Earlier this year, a Broadway adaptation of Disney’s 1992 movie Aladdin opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. It received mostly positive critical reviews upon its premiere and was nominated for 5 Tony Awards, with James Monroe Iglehart, who plays the role of Genie, taking home the award for best featured actor in a musical.
Although Broadway fans and fans of the original animated movie alike have enjoyed the energetic and colorful musical, it has been the subject of controversy since months before its opening.
In October of last year, a self-proclaimed Middle Eastern actor anonymously posted on a theatre blog claiming the somewhat surprising statement that the entire cast of Aladdin includes no actors of Middle Eastern descent:
“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.” As quoted on Jezebel.com.
Controversy surrounding Disney’s racial and ethnic decisions is nothing new. Many of the most beloved Disney classics have been called into question for problematic stereotyping of races and cultures. As Buzzfeed explains, many concerns were raised about the animated film version of Aladdin and its representation of Middle Eastern culture when it was released 22 years ago. Particularly troubling were the original lyrics to the movie’s opening song, which included the line, “Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” along with the portrayal of hero Aladdin as very light-skinned and the villain Jafar as darker with “a more ethnic visage.”
Obviously, the stage production of Aladdin is characterized by real people, as opposed to animated likenesses, which brings the issue of racial and ethnic accuracy even closer to the forefront of discussion.
Disney will neither confirm nor deny the statements made on the anonymous blog, citing their policy of colorblind casting. A Disney representative explained the company’s position to The Huffington Post:
“Legally, the company is not allowed to ask potential employees about their ethnic background at any point during the hiring process. We encourage actors of all cultural backgrounds to audition for our shows and are fiercely proud of our talented and diverse cast.”
But many critics see the opportunity for Middle Eastern actors to play prominent roles as more important than the color blinding casting regulations. Sharon Jensen, who is the executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, explained her issue with the casting in the same Huffington Post article:
“For people who are Arab-American or Persian-American or Turkish-American, the opportunities are still so few. With very few exceptions, they are still limited to stereotypes. It seems to me, where there’s an opportunity to open things up artistically, you should.”
I am a huge fan of Broadway musicals, a favorite of mine being one of Disney’s own, Beauty and the Beast. I’ve done a great deal of reading on Broadway’s common practice of colorblind casting in general, and although the topic is truly fascinating to me, I haven’t formed a concrete opinion on whether or not I believe that actors and actresses should be awarded roles based solely on talent and ability, or if race and ethnicity should play more of a role. However, I think the case of Aladdin is particularly interesting, since there are so few character opportunities for actors of Middle Eastern heritage in American theatre. If the anonymous blog post is indeed factual, I would find myself puzzled and somewhat troubled.
I’m very eager to hear other opinions on this matter. What do you think of Disney’s Aladdin in general? Can a story that is so obviously historically inaccurate even be expected to adhere to ethnic realism? Is colorblind casting necessary in today’s world?