embedded in our minds, which is why we didn’t want to steer away from the original.”
But he suggested that the team had played around with Genie’s costume to give it a unique touch, but was careful not to reveal anything more. Mantra, who plays Genie, agreed with him.
“I have been an old Disney patron as I have been working for them as a writer,” Mantra said. “I translated many English films into Hindi and dubbed for many characters. I was in the Disney office, took a shot [at it] and Aladdin happened. I would say playing Genie is the highest point of my career.”