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Interview with Disney's Aladdin star Don Gallagher about bringing Jafar to life
After opening back in May 2016 Aladdin, Disney's New Musical has taken the West End by storm and continues to be one of London's most popular musicals. Based on the animated film of the same name it features an incredible score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice & Chad Beguelin and delights audiences thanks to its stunning design, fantastic special effects and jaw-dropping choreography from Casey Nicholaw.
We recently caught up with actor Don Gallagher who created the role of villain 'Jafar' in the West End production to hear about his experience in the show which continues to run at the Prince Edward Theatre:
Dom O'Hanlon: Don, pleasure to meet you. How are you finding Disney's Aladdin now you have settled into the run?
Don Gallagher: Well it's a very fun show to be part of. The whole response of the audience has been amazing. It's a full house every night which is wonderful. The audiences over the last few weeks have had a more subdued response, when there are adults in it's amazing – real laughers and hecklers in. Despite being 'frozen' it has to be moveable, we have had a few people off sick and away, everyone in the show has two understudies. I obviously work closely with the character of Iago so working with the different actors over the past eight months you have to adapt to accommodate a different performer who will be on stage with you.
DOH: Going back nine months to the rehearsal period, how difficult was it to find the character of Jafar and develop him as the villain?
DG: Well obviously I used the animation and I did re-watch that to get the development of the character that had been so brilliantly captured by the voice. Having watched so many of the very old films, 'Arabian Nights' or whatever, those different films that have a certain essence, that's what I tried to go for. It's helpful with the make up and the costume in black and red. Americans always see baddies as being British, what with Scar in The Lion King and this. It's that very crisp voice that is menacing and scheming, an obeying tone to the voice that I was going for.
DOH: You got to work with the incredible Casey Nicholaw, what was one of the most helpful pieces of direction he gave you regarding your character and how do you use that every day?
DG: Yes – he's brilliant. He said this to me and to everyone, although the style of the performance is slightly heightened there always has to be one foot in reality to make it all work. I see that as a very important thing to remember. To make it work at this heightened level of playing where magic is happening, you still have to keep parts of the performance in realism to make sure it all works together.
DOH: It's a difficult line to tread between musical comedy and pantomime – do you find yourself embracing the Britishness of his character as it's what audiences expect?
DG: The whole premise of pantomime in the UK is that people break the fourth wall, i.e. characters from the stage talk directly to the audience. I think the only characters that really do that in our Aladdin is of course the Genie. Having the heritage of pantomime in the UK people obviously come along and inhabit that. The only 'booing' I really get is at the curtain call. I get the odd boo or hiss from a four year old on a Wednesday afternoon, but it is very different from your traditional British pantomime.
DOH: Thomas Schumacher commented that he wanted the show to appeal to those who grew up with the film – those now in their late 20s early 30s. Do you notice a lot of this energy from the audience?
DG: Absolutely, you notice that energy. Obviously from the stage you can only catch glimpses of people in the first few rows. There are quite often people of that age group and you can see them recognising characters and getting very excited about it, it's very interesting to see. There are performances where there are not a lot of young children and it's mainly that age group, those are fantastic houses. They are great fans of the music and the story and I think when they see it brought to life on stage they have a great time.
DOH: What makes this show different from other musicals you've been involved with in the West End?
DG: I think all the musicals I have done have had an acting base – Les Miserables, The Producers at Drury Lane and so on. I find characters with an acting base rather than singing or dancing one, I'm not a trained dancer. It is great fun because the style of writing and playing certain parts of my role is deep set in musical theatre comedy. To deliver the lines with the right level of dryness at the right pitch for that particular audience is a real challenge and that keeps me involved in a long run. You try to get the best response to every laugh line that you have for that night so you keep it in the moment.
DOH: Do you prefer working in musical comedy? What would you like to do once you've finished in Aladdin?
DG: I've done a lot of plays, I've worked for the RSC on many occasions and at the National. I always like to try and mix and match different types of theatre. Maybe to do a play next would be quite nice. I'm doing a bit of filming for BBC at the moment. It's good to keep a variety.
DOH: It's a technically demanding show for everyone involved – what's the biggest challenge for you for each performance?
DG: I guess I just pray that certain costume changes that happen very quickly at the end go without any hitches! There are a lot of magnets and plastic wires involved and you just hope that none of that goes wrong – I'll say no more – I won't give the secrets away!
DOH: Do you have a favourite part of the show that you like to watch or perform each night?
DG: I love watching the tap sequence of “Friend Like Me”. I'm always in stage left wing waiting to come back on and I think it's fantastic – it's a wonderful number. Maybe one day I'll slip on at the back...
DOH: Finally, why do you think Aladdin is proving to be so popular with West End audiences?
DG: Because it is a very traditional tale of having a hero who starts at point A, is down on his luck - a good guy who triumphs over evil and everything that's thrown at him to achieve fortune and the girl he loves at the end. It's a very old fashioned romance with lots of adventure thrown in and lots of comedy moments. I don't think you can really go wrong with and evening like that. There are lots of modern shows that take different slants with different themes, I think everybody loves a good old fashioned piece of musical theatre, especially with the music that has been written for the piece and people just love it. If you're looking for a fun very glamorous night in the theatre with a musical you should come and see it. It's something you can relive, it grabs you immediately, it sends you out feeling very good.
Aladdin, Disney's New Musical continues to run at the Prince Edward Theatre in London's West End.