STAGE MAGIC

Meet the man bring­ing Aladdin and The Book of Mor­mon to Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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