By Michael Lassell
March 21 2017
Deluxe hardcover with 192 illustrated and photograph-heavy pages
It’s always hard to choose a favorite, of course, and even though I can safely pinpoint my number one film as Superman: The Movie, my love of all things Disney has always been greater in a general sense. But how to pick a specific “favorite” amongst not only the huge number of feature pictures in the Studio’s library, but the cream of the crop that do nothing less than rank alongside the greatest films ever made, animated or otherwise!? It’s not an easy task, and even splitting selections up to the thirty year Walt-era of 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to 1967’s The Jungke Book and the now fifty year period from then until present day doesn’t really make things any easier!
Sorting the many titles into decades or even general periods in the Studio’s history does a lot to narrow things down, making it easier to name Pinocchio as the pinnacle of the Golden Age…and Aladdin as the most entertaining of the 1990s Renaissance. Yes, sir – Aladdin. Oh, sure, The Little Mermaid bounced the Studio back from a decade in the dark with a traditional fairytale musical that had been the cornerstone of Walt’s operation back in the day, and the natural continuation of that line resulted in a Best Picture nomination for Beauty And The Beast and the highest grossing animated feature of the time, The Lion King, not to mention experimentation in stop-motion (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and computer graphics (Toy Story) that took Disney even further to infinity and beyond.
I could even wax lyrical about the fantastic depths of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame or the film largely seen as rounding out this decade-long perch at the top, 1999’s Tarzan (although I would argue that was actually the underrated and brave Fantasia 2000, which harkened back to Walt’s heyday in the most obvious fashion).
However, for me, Aladdin has always been the film that I usually end up revisiting the most from this timeframe, mostly because it’s just a rip-roaring slice of pure adventure and knockabout comedy with some frankly terrific tunes, gorgeous styling and the Studio at the height of their creative powers, just on the cusp of bringing everything the artists had learned from the old guard into a confident next generation of storytellers with amazing new digital tools at their disposal. In fact, it’s interesting that Aladdin is getting a lot of attention currently – by way of the original film’s fairly recent debut on Blu-ray, the stage musical adaptation and word of a Guy Ritchie live-action remake along this year’s Beauty And The Beast lines – just as its directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, are enjoying renewed success thanks to their CGI feature debut, the beautiful, emotional, but no less amusing Moana.
And now author Michael Lassell and Disney Editions bring about a new look at the original film and the veritable cave of wonders it has opened up in their lavishly bound new tome, the rather unwieldy titled The Road To Broadway And Beyond: Disney’s Aladdin – A Whole New World, a last minute publicity alteration to the title as it appears on the book’s spine and within its pages, the slightly more pleasing Disney’s Aladdin: A Whole New World – The Road To Broadway And Beyond.
Whatever the reasons for the change, it’s the same book inside, centering its focus on the current stage smash as some of Lassell’s previous works on Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid and Tarzan have done instead of being a comparison to the animated film – we’ll need to wait for Ritchie’s movie before we get as similar a volume as has documented the likes of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Beauty And The Beast.
The Road To Broadway And Beyond, as its title suggests, looks primarily at the original inception of Aladdin as a show bound for the Great White Way, taking its cue from Musker & Clements’ 1992 blockbuster – the highest grosser of its year – though not becoming a slave to it, a method that saw huge creative, critical and commercial returns on Disney’s previous box-office behemoth turned stage sensation The Lion King.
Lavishly illustrated with copious amounts of production photography from the original Broadway cast through to the recent London West End opening and any number of international variations – this book arriving just as a North American tour gets underway – as well as a generous number of behind the scenes images, character portraits and a most welcome sampling of concept drawings, it really is the spectacular design and final look of the show’s sets and costuming that gets the most page space, and suitably impressive it all is too.
Thankfully, the text matches up, presented in an interesting fashion that doesn’t exactly adhere to a chronological narration, but instead speaking to various members of the production’s creative crew, either by way of first person testimony or in an interview format. Even though we don’t strictly follow the “nuts and bolts” of assembling the production from scratch to opening night, there’s still something of a linear approach that retains the overall processes involved to the degree of being able to track the genesis of the show from the original film through to the international productions, right from the first chapter on Bob Crowley’s scene designs to global casting challenges. It’s a very nice approach that again doesn’t feel laborious to read, since the subject is always changing, but in the book’s three main headings (covering design, the actual staging, and international versions) we get a terrific grounding and understanding of everything involved.
The opening chapter, Arabian Nights, really does delve into the design aspects, from the sets, costumes, hair and makeup, to the lighting, sound and special effects, and each of the eight department heads offering up their experiences are as fascinating as they are interesting.
Seeing the model and final rendering for the Cave Of Wonders is enough to get one to book a ticket for the show in itself, and that’s without seeing the magic carpet in action, an illusion that gets its own fair share of page space! But again, as great as the images are, it’s the text that often offers more substance, continually providing a certain high level of insight that really explains the thought processes at play and the understanding of these craftspeople and the project they are bringing to life – there’s a reason these guys are working at the top of their respective games on something as big a ticket as Disney’s Aladdin!
Most interesting is how the show develops and changes between its origins as a read-through (the idea originally came from schools wanting to stage their own productions), Seattle and Toronto tryouts, and the final Broadway incarnation, as well as further changes once the production had been running for a length of time and additional tweaks to the international runs (such as the Cave in the Japanese edition being decorated in gold leaf!).
The second chapter, A Diamond In The Rough, brings out the big hitters: the Schumachers, Menkens, Ashmans and Rices most associated with the original film and its stage translation, explaining how Menken especially was able to return to more of the feel he and Ashman had originally envisioned for the film while it was in development, meaning the return of eventually deleted characters such as Aladdin’s pals, Babkak, Omar and Kissim, and songs such as the emotional Proud Of Your Boy and the comic Call Me A Princess.
Schumacher himself has the unique perspective of having been involved on the original film (as one of his earliest projects working at Disney Animation) and now as the head of Disney Theatrical, overseeing the Broadway production, and his recollections are most insightful, really providing, along with Menken and Rice, the backbone of the film’s journey to stage. Never initially intended to become a stage blockbuster – I can’t believe the thinking at the time was basically “who cares about Aladdin?” – the adaptation went through several incarnations, with Menken largely taking the lead in bringing back the original tone and feel that had been removed after the infamous “Black Friday” test screening of the animated film in which Jeffrey Katzenberg effectively killed off many of the characters and songs and turning the film into “Aladdin meets Indiana Jones”, as Menken puts it.
The writing of new songs, supplanted by lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who wrote the Disneyland stage version of the film and who additionally provides the new stage show’s book, is also touched upon, slightly to the detriment of Rice, who never quite seems to ever get the credit he’s deserved on this project particularly and who again goes a little short again here in just a two page overview that focuses mostly on his work for the film.
If being really picky, there are a handful of other oversights, too: a resume for Menken doesn’t mention his other Oscar-winning work for Disney past Aladdin‘s 1992 release, and a rundown of other pre-Disney versions of the story don’t include the classic 1939 Fleischer Studios featurette Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp, featuring Popeye the Sailor and a clear visual influence on Musker & Clements’ animated feature.
However, these are clearly minor omissions in a book otherwise filled with such good details, textually, and a huge assortment of images consisting of everything from concept art to set decorations and character profile shots so as to almost put one backstage itself to witness the rehearsals and processes that go on behind the curtain on a big show like Aladdin.
Although the last third of the book can become slightly promotional what with its cast profiles (including Jonathan Freeman’s reprising of his Jafar character from the movie) and a third chapter, A Million Miles Away, centered on the international shows, there’s still much goodness to be had in how the Magic Carpet and showstopping Friend Like Me number were developed (where, it seems, more is more!), although I was personally disappointed that Call Me A Princess seems to have been eventually dropped again from the show.
While not quite as opulent as a volume produced on the stage version of Mary Poppins some time ago, this is still a tremendous account of Broadway’s most recent Disney smash, what with its gold-leaf edging and several fold-out pages, and a relative dream come true at just $40, a price point that will surely drop further given online discounts, making this a must-have. For any fan of Aladdin, the movie, this is a very welcome addition to the number of books on the subject. For fans of the eventual stage show, this book is essential. And if you haven’t seen the show yet, it’ll make you want to rub that lamp and wish for tickets for whichever local or touring version you can get to see. This may well be the point, but The Road To Broadway And Beyond also works outside of that remit as both an exceptional document on the development and staging of a blockbuster stage show, and as a keepsake record of a groundbreaking achievement.
The Road To Broadway And Beyond: Disney’s Aladdin – A Whole New World
is available to buy now from Amazon.com