James Monroe Iglehart is currently living his dream of playing his favorite Disney character on Broadway, and getting rave reviews to boot. He just won a Drama Desk award for his performance, and he’s nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical. We talked to this California native about recreating the Genie, his love of “wild guy” roles, and how he got into Broadway in the first place:
Tell us about Tony nominations day.
I was sitting with my wife trying to watch it on television, but we realized they only show the best musical and best actor categories for both musical and play, so we quickly went online and started watching. We started hearing other people’s names and all of a sudden they said James Monroe, and that’s all they got out, I didn’t even hear “Iglehart”! I jumped to my feet and screamed. I thought I was gonna run around the house, but I just crumbled in tears. It was such a relief and such a joyous occasion. I’ve wanted to hear my name called out for the Tonys since I was 17, and it finally happened. And then, all of a sudden, my phone blew up. Every person I’ve ever done a theater show with in the Bay Area called me. It feels good.
What makes Aladdin special for you?
Aladdin is special because I’ve been a Disney fanatic since I was a child. Since the first time my father took me to see The Jungle Book, I have watched Disney films. I’ve had a connection with the Genie since high school, and to be able to be on Broadway in a Disney show, and then to be able to be my favorite character on stage—you can’t get better than this. And then they still let me go my own way, so I didn’t have to imitate Robin Williams. They let me recreate the Genie! I’m literally having fun every single day and living every day, taking everything in going, “I don’t want to forget anything! This might never happen again, let’s have some fun right now.” You know?
How did you go about recreating the Genie for Broadway?
We went back to the late great lyricist Howard Ashman’s original vision. He had this vision of Cab Calloway playing the part of a band leader who was a funny host who could step up behind any microphone and do what he needs to do. And once we got that, I knew I could go in that direction as far as the Genie was concerned. Then they told me just to bring my own brand of silliness to it. A lot of the stuff I do on stage are things I’ve thought about doing in real life, which is great.
My wife has to deal with it because whenever we go to a grocery store, it’s like a show. She’s like, “Can’t we ever just go to a grocery store and you act normal?” And I’m like “No, not really.” So, I get to let all the energy out that I wanna do in real life onstage… it’s kind of beautiful.
Did you always dream of performing on Broadway?
For a while I thought I wanted to be an R&B star, I wanted to be a rapper, I wanted to be all these things, and then I really got into Broadway when I was in high school. That was the first time I ever saw the Tonys and I thought, “I think I can do that! That puts everything I like to do in the same place. I get to sing, I get to act, I get to dance, all at the same time.” So yeah, this has definitely been a dream since I was a teenager, this is where I wanted to be. Like I said, when they called my name, I was like, “Wow. Everything that I had hoped for happened.”
What are your dream roles, aside from Genie?
I like the wild guy roles. I enjoy being nutty, so I like Professor Harold Hill. It’s funny, there are a couple of villains I love. I got to play Sweeny Todd one time and that was so much fun—I guess it goes the opposite direction, they’re still crazy, just evil. I gravitate towards those roles where you get to be free and go nuts.
Why should people who aren’t familiar with Broadway get into it?
What you see on Broadway, it’s a live situation. It’s actually happening. You’re seeing singing, dancing, acting, rapping, acrobatics, all live in front of you, actually happening. And it’s the most electric feeling. When you’re there live, you can feel the energy of the performer, and you get into it because they can feed off your energy, and that’s what makes Broadway such a cool thing. It’s a communal way of entertaining.
What are some of the most magical technical elements of the show?
We have literally 40 changes in “Prince Ali,” it’s the most amazing thing in the world. In the film, the Genie creates hundreds of thousands of people in this big parade. Well in the show, all we have is 34 people. So you have people who are wearing all these clothes, and as they come through the door, they keep changing clothes and you go, “That’s the same actor! Oh my gosh, I just saw him, that’s the same actor, but he’s wearing something different, or she’s wearing something different” and you’re amazed by how quickly it happens. It’s literally Broadway/Disney magic that we pull off here every night and it’s the coolest thing to watch.
Why should people go see Aladdin on Broadway?
Aladdin is a show for everybody. It’s not just a kids show, it’s not just a family show. I would say it’s a great date night show, it’s a great show for couples, any couple, every couple, because there’s so much love and so much romance in this show. There’s always a person that you wanna try to date or talk to that you know you have no chance with, and if you had a genie, you would wish yourself to be able to talk to this person, and we have that story. For people who love comedy, we have comedy, for people who love action, we have action, for people who love magic, we love magic, and for people who just love great music and choreography, we have to that too. And for people who love amazing costumes and sets, we also have that!
I mean, if you want to see a great Broadway show, Aladdin is the show for you. Whether you are 10 years old or 100 years old, bring your girlfriend, bring your boyfriend, I mean literally, it’s for everybody. Anybody who wants to come to Broadway would want to check out Aladdin because we’ve got it all.
Don’t forget to root for James (and for the other Aladdin nominations) this Sunday, and if you want to learn more about him, check out his Oh My Disney quiz!