I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my musical theatre career when I had the opportunity to work with Alan Menken developing Sister Act – the Musical. So, needless to say, when the press conference for Aladdin started with Moderator Dani Fernandez saying, ” I want to introduce a man who has been a part of the entire fabric of Aladdin since the beginning. He has 7 Golden Globes, 11 Grammy’s, 1 Tony, and 8 Academy Awards. Please help me in welcoming composer Alan Menken”.
Menken them proceeds to take us on a musical journey of his greatest Disney hits starting with ‘Never Had a Friend Like Me’ to ‘Under The Sea’ to ‘Be Our Guest’ to ‘Colors of the Wind’ to ‘Part of Your World’ to his latest from Aladdin – ‘Speechless.’ It was an impromptu concert I shall never forget.
Speechless is the latest hit added to the Disney arsenal of Alan Menken and is perfected with the vocal stylings of Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine). How did it feel to be a recording star who now is the newest Disney princess reimagined through live action? “The fact that they wrote a song and I get to sing it…That’s already surreal. But also then when I heard the words, the lyrics, how timely it was, the idea of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice, doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your gender, your voice matters and speaking out against injustice matters. Not just standing by and being a spectator.”
As for Navid Negahban (known for his roles in Homeland, Legion on FX and American Assassin), playing the Sultan, the father of Princess Jasmine, “. I think every father, no matter what, they see a princess in their little daughter. And I have to say something about Naomi. There is a princess inside her. I never forget, we were on the set and we were working. Some of the ladies were a little bit stressed and yelling at the background actors. And this girl (Naomi) took the mic, went over on the balcony, and said we can be nicer to each other, can’t we? So the princess is inside her. I’ll never forget that day.” On the message of Aladdin, Navid goes on to say, “…it’s just finding your inner magic, believing in yourself, who you are, and what you are is special. There is nobody else like you and I think the film represents that. Mena discovered Aladdin inside him and it was beautiful, the whole journey was an amazing experience.”
Speaking to Princess Jasmine being the first Disney princess of color , Nasim Pedrad shared “that film (Aladdin) resonated with me as a child because it was the first time I saw a Middle Eastern protagonist in a major motion picture. So to get to be a part of that and play a little fun role in being Jasmine’s friend and handmaiden, especially under the guidance of Guy (Ritchie), it turns into a whole fun new thing that you wouldn’t have necessarily even seen on the page. It was just such a blast.”
Now, I know you all wondering what Will Smith had to say about tackling the iconic role of Genie. After all, the image of voice of the late Robin Williams is permanently seared in our conscience. “This is my first Disney movie and there’s something that Walt Disney did in the design of these stories that at the core that shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive, smile and appreciate the moment. So for me, coming into this definitely started with fear. What Robin Williams did with his character just didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie. So I started off fearful. But then when I got with the music, it just started waking up that fun childlike silly part of me. The song that got me over the hump was Friend Like Me. I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it. We were playing around in that 94, 96 BPM range which is old school hip hop. So I grabbed the Honey Drippers ‘Impeach The President,’ which is a really classic old school hip hop break beat and had them throw that break beat under there. I messed with that messed with Eric B. Rakim’s ‘I Know You Got Soul’ under ‘Friend Like Me’ and I was like Oh My God. I’m home, Then, I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then the Genie was born in my mind from the music.
“One of the things that I related to in Genie is that the Genie has shackles. The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. Like, he is a prisoner of his spiritual fate and that is sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. In these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom and getting more comfortable being me. So Aladdin was that first step back out.
Director Guy Ritchie said that being apart of Aladdin was all about making a movie his whole family could watch together. “Aladdin ticked the box in the sense that he was a street hustler and I was familiar with that territory. My wife (Madonnna) is a big Disneyphile and anything to do with Disney princesses is high on her list. So, it was really a question of demand by the family.”
In wrapping it all up, Moderator Dani Fernandez asked what would be Smith’s three wishes, “I would have one wish and my one wish would be divine understanding. I just turned 50 this year and that lack of understanding, confusion is the mother of fear and violence. So for me, I would absolutely wish for divine understanding to be shared with all. I think that understanding is the seeds of peace.”