By Zach Johnson
Jonathan Freeman, who originated the role of Jafar in Broadway’s Aladdin, will end his incredible run at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Sunday, January 23, after more than 2,000 performances. Few know the character as intimately as Freeman, who has been the voice of Jafar since Walt Disney Animation Studios released Aladdin in 1992. Freeman has continued to voice the evil vizier over the years, and in 2011, he brought him to life—literally—when the production was first staged in Seattle. He stayed with the show during its 2013-14 tryout in Toronto and later earned raves after it opened on Broadway in 2014. In an exclusive interview with D23: The Official Disney Fan Club, he recalls revisioning Jafar for the stage, shares what he’ll miss most about the company of Aladdin, and reveals why now is the perfect time to explore a whole new world—both personally and professionally.
Freeman had initially planned to say farewell in February 2021, which would have marked his seventh year in the show. However, in 2020, Aladdin joined other Broadway shows in suspending production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I didn’t want to let go of all my work and my friends in the theater in the middle of the pandemic,” he says. “I thought that would be too sad.” Aladdin resumed performances in September 2021, with Freeman returning as Jafar. With his final performance in Aladdin just days away, he says, “I just feel like it’s time for me to do something else.”
Plus, Freeman says, “All the elements sort of aligned into a place where I was like, ‘I think this is good to let somebody else have a crack at it.’ I used to be very territorial about it. When they first mounted the production in Japan—and I’ve never expressed this to anybody out loud—I was a little frantic inside that suddenly there was going to be another Jafar. Then there was Jafar in Germany. Then there was Jafar in the U.K. Then there was a foreign and a national tour. All of a sudden, this character I had taken such good care of and taken such guardianship over for so many years was being splintered off. It’s crazy the way your mind works sometimes.” Flashing a big smile, Freeman adds, “I think I got over all of that.”
Although Freeman had previously starred in three Disney on Broadway productions—Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Mary Poppins—the Tony® Award-nominated actor recalls feeling “terrified” when Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, approached him in 2011 about returning to the role of Jafar, this time onstage. “I was very excited when Thomas Schumacher called me to say he was working on a plan to do a tryout in Seattle,” he says, “but I clutched at the very end and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this is a terrible idea. What if I’m terrible in the show? Is all of my work since 1991 going to go down the toilet?” Being in a room with actors who were not a part of the film—including Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), Courtney Reed (Jasmine), and James Monroe Iglehart (Genie), all of whom went on to originate their roles on Broadway—put Freeman’s mind at ease. “I was used to hearing what Aladdin sounded like when I was talking to him in the studio, but in this new stage version, everything was different. All of a sudden, I just had to get that this was a new experience and that it was going to be whatever it was going to be. I had lunch with [director] Casey Nicholaw one day, who said to me, ‘You have to get out of your own way.’”
That’s exactly what he did, as Freeman went on to wow audiences nightly for the next several years. After he takes his final bow in Aladdin this Sunday, the actor says he’ll most miss spending time with the cast and crew, who have become like a second family to him.
“You get to be such good friends with people, and a lot of the crew I’ve been friends with since I moved into the theatre to do Mary Poppins, which I did for two and a half years,” Freeman tells D23. “We really have a good time. It’s as close to having another family experience as you can have, because you see these people every day.” Aside from the cast and crew, he says, he’ll miss some of the quiet behind-the-scenes moments—moments where he gets lost in the beauty and the majesty of Aladdin. “I love hearing the overture every night,” he says. “I love standing in the wings every night before my first scene, hearing Aladdin sing ‘Proud of Your Boy’ and doing it so gorgeously. I enter immediately after he finishes that song, and every night before I go on to do my first ‘nasty’ scene, I have to have to do a big attitude adjustment.”
With a handful of shows left, Freeman—who says he always gravitated towards Disney Villains, even as a child—admits it’s just starting to sink in that his time as Jafar on Broadway is about to end. “There’s a certain finality to it,” he says. “I feel a little hopped up talking about it, a little more hyper than normal. Everything’s a little more heightened.” Post-Aladdin, Freeman hopes to go back to his roots and “reunite myself with plays, maybe even do some classic theatre again. I don’t know. And then, there’s just a lot of other things I want to do that have nothing to do with show business.”
Although he’s saying goodbye to Aladdin on Broadway, he’s not saying goodbye to Jafar. He plans to continue voicing the character, but he’s also ready to begin his next chapter. “It’s just time. I’ll miss all of it,” he says, choking back tears. “Oh, it’s disgraceful to have to see a villain cry. Don’t make me do it!”