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West New York resident to play the Genie in new 'Aladdin' musical

  • March 23, 2014

By Robert Feldberg

Geek is the last word you'd use to describe James Monroe Iglehart, who is big, bold and very funny.

It's a recurring label he uses, though, in talking about himself. "I'm a Disney geek," he explained the other day in Disney's New York office. "I go to Disneyland every year. The first movie I saw was 'The Jungle Book.' My favorite character is the Genie [from 'Aladdin']."

So, when he heard several years ago that Disney was casting the role of the Genie for its stage adaptation of "Aladdin," he became upset. (The show begins previews Wednesday for a March 20 opening at the New Amsterdam Theatre.)

"They were auditioning every black guy in New York except for me," Iglehart said in a tone of amused outrage. "And then, finally, my agent called and said, 'You can go in too.' "

Rather than simply work from the script, as the other aspirants were doing, he decided to add in his own comic material.

"I wasn't even aware who I was auditioning for; I don't know who anybody is," said the 39-year-old actor, who lives in West New York. ("It's nice and quiet, and I have a great view of Manhattan.")

One of those judging his work was composer Alan Menken. Earlier that year, Iglehart, whose Broadway credits include "Memphis" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," had auditioned for another Menken show, "Sister Act."

"That was the worst audition I've ever given," he recalled. "I was awful."

But Menken obviously didn't hold the earlier foul-up against him, because Iglehart got the job.

Actually doing the show on Broadway, though, would take almost three more years.

Disney, which still has a luminous name to protect 91 years after Walt Disney opened his first studio, takes its time when it decides to bring one of its valuable animated-film properties to the stage. (The hit 1992 "Aladdin" movie had a worldwide gross of more than a half-billion dollars.)

So, after making its debut in Seattle in 2011, the show was taken back to the shop, reexamined, tinkered with and given several more showings before getting the green light from Disney executives for Broadway.

While the Menken-Howard Ashman-Tim Rice songs from the film, along with others that hadn't made the final cut, are being used, the story was revised. Book writer Chad Beguelin went back to what was said to be the original vision of Ashman, who conceived the film. (Ashman died in 1991, before the movie was made.)

His idea was for the "Arabian Nights" story of a poor young man who's granted three wishes by a genie to be presented as a kind of freewheeling Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" movie.

One of the key changes is in the personality of the Genie, who was famously voiced in the film by Robin Williams, essentially doing a Robin Williams routine.

For Iglehart, a fan, the path to take was clear.

"I was going to do an homage to Robin Williams."

But that wasn't what director Casey Nicholaw wanted.

"Casey came to me and said, 'It's your part; you create the role.' They wanted me to do a Fats Waller, Cab Calloway kind of character, someone working at the Cotton Club. It was kind of scary to re-create that role, but it gave me a chance to really be funny."

The road to Broadway began for Iglehart in Hayward, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay area, where he grew up.

He said he knew he wanted to perform from the time he was 4 years old and singing in the church choir.

"I heard applause, and I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' I loved singing. You know how your father might tell you, 'If you don't do your homework, you can't go out and play.' My father told me, 'If you don't do your homework, you can't sing.' "

He met his future wife in high school. "When I told her I wanted to be in show business, she said, 'One of us has to get a real job to support us.' " She became a molecular biologist.

She's still practical. Iglehart said she won't pull up stakes in California and move to West New York, rather than just visit, unless "Aladdin" is a hit, and they can depend on a steady income for awhile.

After high school, he studied theater at California State University Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), and after graduating hit the road in a national tour of "Show Boat," beginning the long and varied road to Broadway.

One of the things he did was perform in a theme amusement park.

"I'd go to those shows, and the singing group usually had one black guy, and I'd watch him. And then I became him."

With a shake of his head, and a huge laugh, he added, "And what did they have me sing? Barry Manilow songs."


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