"Everything about playing a villain is appealing to me," says Jonathan Freeman, an actor who knows a thing or two about playing baddies, and one in particular. Freeman is best known as Jafar, the chief antagonist of the Oscar-winning 1992 animated film Aladdin, and if you have an affinity for the cartoon flicks of the Walt Disney Company, you'll surely recognize his voice, with its gravely rasp and ominous slither. Aladdin has provided Freeman with a steady working foundation for over two decades. Not only did he return to the role in the sequel, The Return of Jafar, but he continues to voice the evil-doer in the Kingdom Hearts video game and within Disney's various theme-park attractions.
Two decades of job security isn't bad for what could just have been a one-off gig in 1990, when the Tony nominee was hired and rushed into the studio to begin the recording process before lyricist Howard Ashman's untimely, AIDS-related death. Freeman spent nearly two years on the film and even got to record Ashman's very last song, a tune called "Humiliate the Boy," which, presumably owing to its frank darkness, was eventually cut. (It does appear, with Freeman's voice playing both Jafar and the parrot, on the four-CD set The Music Behind the Magic (and can be heard here).
Starting February 26, Freeman will add Broadway to the "Jafar" section of his lengthy résumé of stage and screen, bringing the character to life — this time in genuine human form — in the new stage musical adaptation of Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Appearing in Aladdin, featuring now-legendary songs, is an opportunity Freeman says he didn't have to be talked into. But he did have reservations.
"When we started on the Seattle leg" [where the show premiered in 2011], Freeman says, "I was the only person in the room besides [songwriter] Alan Menken who had worked directly on the film. When I listened to all of these new voices giving new energy [to the material] and hearing new [input], I thought I'm not sure that after all these years I have anything new to offer. Which wasn't entirely true, but that's the first thing I thought of." It proved to be not true at all. In fact, he continues to find nuances when playing Jafar even after all of these years. "I'm not really revisiting [the character] because I've never really stopped," Freeman notes. "I go into the studio very frequently to do things for Euro Disney or Disney on Ice or the [theme park] 'battle your favorite villains' attraction [Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom]. I suppose over the years I probably have learned a lot more [about what makes Jafar tick]."
Helping with the re-exploration of Jafar are director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw and his team of designers. With sets, costumes, and lighting by Tony winners Bob Crowley, Gregg Barnes, and Natasha Katz, respectively, Freeman gives the opulent production his seal of approval, while freely admitting that it is indeed somewhat different than the beloved film. One change that might require some acclimating on the part of the audience, though, is the loss of his wise-cracking parrot companion, famously voiced on-screen by Gilbert Gottfried.
"There are no animals in the show," he points out. "No monkey, no parrot, no tiger. Iago [no longer the parrot] is in the show, played by a very funny actor named Don Darryl Rivera. He's a great complement for me, and, I hope, I for him." But according to Freeman, the heart of the show is still intact and in a form audiences will recognize. Their favorite characters will be there, and it's the same beautiful music, [but] with even more.
As for playing the villain, Freeman simply finds it fun. "Their operatic scales appeal to me," he says. "It's very satisfying. They're like the gasoline that makes the story go forward. If you don't have a good villain, you don't have a good story."