Locating Agrabah: Orientalism and the Stage in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ on Broadway

Earlier this year, it was announced that Filipino-American Broadway star Telly Leung would be replacing Adam Jacobs—who is himself Filipino, Dutch, Jewish, and Polish—as the title character in Disney’s Aladdin, currently on Broadway and touring nationally. There has been some debate as to the legitimacy of the casting, especially as Leung joins a cast which features few, if any, actors of Middle Eastern descent. Such debate is not uncommon; dozens of productions (both professional and community) deal with the blowout of controversial casting decisions when it comes to race and representation every year.

Take Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, for example, which–despite its popularity–continues to garner harsh criticism for the show’s Orientalist, yellowface legacy. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players canceled their production altogether in 2015, while San Francisco’s Lamplighters Music Theatre restaged their entire production (setting the musical in Renaissane Milan and removing all Orientalist references from the libretto) after active dialogue with the Bay Area Asian American theatre community in 2016. In this case, the argument is clear: it is objectively harmful towards both Asian American artists and audiences to have a musical set in feudal Japan (whose current population is about 96% ethnically Japanese) be performed by a full-white cast; additional harm is caused by having a non-Japanese cast, perpetuating the idea of an Asian monolith.

Aladdin is a different and more complicated beast. Unlike The Mikado, which—partially by merit of its debut in 1885—is set in a fictionalized feudal Japan, Aladdin’s Agrabah has no true real-life counterpart. The palace of Agrabah is an obvious visual reference to the Taj Mahal, the name itself is inspired by the city of Baghdad, the film cites the location of Agrabah as somewhere along the Jordan River, and the Broadway creative team took a research trip to Morocco to prepare for the artistic direction of the show. Rather than draw literally on any one of these locales, however, Agrabah is  instead a gleeful pastiche of Orientalist stereotypes that uses the half-dozen cultures it borrows from as inspiration rather than reference.The set is bedecked in technicolor drapery, members of the ensemble are ready to bellydance at a moment’s notice in loose, billowing pants and midriff-bearing tops, and even one of the opening lyrics in “Arabian Nights” calls it a “fabled city”.

Arabian Nights
Sequence from “Arabian Nights”, photo by Deen Van Meer.

All this is to say—Aladdin puts nothing in front of its audience to evoke any authentic Middle, Near Eastern, or North African culture in particular. While the Orientalist construct of the film, which serves as the production’s source material, is undoubtedly problematic from a scholarly standpoint, the lack of a single cultural reference point makes the question of casting more difficult to answer. More accurately, the extraordinarily broad area covered by the show’s references makes “ethnically faithful casting” fundamentally impossible.

I recently attended a performance of the national tour of Aladdin in Chicago, which Adam Jacobs left his Broadway role to headline. Perhaps this is partially why I’m having a difficult time wholeheartedly condemning the casting—not because the lack of Middle Eastern actors represented is acceptable, but because the production is constructed in a way that purposely sacrifices cultural accuracy for representational breadth as part of its artistic vision. A diverse ensemble and lead cast subverts the idea of a Middle Eastern monolith, albeit in a way that doesn’t explicitly help Middle Eastern representation (or North African, for that matter, if we are to take the addition of Moroccan aesthetics into consideration).

Despite Disney’s historically questionable scorecard regarding racial and ethnic representation across all mediums, their intent to cast Aladdin diversely goes back to their original casting call, supporting the idea that increasing diversity in theatre has to start at the foundation of the production. Out of the leading roles, only Jafar (Jonathan Weir) is played by an obviously white actor and the ensemble is by-and-large made up of brown and black performers. Besides the occasional bellydancing/scimitar choreography, no actors made choices that caricature Middle Eastern or North African peoples (i.e. a cartoonish accent), which was also refreshing. Altogether, at least twenty-four out of the thirty-five billed members are visibly non-white, which is an impressive feat for a major Broadway production in which race is not used, either diegetically or non, to make a point.

Add this to the fact that it’s still comparatively difficult for actors of color to find work on the national level, and the discussion becomes even more complicated. Aladdin is a physically demanding show; ensemble members perform intricate jazz, ballet, and tap routines, and some of the male performers have elaborate acrobatic choreography. There is clear evidence that they can perform to the highest professional standards of the industry, yet we rarely see a majority non-white ensemble on even long-standing Broadway shows such as The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, or Wicked. The argument that more Middle Eastern actors should be cast in a show that is set vaguely in the western imagination of that region is legitimate, as there should be more Middle Eastern actors cast in Broadway shows in general. However, it’s impossible to deny that the lack of industry demand for actors of color often puts pressure on them to take roles that may not otherwise be ideal in order to pay the bills and advance their careers. Furthermore, we don’t actually know, just from observation or cast list, who is actually of Middle Eastern descent.

My goal is not to defend Aladdin’s casting choices, but to demonstrate that the solution for this particular issue of representation involves deliberate action beyond that of just casting more Middle Eastern actors. When the system that passes off one race or ethnicity for another also gives positive exposure to many working actors of color—how do we reconcile that?

Orientalism must be systematically dismantled, but from a dramaturgical perspective the issues stems more from the construction (or lack thereof) of Agrabah as a fantastical setting than from the casting. It’s the melange of cultures and societies, that very sense of “this could take place anywhere where brown people who wear turbans and belly dance exist”, that opens the door for a non-white actor of varying ethnicity to be offered that title role.

It is ultimately impossible to cast an ethnically faithful show when the setting is essentially a mirage in the desert, devoid of time or place. Beyond an entire artistic rehaul (which is unlikely) that makes clear what ethnic background(s) this cast should actually come from, it’s important for us as audience members to 1) continue to demand excellence, precision, and dignity in casting, 2) critically examine how images are constructed to obscure that need for dignity, and 3) support actors of color as they balance identity politics with career advancement in today’s entertainment industry.

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