Twenty-eight years ago, Jonathan Freeman was cast as the voice of Jafar for Disney’s animated now-classic Aladdin. When Disney Theatrical decided to bring Aladdin to the stage, they once again knocked on Freeman’s door. This month, Freeman celebrated Aladdin’s five-year anniversary on Broadway—another milestone in his Disney villainhood. But, as he reveals in this first-person essay, it turns out being a villain can actually make the most positive of impacts.
When I was growing up, the only thing I ever wished for was to be a Disney villain. I loved everything about them! Crafty, uncaring, spiteful, with a certain cruel beauty that only a young boy growing up in suburban Ohio could appreciate, Disney villains live extravagant lives of great luxury, with wildly complicated wardrobes and exotic pets…who can talk! They always have the best parties and, frankly, all the fun.
So it should not come as a surprise that, back in 1991, when I was asked to create Jafar—The Grand Vizier of Agrabah, one of the greatest Disney villains of all time (villains have no modesty)—for Walt Disney Studios’ new animated feature Aladdin, I could not have been more excited!
I’ll never forget when—early in production—Howard Green, the studio’s press agent, told me: “Jonathan, playing Jafar is going to change your life in more ways than you can possibly imagine.”
How could it not? The whole world knows Disney’s characters and, thanks in large part to the stupendous talent of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, this was the New Golden Age of Animation. My childhood wish had come true!
The film was set to open in the autumn of 1992, and, though I was up for the challenge, nothing could have prepared me to work on Aladdin. There were no cell phones in 1991, no Wi-Fi, and no sophisticated recording studio phone patching. For a year and nine months, I shuttled back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles to work in Studio B on the historic Disney Lot—at the corner of Dopey Drive and Goofy Lane. In the first week of 1991, I was rushed into a recording studio to begin demos for a song for Jafar. (Due to Howard Ashman’s failing health there was a sad sense of urgency in the search for a song for Jafar.) Four wonderful songs (and a reprise) came and were discarded before Jafar finally ended up with a deliciously malicious reprise of “Prince Ali.”
Years after the recording was done and Aladdin had hit cinemas, I was walking down Eighth Avenue with my friend Marilyn Cooper, and we bumped into one of her poker buddies, Jerry Orbach, who had voiced Lumiere in Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast. When I told Jerry which character I had voiced, he echoed a familiar line, “Playing Jafar is going to change your life in more ways than you can possibly imagine!”
It wasn’t until I appeared in Mary Poppins on Broadway in 2010, that I realized just how profound that change would be.
I received a note from Ron Suskind asking if I would call his son, Owen, for his birthday. Owen is on the autism spectrum. A Disney super-fan, he knows the names of every actor who has voiced every Disney character, and Jafar is one of his favorite villains. The Disney-animated movies had been an important factor in his development. He was particularly attracted to Disney sidekicks, the peripheral characters who help the heroes reach their full potential, thereby becoming heroes to Owen.
I had no idea a character I helped create would have such an impact! Owen and I became good friends, and I accepted an invitation to his annual Halloween Party. You have not lived until you have attended a Halloween Party where all the guests know more about you and your career than you yourself do.
Howard and Jerry were right. Twenty years after I first created Jafar, he was changing my life in more ways than I could have imagined.
Today I can say I had a hand in creating a Disney villain. I had a hand in finding his song—trying out five for the film and two for Broadway when I originated the role for the stage. Seven wonderful songs in all, most of which few people have ever heard: Humiliate The Boy (Menken and Ashman); My Time Will Come; that song’s reprise, My Time HAS Come (Menken and Tim Rice); Master of The Lamp, which became Why Me (Menken and Rice); and My Finest Hour (Menken and Rice) were all written for the 1992 film and tossed. The Broadway production briefly reinstated Why Me, for the 2011 pilot production in Seattle. Then came a rehearsed, but never performed, Running The Show (Alan Menken and Chad Beguelin) before the out-of-town tryout in Toronto. Finally, we hit a winner with Diamond In The Rough (Menken and Beguelin) now performed nightly in Aladdin on Broadway.
But more than having the opportunity to immortalize this role and this music, my relationship with Owen has changed my life.
I made a couple of trips to the Disney Club at Owen’s school, The Riverview School, and got to know the students better. Ron Suskind’s book about Owen, Life Animated, became an Oscar-nominated documentary. Getting to know Owen, who is a really delightful and funny guy, has given me the opportunity to know a wonderful community.
Since then, I have participated in an Aladdin project with Broadway Books First Class at PS 347, The American Sign Language School, and have made several wonderful visits to The First Grade Theatre Study at PS 212, a special two-year musical theatre program, to talk about Aladdin. This year, I will once again be the MC for Mi Historia, Mi Corazon, Operation Exodus’ annual benefit featuring young playwrights.
So, my most humble thanks to The Grand Vizier of Agrabah. How astonishing that a fictitious character that I helped to create should have rewarded me with so many new, authentic, and fundamentally human experiences.