The 1992 Disney movie Aladdin has been retooled into a Broadway musical, opening this Thursday in New York. But unlike other Disney/Broadway hits — Beauty and the Beast and the long-running Lion King — Aladdin comes with baggage the size of a vest-wearing elephant.
When Aladdin was first released, there were a few issues. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee criticized lyrics in the song “Arabian Nights;” the original words were:
Oh, I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
Disney changed the lyrics, removing the part about violent physical punishment — leaving in the word “barbaric.” But critics also found the characters and the way they were illustrated troubling. In March 1995, Marvin Wingfield and Bushra Karaman wrote that while it was a “charming” movie and one of the very few American films to have an Arab hero or heroine:
The film’s light-skinned lead characters, Aladdin and Jasmine, have Anglicized features and Anglo-American accents. This is in contract to the other characters who are dark-skinned, swarthy and villainous — cruel palace guards or greedy merchants with Arabic accents and grotesque facial features.
Negative portraits of Arabs are found in numerous popular films, such as True Lies, Back to the Future, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Computer games often feature cartoon Arab villains in which children rack up high scores and win games by killing Arabs.
Ethnic stereotypes are especially harmful in the absence of positive ethnic images. [Lebanese American media analyst Jack Shaheen] observes that Arabs are “hardly ever seen as ordinary people, practicing law, driving taxis, singing lullabies or healing the sick”
An New York Times piece about Aladdin printed in 1993 was titled “It’s Racist, But Hey, It’s Disney.”
More than 20 years later, the show’s return to the spotlight may cause concern, once again. In October 2013, an (anonymous) Middle Eastern actor wrote to the Broadway-centric blog Arts In Color, voicing concern:
When Disney Theatricals announced that they were bringing Aladdin to Broadway, I was ecstatic. Finally a musical on Broadway about Middle Eastern people and culture. Middle Eastern actors would have the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles: the ingénue, the hero, the villain, the funny sidekick. Instead of the stereotypical roles we are always cast in: the taxi driver with one line, the belly dancer with no lines. I was so excited that Middle Eastern culture and actors would be represented in such a beloved story and to such a wide audience.
Imagine my shock when the full cast was announced. There are 34 people in the cast of Aladdin. Zero are of Middle Eastern descent.
If there was a production of “Mulan” on Broadway, and zero Asian actors were cast, the entire Broadway community would be up in arms.
However: A recent USA Today article reveals that the cast the producers put together is fairly diverse. Aladdin is played by Adam Jacobs, “born to a Filipina mother and “a Russian/Dutch/Polish/Jewish father and raised Catholic.” Princess Jasmine is played by Courtney Reed, who identifies herself as of “mixed ethnicity,” and grew up loving Jasmine, since she “was the first princess who looked like me, with this long dark hair and olive skin tone.” The genie is played by James Monroe Iglehart, a black actor and comic book enthusiast who calls himself a “huge Disney nerd” and also has a Batman tattoo. They’re all fans of the movie and obviously ecstatic to be part of the show.
The city of Agrabah may be fictional, but some still question how the story depicts Arab and Middle Eastern people. As seen on the Racialicious Twitter, a young theater director named Jamie Simmons writes that workshopped versions of the show included a song with the line “Let Allah be praised” and that there are “at least three separate dialogue references to Allah in the animated movie.”
And what do we know about Aladdin? Well we know that it’s a parody of Middle Eastern culture first off. I know you can argue that it began life as an animated children’s film, and therefore to call it a ‘parody’ may seem a bit of a strong choice of wording.
Simmons saw the Arts In Color letter from the anonymous Middle Eastern actor, and says:
I think that colourblind casting has to work both ways. I don’t think you can favour a Middle Eastern actor just because the show is set in a fictional version of the Middle East (or maybe not-so fictional since there are quite a few references to Baghdad in the Seattle lyrics), the same as you can’t favour a white actor if a show is set in Victorian England, but that being said – and it’s rather a large ‘but’ – as far as defending that this show is not a parody of Islam, there is absolutely no Muslim or Middle Eastern representatives to have guided the process, or at least if there was then it’s very difficult to tell.
I can’t even begin to understand why, when selecting a creative team for this show, you wouldn’t have someone who could provide accurate consultancy about what is appropriate and what isn’t.
Some tricky, tricky issues here, since Aladdin is probably set in a pre-Islamic era, in a fictitious town, and isn’t meant to be historically accurate in any way. If Arab groups protest, the defense will be: It’s a fairy tale, a fantasy, complete with singing, tap dancing, a genie and a magic carpet. And that’s what the built-in fanbase will be looking for: Escapist fun, theatrical spectacle, romance, nostalgia, silly jokes and a happy ending. Oh, and “A Whole New World,” one of the best Disney songs ever. Even though there’s no Abu in the show (at least animal lovers can relax?) there’s no way Aladdin won’t be a sold-out hit. I loathe Disney’s history of racism (this list sure incites rage) but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see Aladdin on Broadway. Make way for Prince Ali.