“I’ve always wanted to be a Disney villain,” declares actor Jonathan Freeman. “Ever since I was a kid—to be in the company of all those great character actors.”
Freeman got his wish and then some: He’s been the poison-soaked voice of Jafar, the nefarious Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Agrabah, since Disney’s 1992 hit movie Aladdin first went into production. And that, because animation takes so long, was during the late ’80s. He had no idea he’d continue to ooze aural turpitude in various Aladdin-related made-for-DVD sequels, TV series, video games, and theme-park rides for the next couple of decades.
In fact, during a phone interview between Seattle rehearsals for the much-anticipated new Aladdin stage adaptation, Freeman accidentally lets something slip about an unannounced battle-your-favorite-baddies Disney park attraction in which the venal Vizier would appear. But he quickly catches himself and summarizes his situation another way.
“I can’t believe I’m still living with this character, but Jafar never really leaves me,” he explains. “Because every six months they need me to go into the studio to help record some Electric Parade in Tokyo or something. So I’ve never stopped doing him.”
He relishes every opportunity. Jafar is, indeed, in that grand tradition of dastardly Disney types, the sophisticated madman foiled by a good-hearted naif (in this case, a thief who befriends a genie and wins both a princess and a kingdom). Think of Hans Conried’s Captain Hook in Peter Pan, George Sanders’ feline Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, or, more recently, the fratricidal Scar that Jeremy Irons brought to vocal life in The Lion King—those effetely evil icons whose words seem to drip from mouths weighted by an almost languid wickedness.
A versatile stage veteran whose resume boasts everything from regional operettas to an Off-Broadway On the Town and three of Disney’s other Broadway spectacles (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the still-running Mary Poppins), Freeman has special claim to Jafar—he was, after all, the physical inspiration for the role.
“Here’s what’s interesting about animation: It’s a highly collaborative effort,” he notes. “It’s not unlike putting together a musical, where everyone has some kind of input. They actually film you in the studio while you’re recording. The animation is the last thing to be done. In essence, the animators get a chance to really look at you, to incorporate your own idiosyncrasies into the character.”
Now onstage two decades later, he continues, “I’m basically doing what I’ve always been doing—but keeping in mind what the animators managed to do for [Jafar in the movie]. I try to remember some of the things I learned from them—Jafar’s posture, the way he stroked his chin, the way he used his hands, those creepy long fingers, and the way he always somehow seemed to float instead of walk.”
Of course, Freeman has more help than just those movie memories. Disney has brought out the big guns for a show it hopes to tour profitably for years. Director Casey Nicholaw just won a Tony for helming the naughty smash The Book of Mormon. The movie’s energetic, Oscar-winning score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice has been augmented with three new songs co-authored by book writer Chad Beguelin.
Judging from the 5th Avenue’s Aladdin Spotlight Night preview last month, things are well on track. Freeman charmed the crowd with patter, then effortlessly floated into the Jafar menace, rumbling out the line, “Soon I shall have complete and unmitigated powerrrr . . . and, might I add: It’s about tiiiiiiime!” He then chomped immediately into “Why Me?”, a song cut from the original film but added back to the musical: “I’ll be power/I’ll be clout personified/With a genie and sheer malice on my side!”
With the first-preview curtain about to rise, Freeman is as excited about the new show as he seemed that June night. “It’s a beautiful score, Casey Nicholaw is exceptionally talented, and I find Jafar endlessly amusing,” he says. “I love the way they ask him to deliver the worst news with the biggest smile.”
After Aladdin here, Freeman heads back to Mary Poppins in New York—Disney, naturally, allowed him a leave of absence. But he knows that he’ll be called upon again for yet another game or ride or parade. And that suits him just fine. If endless evil means constant employment, OK.
But the biggest perk? “Just getting to be a part of American iconography,” Freeman answers. “I’ve been such a big part of people’s lives growing up—and I understand that because those other voices were to me, too.”