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EXCLUSIVE: James Monroe Iglehart Says Goodbye to Genie and ‘Aladdin’ on Broadway

by Leigh Scheps 9:25 AM PST, February 15, 2017
Photo: Disney

From sequins to 18th-century ruffles, Aladdin’s James Monroe Iglehart is about to embark on another dream: playing the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. On Sunday, Feb. 19, Iglehart will take his final bow as the Genie on Broadway before moving up four blocks from the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street to the coveted Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th, where he’ll join the cast of the Alexander Hamilton musical starting mid-April.

While the Genie was famously voiced by Robin Williams in the 1992 animated film, Iglehart has been playing the part since Aladdin’s 2011 out-of- town tryouts in Seattle, which eventually landed in Toronto for a pre-Broadway run in 2013. Night after night, the actor has received roaring applause for his show-stopping rendition of “Friend Like Me,” a number that surely helped him win the 2014 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. 

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Iglehart says of the audience reaction while talking to ET on a Wednesday afternoon between performances. “I’ve wanted to sing this song since I was 17 years old. Every time I hear those trumpets I get a tingle. It has never gone away since the first time I sang that song in 2011.” But after playing the part for nearly six years, the actor says, “It’s time for someone else to step into his pointy shoes and see what they can do with it.” Major Attaway, Igelhart’s current standby, will take over the role full-time starting Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Before saying goodbye to the Genie, Iglehart shares some favorite and funny moments from his years in Aladdin -- plus the scoop on how he got the prestigious Hamilton gig. 

ET: What is your favorite memory from your time in Aladdin?

James Monroe Iglehart: Opening night. It was after “Friend Like Me” and the whole place is on their feet screaming for a long time. I had to stop myself from crying… At that moment I knew we were going to be OK.

What is your favorite line in the show?

“Hummus? Did someone say hummus?” I like all of Babkak’s stupid lines because they're all about food. I’ve [also] had fun mimicking Britney [Spears], Christina [Aguilera], Adele, Kanye [West] and Drake. I say little things at the end of the show and I hear the audience flip out. 

Who’s the most unexpected celebrity to come backstage?

Mariah Carey. I never expected that girl to come to the show. Most unexpected celebrity for myself? WWE legend Mick Foley. Never in a million years did I think I would meet Mick Foley. At the end of the night we went out to dinner together.

What was the craziest thing to happen backstage?

Don Darryl [Rivera, who plays Iago] and I are constantly trying to scare each other throughout the show. We try to find things to do to each other right before we go on stage for a scene. The fun part is because we’ve been doing it for so long, the crew knows we're after each other so they stay out of the way

What kind of tricks have you pulled?

He’s scared of everything. I can stand in the shadows and get him right before he goes out. 

Has the game ever made you mess up?

No. We’re good at improvisation where we never mess each other up. But we’ve come close.

How do you think you’ve made your mark on the show?

I try to be as nuts and happy so everyone will feel the same way. We've done over 1,200 shows on Broadway and I always try to come through with a positive outlook on everything.

Does the audience’s energy ever change given the news of the day?

The liveliness of the audience does change given the news. Jasmine has a line where she says, “What’s wrong with a woman running the kingdom?” Let’s just say within the last couple of months that line has basically stopped the show. The [audience] goes ballistic. There are times when things happen in the world and you can feel the gloom. Once we start any of the songs you can feel everything lifting.

What is an example of a day when it was like that?

Inauguration day.

What about the mood the day Robin Williams died?

That was a sad day. I could tell the audience was kind of waiting for something to be said. [During “Friend Like Me”] I always have a moment where I can shout out, “Here we go, guys!” That night, I said, “This is for you, Robin!” The audience blew up. At the end of the show I gave a speech. That night was to honor this man who was a hero of mine. This show wouldn’t be here without his performance in the film. The audience needed to laugh and accept the fact he was gone. It was an emotional night. When the curtain came down I was in tears. 

Is that one of your top performances of all time?
I won’t lie, I was on fire that night. I felt like he was shining down on us a little bit. 

Photo: Disney

Hamilton is like the Disney World of Broadway right now, so you’re not really going that far by switching shows. However, it is a completely different ball game. How are you preparing?

I’m not yet. I just want to enjoy every single moment [in Aladdin]. Then I will turn around and worry about history and older presidents.

How long will it take to unwind before heading into Hamilton?

The funny thing is I never give myself enough time to do that. Most people go on vacation in between shows. Not me. I don’t know why. Something’s wrong with me. So I am taking off the glitter and putting on the ruffles in two weeks’ time. I have two weeks of being out of [Aladdin] before I start rehearsals [for Hamilton]. Those two weeks I will be trying to memorize as much as I can.

Have you seen Hamilton?

Opening night.

Aladdin was dark?

It wasn’t. I asked for it off way in advance. I said, “Listen, this whole thing called Hamilton is happening.” I said, “Can I go?” They were like, “OK.”

How did the opportunity to be in Hamilton happen?

I was part of the first concert at Lincoln Center, so I know a lot of the material and I know the guys who play the roles personally. My friend Daveed [Diggs] was going on to greener pastures in Los Angeles. The [creative team] said, “Do you want to audition?” At first I said, “No, you guys don’t want me.” They were like, “Please come in.” It took me a week to decide if I was going to go in and I went in. About four months later, I heard I got the part. Disney has been fantastic to me and I think I’ve done everything I can do as the Genie. It’s time for someone else to step into his pointy shoes and see what they can do with it. 

How did you originally get involved with Hamilton for the Lincoln Center concert?

I was part of Freestyle Love Supreme. Lin [-Manuel Miranda] was in the middle of In the Heights. He wanted to do this concert at Lincoln Center and he called the folks he knew: me, Chris Jackson, Jon Rua and Mandy Gonzales were there. I played Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.

There certainly won’t be any improv like you’ve been doing in Aladdin.

I do believe Aladdin has gotten me prepared for Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette because Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette rap so fast. As the Genie, I speak really fast and have a lot of lines. To spit out [Thomas] Jefferson is going to be the same way.  My lips are ready for this now. It’s taken about three years, but I can do it. 

Aladdin gets three wishes. What are yours?

This is the pageant answer: I would like world peace, I want my family to be taken care of and I would like to be doing this job as long as possible. I look at James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson who are in their eighties. I would love to still be doing this in my eighties. 

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