Meet the man bringing Aladdin and The Book of Mormon to Australia
Smack-bang in the centre of a glasswalled room above New York’s historic New Amsterdam Theatre sits an unattended black Steinway grand piano. The office, and its permanent musical resident, belong to Disney Theatrical Group chief Tom Schumacher. It is a place well known to anyone who’s anyone on Broadway. It’s where nascent show tunes and dance numbers burst to life, bound for eternal earwormery and box office infamy; where other ideas take their first and final breaths. It is where, with the right song and dance, careers are born. At Disney’s Broadway headquarters, you can forget animation. Here, music is king.
A receptionist, an aspiring singer, is warbling to herself as the elevator bell rings and Casey Nicholaw steps out. “Sounding goooood!” he says, without breaking stride. The Tony awardwinning director and choreographer strolls through the office, clasping an iced coffee and purposefully swinging a white paper bag on his way towards Schumacher’s hallowed, unoccupied, digs. As though by accident, he spies me in a small interview room and turns, doubling back. Beams.
“Phewwww,” he says, dramatically heaving a gym bag into the corner of the room. “Sorry I’m late. Am I late? I’m late, aren’t I? Sorry if I’m late. It’s crazy busy out there.”
Nicholaw may be dramatic but he isn’t kidding. The 53-year-old has four main-stage musicals — The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Tuck Everlasting and Something Rotten! — running on Broadway. By the end of the year he will have three main-stage productions up and running on London’s West End ( Aladdin, Mormon and Dreamgirls). He is about to launch a new hip-hop-inspired international production in Atlanta called Prom, then there’s that “top secret project I can’t talk about”. If that alone sounds like a recipe for theatrical thrombosis, consider that by February next year the American will have two main-stage musical productions playing on the other side of the world — a mere 16,000km from his Manhattan apartment — in Australia: Mormon in Melbourne and Aladdin in Sydney. It is no mean feat in this country’s comparatively far smaller musical theatre scene.
“This year is mad. It’s the busiest I’ve ever had,” Nicholaw says, wrapping a wide bearded smile around a bagel. “But, then, you know, it’s not like we mounted all those shows at the same time. They are each in different stages of production, so it’s manageable. But there are times when I have to check myself, you know, where I just have to grip and go with it.”
Nicholaw will begin his Australian stage assault next month when Aladdin opens at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. Mormon, perhaps the most notorious stage musical and winner of nine Tony awards (one of which Nicholaw shares with co-director and South Park cocreator Trey Parker) opens in Melbourne in February. Both are expected to tour nationally. Could there be two productions any more different? Surely oscillating between an old family tale about an Arabian boy who has his wishes granted by a magical genie, and an adults-only production set in modern-day Africa making fun of religion and, among other things, AIDS, is like getting the artistic equivalent of the bends.
“They are pretty different and strangely similar,” he says. “There’s a lot of heart in Mormon, in what it does. It’s not just shock value, as people might expect because of the South Park connection. But there is actually lots of homage to musical theatre in that show. And it really feels like a traditional Broadway package. So the energy and buoyancy of the show actually speak to the energy and buoyancy of Aladdin. They are more similar than you’d think in some way.” Nicholaw lets out a giggle. “I guess, though, there is no swearing in Aladdin.”
The production, which opened in 2011, might fall behind on the cursing quota, but Aladdin is no children’s show, Nicholaw points out. “There is much old-fashioned glitz and glamour. Everything is shimmering. There are four costume changes in one number. It’s fun. And it’s funny. It adds to the exoticness and feeling of being a kid when you watch it. But people don’t view it as a children’s show. And when the flying carpet goes up in this theatre, well, that’s when the magic actually happens.” Four floors below, in the bowels of the 114-yearold New Amsterdam Theatre, is a hive of activity. Sound and lighting designers are preparing for tonight’s performance of Aladdin, and costume designer Gregg Barnes has just undertaken a final Narnia-like walk-through of the hundreds of costumes prepared for tonight’s performance.
“You have to remember that this, after all, is a play about magic,” Barnes says. “There is one moment in the show where 20 people in the chorus change four times in 3½ minutes. That’s 80 costumes just for that scene. Don’t worry, we get our big, bold MGM musical moment on this beautiful stage.”
The theatre is a towering, albeit subtle, presence on Broadway; an art noveau landmark located on 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, in the heart of New York’s Times Square. Built in 1903 by Henry Beaumont Herts and Hugh Tallant, the New Amsterdam famously was the home of Florenz Ziegfeld’s lavish theatrical vaudeville revues The Ziegfeld Follies in the early decades of the 20th century. At every turn there is history. Pictures of the Follies productions and star performers, including Louise Brooks, Judy Garland and WC Fields, among a host of other notable actors who have shared this stage, adorn its blackened brick walls. The building was closed for a decade from 1985, having fallen into disrepair, but Disney has occupied the building since 1995 and spent millions of dollars on its renovation. It remains one of the world’s most beautiful and historical theatres. “You know, to put on a show or perform it in this theatre, it’s just such a privilege,” says Nicholaw of Disney’s digs. “There’s so much history in here.” Interestingly, despite its 1992 vintage, Aladdin is one of the more recent Disney movie-turned-musicals, a trend that began as an experiment in 1994 with Beauty and the Beast, and that has since become its own fully fledged business model on the back of the successes of that production, The Lion King and the more recent global promise of Frozen. Disney’s growing interest in adapting its films for the stage has upset some critics, who see the trend as a cynical and unimaginative bid for commercial gain. But Nicholaw hits back at those criticisms. “I don’t really understand those issues. I think there’s only so many things that will make a good musical,” says the former dancer who branched out into choreography almost 15 years ago and is arguably the world’s most in-demand directorchoreographer. “Disney films are perfect [for adaptations]. They already sing, they have good energy, and they are largely based on a familiar story people know. Disney is something we all grew up with.”
Born in San Diego, Nicholaw began his Broadway career aged 19 and did the hard yards. Paying gigs were hard to come by and it wasn’t until he lost his hair years later that he began getting character roles. “I started out waiting tables,” he said in a recent interview. It was during his time as a young Broadway chorus dancer that he honed his skills as a choreographer. While performing in Seussical in 2004, he decided enough was enough: “I was in a cage in a purple yarn suit and I was like, ‘I really need to do something else now.’ ”
He went on to direct and choreograph on Broadway The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf the Musi-
cal, as well as the phenomenally successful Mormon. In addition to that, he was a choreographer for the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia. Aladdin won’t be Nicholaw’s first foray in the Australia musical theatre scene: he also choreographed Spamalot, the Monty Python musical, which he brought to Melbourne in 2008. That production, however, didn’t exactly set the box office on fire.
“I know it’s a different ball game in Australia,” he says. “Spamalot ran for two months and didn’t go to Sydney. You are really taking a gamble [there], which is why performers stay so long in runs.
“Here on Broadway, performers give four weeks’ notice and leave. But in Australia they sign up for long periods of time. But I’m really confident about both shows. Aladdin is a special one. It has a strong branding because people grew up with it.” Nicholaw, however, didn’t grow up with Aladdin, or South Park for that matter. He was a dancer in his first Broadway show when Aladdin was released. The animated film, starring Robin Williams as the motormouthed genie released from a lamp by an orphan boy after thousands of years, was a worldwide box office hit. Famously based on one of the tales from the 18th-century French version of One Thousand and One Nights, the film was originally conceived by creators Howard Ashman and Alan Menken as a stage show.
Nicholaw sees its reincarnation for the stage as something of a nostalgic correction.
“Aladdin was conceived as a big Broadway musical theatre feature. It was Howard and Alan’s concept to make it this thing. And then Howard passed away. And it just happened that the movie morphed into what it became. Robin Williams came on board and he changed it. He was adlibbing and doing all that crazy stuff, and they began cutting characters from the original text.”
The biggest change was in the Genie. In the original adaptation, the Genie is a conceived as a Cab Calloway-Fats Waller zoot-suit wearing sophisticate. “So on stage we went back to the original Calloway-type character. It is just more stage-worthy.”
In Australia the Genie will be played by Broadway star Michael James Scott, who has spent the past two years as Broadway understudy for James Monroe Iglehart, who in 2014 won a Tony for the role.
The Genie, flamboyant in the extreme, is very much the star of the show; a supercharged version of Calloway. Were there any other influences behind the character? Nicholaw raises jazz hands in surrender.
“Well, I have to say it’s funny. James always says to me, ‘ You know I’m just being you on stage, right?’ So, you know, I see myself in that character a little bit. I make things up according to my own sensibility. And there is an energy to what I do, and maybe it’s a bit infectious. But James and Michael, really they are the ones: they’re the ones who bring their own energy to that part and make it what it is.”
Nicholaw looks out to Schumacher’s office, and that grand piano at which he has found himself countless times. “Tom really is awesome to work with,” he says. “He’s always in contact. He always has lots to say and it’s always helpful. And he also knows how to say, ‘ You’re the creative. Go and do it.’ He has input but is always supportive of the process.”
Nicholaw looks up. “I look at Aladdin, especially, and I just think … all this takes time. It took two years to conceive [the musical’s showpiece] number, You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me. It’s all hands and costumes changes and big old-fashioned showbiz, you know. There’s a lot of work and planning and changing that goes into something like this. And there’s something satisfying about putting the time into something like that and seeing it all come together. “It’s magic, actually. Really, it is.” Nicholaw vacuums the final drops of his iced latte, looks at his watch and smiles. “I have another meeting for another show. I’ll be early! Oh, and then I want to drop in to see the crew before they go on stage tonight, and then dinner with the people from this new top-secret production … It’s like I told you!”
He’s a busy boy. And Broadway’s never had a friend like him.
Aladdin opens at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre on Thursday, August 11; Book of Mormon opens in Melbourne next February. Tim Douglas travelled to New York with the assistance of Disney.
THE BOOK OF MORMON AND ALADDIN ARE MORE SIMILAR THAN YOU’D THINK IN SOME WAY CASEY NICHOLAW
Casey Nicholaw, top; Michael James Scott as the Genie in Aladdin, left
The Book of Mormon, left; Monty Python musical Spamalot, above; scenes from Aladdin, with Adam Jacobs in the title role, bottom