Fly to a whole new Arabian Night
With the curtain set to rise on Disney's 'Aladdin', we take a look at the Indian re-imagining of the iconic musical
In the original Aladdin Broadway musical, the genie opens the show by introducing the audience to Agrabah, “that faraway place where the caravan camels roam". He sings, “Salaam, and good evening to you worthy friends. Welcome to the fabled city of Agrabah. City of flying carpets, soaring heroes, famous love ballads and more glitz and glamour than any other fictional city in the world..."
We find our version of this magical city in the middle of a sweltering afternoon in Mumbai. Despite the air-conditioning in the foyer of the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), the heat seems to find a way in. The sun refracts off embroidered glass mirrors that a tailor sitting in a tiny alcove sews painstakingly into shimmering gauze curtains for a shop window in Agrabah. At one end of the cavernous space, 50 dancers warm up by doing a perfectly synchronized primeval crawl. Aladdin, the genie, Princess Jasmine and Jafar strike poses by a historic marble staircase. Inside the darkened theatre, lighting designers throw a spectrum of colours on the stage. Agrabah seems very close at hand.
It is the run-up to the grand opening of Disney’s Aladdin, licensed and produced by BookMyShow in India. This is Disney’s second Broadway-style musical (the first was Beauty And The Beast, in 2015) in the country, with an all-Indian cast and crew. The show is said to be a re-imagining of the original, with a few tweaks to make it more relevant to Indian audiences. It will open in Mumbai and then travel to Delhi and Hyderabad. Unlike Beauty And The Beast, which was a sumptuous spectacle, Aladdin will focus on the fantasy, high drama and action. From choreographers who create sequences tailored to each character’s personality to a costume designer who provides the colour palette for Agrabah to actors who segue effortlessly between goofy humour, romantic songs and sword fights, this is a show designed to up the ante of the musical in India.
First-time director Shruti Sharma, who has also worked on Beauty And The Beast and large-scale productions like Jhumroo and Zangoora, brings to the table a canny understanding of the genre. She says she doesn’t remember the last time she did a show with less than a hundred actors. On being asked if such a large production as her debut is daunting, she says she only thinks of the scale when other people remind her of it. And as she builds the world of Agrabah, guiding her actors through the changing sets, choreographed dances, fight sequences and celebratory set pieces with efficiency, she seems to be the right fit for the role.
Sharma also gives a lot of the credit to her cast, whom she finalized (especially the characters Aladdin and Jasmine) after auditioning hundreds of actors across the country. “You have to hear Kira (Kira Narayanan plays Princess Jasmine) sing. She is just fabulous and if you hear her version of A Whole New World on the magic carpet, it will take you to a different place," says Sharma. “Casting for Aladdin’s character is tricky, as he needs to be an underdog and a hero. Basically, he needs to be able to fool you and at the same time make you fall in love with him," she says. Similarly, her choice of Roshan Abbas was also unconventional, as the seasoned actor is known for good guy turns—here he plays the evil kingpin Jafar.
The musical has not one but two Aladdins, who appear in alternate shows and are played by Siddharth Menon and Taaruk Raina. With their movie-star haircuts and impish grins, the duo riff off each other easily. Narayanan sits on the side and lists out their characteristics. “So Taaruk’s disposition is happy-go-lucky and he brings this dorky humour to his Aladdin, while Sid, on the other hand, plays the classic romantic and his Aladdin is this suave guy. So for me it’s really fun to experience both of them," says Narayanan, who will be making her theatrical debut in India as Princess Jasmine.
The genie, re-imagined as a real and rather svelte person instead of the traditional big and bald character, is Sharma’s biggest improvisation. Played by actor and radio jockey Mantra, this is a character whose underlying subtext of a man in search of his freedom is highlighted even while his humour and magic remain intact. “I am hoping that through the show, this is THE genie that will win your heart," says Sharma. Mantra himself is thrilled at essaying the same role that his idol, the late Robin Williams, once played, and believes that “the genie is larger than life and needs no physical proof of the same". He believes that anything can happen on stage as long as you can make the audience believe it.
Other members of the Aladdin team have their own take on this classic. Take, for example, the case of costume designer Gavin Miguel, who has stayed true to Disney’s iconic blue costume for Princess Jasmine but added his own subtle signature to it—in this case, the embroidery, and jewelled chains to her crop top. The latter was based on feedback from his daughter Zaria, who is a big fan of Aladdin.
For him, this is his second time designing for Disney, for he was the man behind the lavish costumes of Beauty And The Beast. Miguel, who believes designing for theatre is a natural extension of his couture line, takes every detail of the costumes seriously. It was up to him to bring Agrabah to life by creating a colour palette and look for the different characters who inhabited it. “From a fruit seller to a water carrier to Aladdin’s coterie of friends to the main characters themselves, everyone is dressed in a particular colour, with specific layers that denote their background and importance," says Miguel, who has designed over 450 costumes for the production. An additional pressure is that each outfit has to look good as well as move gracefully when the characters are in motion. He is also quick to point out that while he has re-imagined certain looks, he has steered clear of Indianizing anything.
Dhruv Ghanekar was similarly inspired to take the original score, which was composed by legendary musician and Academy Award-winner Alan Menken, make it “louder" and yet keep it “geographically agnostic". For him, the challenge was to bring the epic scale associated with Disney musicals to a stage in India and create that impact without a live orchestra. In order to do the same, he recorded with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague and amped up certain string and brass sections to create a “big" sound that feels like it’s being played in the room. “It is music which is the foundation and heart of the piece, and is the first thing you hear when the curtain rises and the last thing before it falls," says Ghanekar.
It is not yet showtime at the NCPA but the stage is awash in lights and a marketplace comes to life in all its razzle-dazzle. Even without the music or the players, Agrabah is slowly beginning to take form.
Disney’s Aladdin premieres in Mumbai on 20 April, at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA. For tickets, visit Bookmyshow.com