Interview: Jonathan Freeman Bids Adieu to Playing Jafar on Broadway in Aladdin
Freeman has been associated with the role since the 1990s, and he plans to continue the journey.
Voicing Jafar in the Disney animated classic Aladdin has kept Jonathan Freeman employed with voiceover work for the better part of 30 years. At the start of the 2010s, Freeman expended the Jafar section of his resume by bringing the role to the stage. Beyond assorted vacations, time off, and, of course, the pandemic shutdown, he's been at the New Amsterdam Theatre every day since 2013. On January 23, Freeman will depart the production, but it's surely not a farewell to the character that has defined his life.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How many performances will you have done as Jafar by the time you finish your run? What does that bring your cumulative total in the role, between the film, video games, voice overs, etc, to?
Yikes, not so easy to calculate. At least a couple of thousand in the Broadway run including previews. Out of town tryout in Toronto were maybe 60 performances including previews, and the Seattle leg, maybe 25 performances. I spent between two-four days a month, for a year and nine months, in Studio B, at the corner of Dopey Drive and Goofy Lane, when working on the animated film. Between the sequel, The Return of Jafar, the TV episodes of Aladdin, and things like Kingdom Hearts, talking books, Aladdin on Ice, theme park attractions, commercials, House of Mouse. and numerous other things…can you please do the math?
This is obviously the longest run you've done on Broadway - what is that experience like? By year six, for example, how did you find new ways into the role?
It's daunting at times. Challenging to be sure. I just try to remind myself that there is someone in the audience who may be having their first Broadway experience, or saved up the money for a ticket that they really couldn't afford, or maybe there is an audience member that's having a rough time and needs an escape, and they chose Aladdin. That makes me step up to the plate. As far as staying in the role... look, everyone hits a wall from time to time, but there is always a way around the wall, or over it, and sometimes you just have to barrel through the wall.
How was working with Don Darryl Rivera (DDR) as Iago on Broadway different in terms of character development from working with Gilbert Gottfried as Iago, beyond the fact that Gilbert was playing a bird and DDR isn't?
As far as I'm concerned, DDR has the most difficult challenge in the show. He's playing a maniac of a character, made famous in the animated film, and loved by all, and he had to recreate it as a human character. At every performance he hits the ground running and grabs the audience from the start. He's the best side kick / scene partner I could have asked for. A wonderful collaborator. As far as Gilbert goes, playing a bird or not, it was a ridiculously fun ride being in the studio with him. Having the psychotic energy that he gave to Iago to play against informed almost every choice I made in our scenes. Gilbert was also a terrific collaborator!
Is this goodbye to the role, or do you have your next Jafar gig lined up for a voiceover?
No, it's not goodbye! Cirque Du Soleil just contracted for some Jafar stuff. Villains don't retire.
What's your favorite memory of your run in the show?
Standing in the wings every night before my first scene and listening to "Proud of Your Boy." It's a magnificent song that was cut from the film, but restored for the Broadway production. Sung beautifully by every Aladdin we've had. I have never tired of listening to it in all these years. I think one of Alan Menken's best.
What's your most proud accomplishment from over the course of the run?
That I had the opportunity to bring Jafar from the animated film to Broadway successfully. I have satisfied my sense of guardianship.
What will you miss the most?
My friends at the theater of course! I'm really going to miss seeing them every day! I've done two productions consecutively at The New Amsterdam theatre, so that amounts to about 10 and a half years in the building. The crews are the best. Salt of the earth. They're like family.